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Chromecast Audio: How Google brought Wi-Fi to TVs, and why speakers are its next target

The new-look Chromecasts, now in yellow and red in addition to black, and the Chromecast Audio, right.

The new-look Chromecasts, now in yellow and red in addition to black, and the Chromecast Audio, right.

(Google)

Google Inc. unveiled a new-look Chromecast on Tuesday designed to get videos and games streaming on a TV more quickly and with greater crispness.

Google also announced that it’s doing for speakers what Chromecast does for televisions through a new device, Chromecast Audio.

The news came from a Google media event in New York City, where the company was also set to reveal several new Nexus smartphones, new manufacturers of televisions and cable boxes running Google software and the release of the latest version of the Android mobile operating system.

The tiny, $35 Chromecast has been a hit, with 20 million sold since launching two years ago. It acts as a Wi-Fi bridge to beam content from computers and apps to any TV with an HDMI port. Rival devices such as Apple TV, Roku and the Amazon Fire TV are more expensive and elaborate.

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Chromecast Audio plugs into aux, RCA or optical inputs. That means sounds playing on a smartphone or computer can be “casted” to any-old home audio equipment. Google says Chromecast Audio is better than Bluetooth speakers because it’s cheap at $35 and doesn’t do annoying things like automatically play incoming calls over the speaker. In addition, by the end of the year, it’ll support synchronization of multiple audio systems.

Chromecasts aren’t big moneymakers. But Google sees them as way to make home entertainment centers — the very thing living rooms are typically designed around — “a more interesting presence,” said Rishi Chandra, Google’s vice president of product management.

By Google’s take, it’s problematic that TVs sit idle for 19 hours a day, and that speakers are off more than on.

So both new and old Chromecasts will now be able to turn TVs into digital photo frames by showing images from Facebook, 500px, Getty Images, Flickr and other popular photography apps.

A revamped Chromecast app includes suggestions for trending things to watch and apps to download. There’s also a “universal” search to find content and compare pricing across 11 different apps.

App developers have a new tool to let their mobile app be a controller for “casted” content, especially games, or have it show extra details about what’s on the big screen, like stats for a soccer match. “Angry Birds Go!” and “WGT Golf” are among those taking advantage.

This week, Spotify, NFL Sunday Ticket, Showtime and CW Seed are updating their apps to work with Chromecast.

If people spend more time watching videos, playing music and living online, Google stands to benefit from advertising and content sales.

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“Our belief is that the mobile phone is going to drive the experience going forward for audio and TV,” Chandra said. “You’re already logged in, it’s incredibly personalized and powerful, and it’s upgraded at least every two years.”

The Chromecast’s biggest change is that it’s circular, not rectangular, to allow Google to install three Wi-Fi antennas instead of one. Software changes should make Netflix and other videos load much faster too, partially by pre-loading items that algorithms determine you’re likely to cast.

Another change: Chromecast will come in colors beside black, specifically yellow and red.

“Lots of people were asking for [colors],” Chandra said. “This one you can’t explain rationally. I guess people like personality around products even if they don’t hold it in their hand.”

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Chat with me on Twitter @peard33


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