Google's new Chromecast gizmo is the smallest, cheapest, simplest way yet to add Internet to your TV. It looks like a portly flash drive and costs just $35.
So what does it do? If you have a Wi-Fi network in your home, the Chromecast can perform two useful stunts.
Stunt 1: It lets you watch videos from YouTube, Netflix and Google Play (Google's movie and TV store for Android gadgets) on your big screen. You use your phone or tablet (Apple or Android) as a remote control.
Stunt 2: The Chromecast displays websites on your TV by broadcasting from Google's Chrome browser on your Mac or PC.
To perform Stunt 1, you open the YouTube, Netflix or Google Play app on your phone or tablet. Find a video to play. A special icon appears at the edge of the touch screen, resembling a rectangle with Wi-Fi signal waves in the corner. To begin watching that video on the TV, tap that icon and choose your Chromecast's name.
Your phone is not actually transmitting anything. The Chromecast gets the video from the Internet directly; you use your phone or tablet only to find the movie and control its playback. You can even adjust the volume using the physical volume keys on the side.
The bad news is that the phone/tablet is the only remote control you've got. So if you want to pause, rewind or mute the video, you first have to find your phone/tablet, wake it up, enter the password if required, and finally reopen the app that's doing the playing.
Otherwise, all of this is effortless and excellent. Even if you can already get Netflix and YouTube, you may prefer the Chromecast, It's just much easier to search for videos, thanks to the on-screen keyboard and voice dictation. You can also set up several videos to play in sequence. That's especially handy for YouTube videos.
On the other hand, Netflix and YouTube aren't much. Rival boxes, like Apple TV and Roku, can bring many other paid and free Internet services to your TV.
Google says that more services are on the way. For example, Pandora radio is up next. Hulu Plus, Vimeo, Redbox Instant, AOL and eight other companies have all suggested that they're coming soon.
Besides, you might not have to lose sleep over the wait, thanks to Stunt 2, the ability to broadcast Web pages to your TV from your Mac or PC. Just fire up the Chrome browser, open the site you want and click that little Chromecast icon on the toolbar. The Web page now appears on the TV, complete with whatever videos you'd like to play.
Stunt 2, alas, isn't as refined or successful as Stunt 1. No wonder Google labels this feature "Beta."
This time, you really are sending audio and video from your computer through the air. So it doesn't work well unless you have a newish, high-horsepower computer and a fast, uncluttered Wi-Fi network. And even then, there's a one-second lag between laptop and TV playback. The video doesn't always seem as crisp as it does during Stunt 1, either, and some people experience occasional stutters or audio glitches.