Over the past few years, a new category of miniature but powerful streaming devices has taken the world by storm. We've covered several of these in AccessWorld, from Bill Holton's review of the Amazon Fire TV with VoiceView to Shelly Brisbin's take on Roku streaming sticks. Smart televisions such as the Insignia Smart TV, Fire Edition, reviewed by Aaron Preece, feature a TV and built-in streaming in a single package. And don't forget about Shelly's review of the Apple TV, a veritable mainstay in this space with accessibility features that have been included for nearly a decade.
Recently, Google dove headlong into the streaming device wars, with the release of Chromecast with Google TV, a streaming media dongle with an included voice remote for under 50 bucks. If the term Chromecast sounds familiar to you, that's because Google has offered Chromecast streaming devices for several years. In the past, Chromecast worked somewhat like Apple's AirPlay, allowing users to load up music or movies on their phone and then send that content to a Chromecast puck connected to a TV. The new product retains this functionality, but now also includes a full-blown version of Android TV including apps, menus, and search.
The Chromecast with Google TV is a hockey puck-sized device that is designed to plug into an HDMI port on your TV. It has a built-in HDMI cable that is only a few inches long, but it is OK for the device to just hang from the back of your television. On the other side of the puck is a USB C-C port for power. Unlike some media devices, you will need to plug the Chromecast into the wall, as it does not draw power from your TV. The necessary adapter is included, as well as the remote and 2 AAA batteries. It is available in three colors, which Google calls snow, sunrise, and sky, or what most people would call white, pink, and blue. Since it will likely be plugged in behind your TV, the colors may not matter much anyway.
The remote features smooth, rounded edges and circular, tactile buttons. You will find a standard d-pad on the top, including an outer circle for Arrows and a center Select button. Then, there are three rows of two buttons: Back and Voice Search in row 1, Home and Mute in Row 2, and YouTube and Netflix shortcut buttons in Row 3. Below this are two smaller buttons, with Power on the left and Input on the right. There is also a set of rectangular volume buttons on the side of the remote. Several of these buttons, including Volume, Mute, and Input, are designed to control your connected TV and not the Chromecast itself. You will need to set up your Chromecast to work with your television. I'd like to recognize the set up page provided by Google, which included a detailed description of the remote and basic instructions for the TalkBack screen reader.
Setting Up the Device
Thanks to Google's helpful instructions, the set-up process was relatively painless. Once the Chromecast is plugged into your TV and the wall, and the batteries are placed in the remote, you will hear some chimes as the device boots up. Once the Chromecast has started, hold down the Down Arrow on the D-pad and the Back button for about three seconds to initiate TalkBack. You will actually need to do this twice, as the first time turns on the accessibility shortcut and the second time actually enables TalkBack. I'm guessing this was done to cut down on people complaining about a mysterious voice on their TV after turning on a screen reader by accident.
After this point, you can use the same shortcut to turn TalkBack on and off. Some other streaming devices will speak a welcome message that explains how to turn on speech. If I had not known about Google's help page, this message would have been useful, especially since the shortcut for turning on TalkBack has changed from prior Android TV products.
The first set up screen asks you to select a language. You can use the Up or Down Arrows to move through the list and Select to choose the spoken option. Only the variants of English were spoken when moving through this list, so if you wanted to use Spanish as your primary language, you would probably need to set up the unit in English and then download the Spanish voices.
The next screens will guide you through connecting the device to WiFi. I was a bit surprised that there wasn't an option to sync my password from my Android device, a feature I have seen in other TV products. Thankfully, the on-screen keyboard was quite pleasant to use and offered all of the necessary symbols and controls. Letters are arranged in QWERTY format, with a number row on the top. Delete is to the right of the M and Period, and Enter or Next along with Left and Right Arrow keys is on the bottom row. It may take a bit of extra time to get used to these special keys and where they are located.
After connecting to WiFi, the Chromecast will download the latest software updates and reboot. Next, the device will prompt for a Google account. This is what you will use to keep track of downloaded apps and settings. If you have a Gmail account, for instance, you can use that here. The keyboard included an At (@) sign to the right of the letter L, and shortcuts for common email addresses like Gmail or Outlook. One major bit of annoyance occurred when typing in my email address; an alert message spoke after every character telling me my email address was invalid. But I was still typing in the address, so of course it was not valid until I finished. This is the type of error that should only be spoken after selecting the Next button. Otherwise, it is painfully obtrusive and makes it hard to concentrate.
After entering in a password, you will trudge through several standard screens including accepting the Terms of Service and selecting privacy and location preferences. While you can opt out of some of these options, it may limit your ability to view certain channels or receive useful recommendations. You will also be introduced to the Google Assistant, the voice assistant included on this device. If you enable searching across apps, you will be able to ask for a specific piece of content and Google will search the apps on your Chromecast to find a match.
Then, you are presented with a list of popular streaming apps, such as Hulu and ESPN, and asked to select the ones you wish to install. This screen is presented as a grid, so you can use all four Arrow keys to move around it. Press Select to mark or deselect a service, and the Continue button in the top right corner when finished. Finally, if you want to link the volume and other remote buttons to your TV, you will have an opportunity to do that. The set-up process definitely took some time, but worked well with TalkBack with no major issues.
Since the Chromecast with Google TV is an Android device, it inherits some of its accessibility features. This includes a version of the TalkBack screen reader, an experimental high contrast mode, and Switch Access. Sadly, BrailleBack is not available, making it impossible to connect an external braille display. Audio amplification, mono audio, and other features for people who are hard of hearing are also absent, as well as other low vision features.
