Tagged: google

Review: Google Chromecast

Google ChromecastDespite already owning both an Apple TV and a Roku box (not to mention the PS3 and Wii that support many streaming options), I went ahead and picked up a Google Chromecast. At $35 (I found it on sale at Amazon for $30), it wasn’t a huge investment.

My first impression was that it was extremely simple and unobtrusive. It’s small enough that it hides away behind my TV and will even charge through the USB port on my TV (which is good, because I’m running out of surge protector spots). Setup wasn’t very hard at all and I’m pretty sure just about anyone could handle it. I went the laptop setup route, but I believe you could also do it from your phone with the Chromecast app.

Once it is setup it just waits there for you to “cast” content to it. The casting happens via another device, like your phone, tablet or Chrome browser. There’s no remote. Chromecast is simply an HDMI dongle. Google says this is a feature, but I find it a bit of an annoyance. It’s my biggest complaint. The nice thing about an Apple TV or Roku (or any of the dedicated streamers) is that you can just browse and start content with a remote. The other problem is that only a handful of apps support Chromecast at this time. It has plenty of potential, but the current state of things leaves a lot to be desired.

My experience was pretty good with casting. It seemed to handle a variety of media just fine like YouTube videos (from both my iPhone and my iPad) as well as a bit of the Chrome tab-mirroring from my laptop. The only issue with the tab is it seems to lag and any scrolling or interaction can become a bit choppy. If you’re just trying to watch content it works ok. That said, I did see some issues at a friend’s house while we were casting the WMU hockey game via his laptop in another room to the living room TV. It kept cutting out every five to 10 minutes. It may have been a computer or network issue, but it seemed to stream fine just on the computer. The whole thing is still considered a beta and there are sure to be a few hiccups like this.

The tab mirroring is a huge plus and something Roku currently can’t offer. Apple TV can mirror your whole screen or even act as another display via AirPlay. I’ve personally had a little better luck with AirPlay, but it’s also had more time to work out its bugs.

The verdict? Google Chromecast is one of the cheapest and easiest solutions for people wanting to get Internet content on their TVs. I think as time goes on and more support arrives, the dongle will become more and more useful. If you’re looking for something to stream a lot of content, this might not be your best option. You still need a device (phone, tablet, laptop) to get anything started with Chromecast. If that seems like a problem or hassle, I recommend checking out some other options like Roku or Apple TV.

Living in the Cloud

With the recent release of Google Drive, “the cloud” is once again all anyone can talk about. There are plenty of options but now that the big boys like Apple and Google are on board, just about everyone is starting to use some form of cloud storage.

I’m personally a huge fan of the cloud. I love having access to stuff anywhere, anytime and on any device. I actually use multiple services to maximize free space (and because I’m a little too paranoid about my data to put all my eggs in the same basket). Here are a few popular cloud services I’ve tried out:

Dropbox – I started using Dropbox a few years back at an independent contracting gig. It was a really simple way to transfer files between my laptop and the office desktop I was using. It was even more useful to have a shared folder with other team members so any of us could get access to the latest files at any time. Since leaving that job, I still use Dropbox all the time. It’s simple enough that I really don’t have to do anything at all. I love that it works across so many platforms so effortlessly. There’s been multiple times where I’ve needed a file when I wasn’t near my computer and could still get to it with someone else’s computer through the Dropbox website (This isn’t just a feature of Dropbox but most of the cloud services). When you sign up for your free account you get a decent chunk of space (2GB) and you can earn more space with referrals (up to 16GB total). There are paid accounts that up your storage space considerably, but I haven’t reached a point where that’s necessary yet. I think they also have “team” packages with lots of space designed for sharing on a project or in an office.

CX – This one is almost completely a clone of Dropbox (I’m not sure which came first, maybe Dropbox is the clone). They have the same effortless synching between devices and  CX works across plenty of platforms too. What I do like is their style. It’s bright, it’s fun and it’s very clean. The other big advantage to CX is the space. You start with 10GB, which is the largest free amount I’ve come across. You can even earn up to another 6GB by referring friends. If you’re looking for space, you can’t beat CX.

