Once upon a time, watching TV involved picking up a remote control, pressing the power button and flipping through channels.
Boy, have things changed. When you watch TV with the new $50 Chromecast streaming stick from Google, the search giant tries to find content that you may want to watch based on what it knows about you.
Before you get started, it wants you to take these steps:
1. After plugging the streaming stick into the back of your TV, you press and hold two buttons on the white remote control.
2. On your smartphone, you download and open the Google Home app, log in with your Google account and enter the home address where you are using the Chromecast.
3. You give the app access to your smartphone’s location data to help find the nearby Chromecast. (Wait, didn’t you just share your home address?)
4. You give the Google Home app access to your phone camera to scan a bar code shown on the TV screen to link the app with the Chromecast hardware. (Wait, didn’t you just give access to your location to help the phone find the Chromecast?)
6. You specify where the Chromecast is — your living room, kitchen, bedroom or basement, for example.
7. You select your Wi-Fi network to connect Chromecast to the internet.
8. You are presented with the option to share more information with Google to help improve the product and services.
9. Google asks you to record some voice samples so that its virtual assistant can recognize your voice.
10. You pick your streaming apps, like Netflix, YouTube TV and Disney+.
Rest assured, Google says you are providing this data so that it can speed up the setup process and show you personalized information, like the local weather and recommendations for TV shows and movies that you may enjoy. Sure beats flipping through a bunch of random TV channels, right?
Well, here’s how that went for me.
Google’s goal: to help the content find you.
First, a primer on what’s new about this Chromecast, which was unveiled last week. The streaming stick includes a remote control and a software operating system for choosing content to watch, similar to Roku’s streaming products and the Apple TV set-top box.
With past versions of Google’s streaming stick, you would open a video on your phone and press a button to “cast” the content to the Chromecast, meaning the phone was essentially your remote.
I downloaded my favorite streaming apps to the Chromecast: Netflix, YouTube, YouTube TV, Disney+, Amazon Prime Video and HBO Max. The Chromecast then took information that Google knew about me to come up with a list of recommended programs on a page labeled “For you.”
The “For you” page is the main screen of the new Chromecast. Google gathered information about activities on my Google account, like my online searches and the YouTube videos I watched, to find content I may enjoy.
All told, I was disappointed. Given how much Google knows about me, I was hoping it would do a better job at predicting what I would like to see. In the top row, labeled “Top picks for you,” Google recommended that I watch “The Wendy Williams Show,” a celebrity talk show, as well as “SportsCenter.” (For the record, both my wife and I don’t watch talk shows, and we’re not sports fans.)
It also recommended I check out “Wonder Park” and “Bigfoot Junior,” both children’s animated movies. (We don’t have children.)
A few of Google’s recommendations were spot on. “Snowpiercer,” a movie from my favorite Korean director, was a top pick. One row of recommendations was devoted to home improvement shows, which makes sense because I’ve been watching dozens of do-it-yourself repair videos to work on my house amid pandemic-induced boredom. Another row presented cooking videos from YouTubers I frequently watch for inspiration in the kitchen.
On the other hand, another row listed “Comedies about love,” including several Adam Sandler movies like “Big Daddy” and “Mr. Deeds.” (To put it lightly, I am no fan of Adam Sandler comedies.)
Overall, the “For you” page felt like a grab bag of hits and misses. The Chromecast also has an “Apps” page that shows a simple grid of my streaming apps for me to open and find content by myself. That’s generally how Roku and Apple TV work, and to me, that’s still a better way to watch TV.
So what was that all for?
I described my experience to Google and pressed the company on why it needed so much information just to set up the Chromecast.
The company said the setup process with the Google Home app was an optional shortcut to skip manually entering my Google account information and password with the remote control. Granting access to the location and camera sensors was a security requirement for the setup process. Sharing my home address, it turns out, was also optional, to help Google give updates on local information like the weather.
As for the inconsistent recommendations, Google said that it made suggestions from a wide variety of signals of activity on Google’s products, including entertainment-related searches and programs added to my watch list, and that the picks would get better over time.
So whom is the Chromecast for?
I must confess that my struggle with the streaming era is never knowing what to watch. It’s the paradox of choice: If we can pick from thousands of TV shows and movies, it’s tough to be satisfied with whatever we choose. The Chromecast, if it had worked well for me, would have helped solve that problem.
Yet I’m probably not the target audience: Over the years, I’ve taken steps to minimize the data I share with tech companies, including Google and Facebook, and that may be largely why the Chromecast’s recommendations were off the mark. So the Chromecast may work for those who don’t think twice about sharing information with Google.
Come to think of it, that’s plenty of people.