You can adjust the speech rate or change the voice under Accessibility Settings. To do this, hold down the Home button for one second, and then press Down Arrow until you hear "Settings," then press Enter. Select System, then Accessibility to view the available options. The TalkBack settings are stripped down when compared with an Android phone, and there is a bit of haphazardness to the options. For instance, the on-screen braille keyboard option is included despite there being no touch screen on the remote. The Speech Volume option includes options such as "Match Speech Volume," or "50 Percent of Speech Volume," which don't make much sense. Likely, the option should read "Same as Media Volume" as it does on other Android devices. An accessibility tutorial is not included on the device, so there may be more features that are just not documented.
There are options for captions in the Accessibility Menu, but no way to control audio description. This will need to be controlled from the individual apps.
Like many other streaming devices, your home screen is where most of your navigation will take place. Along the top row are several tabs including Search, For You, Movies, Shows, Apps, Library, and Profile Settings. To select any of these tabs, just Arrow to the one you want and press Down Arrow to move into the details for that tab. You will then find several rows, depending on the tab you chose. For instance, the Shows tab includes Popular Shows, New Shows, Trending on Google, etc. Press the Right or Left Arrows to move through the items in a row. For most items, the name as well as the service provider will be spoken. This screen will include both apps you have installed, as well as others you could download. Even though the browsing of titles from any service is accessible on this screen, you will run into difficulties with several of the major services, which we will discuss below.
As mentioned above, you can also interact by voice, using commands such as "Watch Home Alone" or "Open Hulu." For Home Alone, several movies in the franchise were listed, and selecting one will give the ways you can watch the movie, in this case Disney Plus, or renting a digital copy. It's important to note that for movies with audio description, some movies may be described on one service, but not another. I often consult the huge Master List of Audio Described Videos from the Audio Description Project, which is the most comprehensive and updated resource for available titles with description.
As expected, the built-in screens and menus speak with TalkBack. This makes sense, since Google has control over the interface and design. Other Google apps, including YouTube, naturally also speak as expected. Disney Plus was one bright spot of note, with an uncluttered interface that was easy to understand. For music, Pandora, which seems to be accessible on just about every platform possible, works as expected. The ESPN app has an interface that can be a bit confusing to manage at first, but it is possible to browse available selections and play live or on-demand content.
Hulu works, but in an inconvenient sort of way. For some reason, Hulu is using a separate spoken interface, so TalkBack must be turned off before opening Hulu. This is a bit cumbersome, but can be worked around by using a voice command to "open shows on Hulu."
As mentioned previously, the device still supports the regular features of Chromecast, meaning you can "cast" video or audio to your device from your phone or by asking your Google Assistant.
What Doesn't Work?
Unfortunately, the good news is rather short-lived, and leaves out many of the most popular apps. Netflix does not give any spoken feedback at all. NBC Universal's Peacock and Spotify do not let you advance past the sign-up screen. Amazon's Prime Video app will make a clicking sound when moving around menus, but does not give any spoken feedback. The Free Pluto TV service spoke some feedback while moving around the app, but many items were not activated when the Select button was pressed.
This lack of accessibility is somewhat surprising, given that both Netflix and Prime Video have excellent accessibility support on Android devices, and also work on Amazon's Fire TV products. The blame for this cannot be pinned entirely on Google, as third-party developers are often slow to bring accessibility support to new platforms. Either way, it's a frustrating experience and a major turn-off.
There are also a couple of major problems with TalkBack and navigation. The first, and largest, is related to responsiveness when pressing keys. When you press a key on a computer keyboard or swipe on a phone, you expect to hear feedback immediately. We measure responsiveness as the time it takes for feedback to start after pressing a key or performing a gesture. Most computers will respond in well under one tenth of a second, with phones taking slightly longer. For the Chromecast, it routinely takes more than a half second for a key press to give spoken feedback. This makes it tremendously slow and inconvenient to move around screens. By comparison, when turning off TalkBack, I can hear clicks within a tenth of a second or less when pressing the same keys.
A more minor concern pertains to where focus is placed after opening a new screen. Normally, one would expect focus to start at the top of the screen in most situations. But in an effort to limit the number of key presses, focus is often placed in the middle of the screen. An option to always start focus at the top would make it easier for screen reader users to read the entire screen in its natural order. On a similar note, Amazon includes a review mode in its Fire TV products, allowing for a way to read complex screens or spell words. This would be a rather useful addition to the Chromecast, especially when trying to read pairing codes.
Much like my review of the Android-based NVIDIA Shield in 2018, I found myself both loving and becoming extremely frustrated with the accessibility support on this device. Clearly, thought was put into several areas, including the well-written tutorial, the on-screen keyboard, and the menu and settings screens. Just about everything that Google has included seems to work well, with a possible exception being embedded web content.
But the lack of adoption for accessibility features from third-party providers is frustrating to say the least. With years of experience programming accessible interfaces for other platforms, companies like Netflix, Spotify, or Amazon should not have much difficulty making their TV apps accessible, especially more than three months after release. Conversely, the missing support for braille displays and additional low vision options are major oversights by Google.
The Chromecast with Google TV has a lot of potential, and much of what has been outlined here can be fixed with software updates. If you enjoy collecting streaming devices and want to follow the updates for the Chromecast as they are released, then it may be worth buying one. But I can't recommend a Chromecast as your primary streaming device in most situations, when both Amazon and Apple offer more consistent and refined accessibility support in their products.
Product: Chromecast with Google TV
Available online from the Google Store and at many major retailers.
This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.
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