Google Drive – Google finally rolled out the much-rumored Google Drive. It essentially upgrades Google Docs to 5GB that you can use to store all of your files on. They’re accessible online (compatible formats can still be opened/edited like old Docs) and there is a nice desktop app that behaves (as in effortlessly synching) exactly like Dropbox and CX. There’s an Android app that I haven’t tested and apparently an iOS app is in the works. I’ve been an avid user of Google Docs for a while now so Google Drive is a nice upgrade for me. Google has a bit of an edge with integration. They’ve already announced a few partnerships (Lulu for example) and a number of browser plugins to extend it. I think done right, they can grab a lot of market share with tie-ups like these.

iCloud – This is Apple’s take on the cloud. Like many things Apple does, they don’t want you to even realize it’s there. They want to give you what you want when you want it without having to worry about where it lives. I haven’t come across many apps that are integrating with it yet but I’m sure they are coming. All of my iPhone pics are automatically available via photo stream in my iPhoto when I pop open the laptop. It’s stupid simple and for that I have to recommend it. Your mail, contacts, calendars, bookmarks (for Safari), photos, docs and even iPhone backups work without you having to do anything (beyond enabling it). As an added bonus they’ve added “find my Mac/iPhone” into the mix so you can locate your misplaced device. The downside is your synching is mostly limited to Apple products and services. If you’re using any of those though, it totally rocks.

Cloud App – This one is very different from the rest. It’s something I use nearly everyday but not in the same way. Basically it’s a service to share files. You just drop a file on the little cloud icon in your menu bar (on a Mac at least), it uploads and generates a tiny URL for you to share. You can even have it auto upload screen captures (again, on my Mac at least). One of the really cool features of the app is “rain drops.” These are essentially plugins that extend the usefulness of Cloud App to other apps. My favorite mail client, Sparrow, also integrates with Cloud App for sending attachments. I couldn’t find a definite total space limit on Cloud App’s site but you are limited to 10 files a day at up to 25MB a file. For most things that’s perfectly acceptable. They’ve got pro plans that up that space and add other cool features like custom domains for sharing. This isn’t something that will replace your Dropbox but I use both everyday for very different work flows.

Those are just a few options that I’ve personally been using. Each one is a little bit different and for me at least, no one service can do it all. I like each for specific reasons and will continue to use them all. Since you can try them all for free, I suggest you do and find what works best for you. Do you have a favorite I didn’t mention? Tell me about it in the comments.

The Internet’s Obsession with (fake) Nostalgia

I’ve noticed an interesting trend lately. It seems there are “retro” versions of our favorite websites and services popping up all over the place these days. From what Twitter would like in the 80s to what Facebook would look like in the 90s and even Google done through a BBS Terminal. They’ve even gone so far as to spoof everyone’s favorite smart phone apps, Angry Birds and Draw Something as old PC games. I always get a kick out of these and applaud everyone who has taken the time to make them.

Screenshot of Google BBS Terminal

My first computer experience was in the 80s when my parents (both teachers) were able to bring home an Apple IIe over summer vacation. There was something magical about that big, beige machine loading up a game of Oregon Trail or my favorite as a kid, Fischer Price Bowling. Everything on-screen was so blocky and the gameplay so simple by today’s standards but it was still hours and hours of fun. I think we’re at a point in technology where everything has moved so fast and is improving everyday that people want to reminisce about those old days. They want to slow down and enjoy the BASICs (see what I did there?) again. I’m more than grateful for today’s modern technology but I do thoroughly enjoy this recent trend of imagining today’s services as if it was yesteryear. Have you found any other versions of these? Please share them in the comments, I’d love to check them out.

Google Maps 8-Bit Prank

Google has a long-standing tradition of April Fools jokes. This year is no different and they’ve set up a hilarious little prank with Google Maps. To check it out in your browser, go to Google Maps and click the “Quest” button in the upper right of the map. This is a really clever idea and I hope they keep it around for a while. It’s a really nostalgic way to view your maps, especially for any video game lover. Well done, Google.

Making Google forms your own

One of the greatest features in Google Docs is the forms. In just a few minutes you can be up and running with a form that accepts user input and automatically fills that information into a spreadsheet. It’s super easy to set up and that’s why I’ve been using them for a number of tasks both at work and in my personal life. I’ll soon be marrying the lovely abbyabbyabby and we wanted to do online RSVPs. I immediately knew a Google form would do the trick with little-to-no work on my end. The problem was how the final product looked.

default style of my RSVP Google Form

Because both Abby and myself are designers, we weren’t comfortable directing people to such an un-styled form. “No problem,” I thought, figuring one of the many provided templates from Google could do the trick. I looked over the options, and while there are many they actually were worse than the default look.

some themes for Google forms

I was at a loss. I tried messing around with the embed code a bit but it was just an iframe pulling in the URL to the form. A few Google search attempts finally turned up this wonderful post about how to style Google Forms. It was perfect, easy to understand and provided me with the absolute control that I wanted. Below you’ll see what my final form looks like. It’s quite a bit better looking than the original. With my new-found trick  my future projects with Google forms will look just as good.

the final RSVP form with my styling