Who's winning the Chromecast image war?

Internet video services are rushing to embrace Google's tiny streaming media stick, but which one delivers the goods in terms of picture quality?

There was a time when Australia was an internet video wasteland but now we're spoiled for choice -- especially if you own Google's $49 Chromecast and you're looking to enjoy online video on the big screen. Of course, as soon as you go large, any imperfections show up in the picture, and some video services fare better than others.

We’ve been able to screen mirror video content from Apple and Android devices for a while using streaming formats like AirPlay and Miracast, but they fall short of the Chromecast when it comes to picture quality. The reason for this is that they take mobile-quality video and upscale it to the big screen.

The Chromecast can do better than this. If you're streaming video from your computer, smartphone or tablet using a Chromecast-compatible service such as Quickflix or Netflix, the Chromecast makes a direct connection to the back-end server and pulls down TV-quality video. At this point the picture quality can improve considerably and your smartphone simply becomes a remote control.

Five-way shootout

To find out whose picture quality reigns supreme, we cued up Netflix, Quickflix, Foxtel Presto, Google Play and EzyFlix on a first-generation iPad mini -- linked to a Chromecast plugged into a 46-inch Sony Bravia. They were all reliant on a lowly 3 Mbps DSL connection (access to the NBN -- in any way, shape or form -- is still years away for many Australian homes).

Finding the same movie on every service is tough, especially as Presto's line-up continually changes depending on what's screening on Foxtel this month. Of the five services, Google Play seems the most reliable when it comes to finding the movie you want in your resolution of choice.

Things are further complicated by the fact that Quickflix and Foxtel Presto are only standard-def services, although Quickflix is preparing to make the leap to high-def in the next few months. For now you'll find a handful of HD movies in the Quickflix subscription library as a trial, but Quickflix hasn't drawn attention to them yet. Unfortunately they only stream in HD on the Xbox 360 and Xbox One, so you won't see the difference on the Chromecast at this stage. If you're prepared to pay extra, you'll also find a smattering of pay-per-view HD content on Quickflix, including Game of Thrones.

Standard-definition

The Adam Sandler comedy Click is on Netflix, Google Play, Quickflix, EzyFlix and Presto, although only the first two have it in HD. Netflix has an unfair advantage because it uses adaptive streaming which automatically improves the picture quality, if the bandwidth allows. Google Play is the pick of the bunch when you look at the other four services in SD -- all streamed from the internet rather than downloaded first. Quickflix is the most disappointing when it comes to picture quality.

But there's more to picture quality than just resolution -- you're also looking for compression artifacts, where the picture looks ‘blocky’ because it's skimped on detail. Fast-moving action and the fine detail of shimmering of smoke, fire or water are a torture test on this measure.

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