Google’s Chromecast is the embodiment of a software-first device. Almost all of its capabilities are determined by software, and usually not even software on the Chromecast itself.
But for all of its hands-off simplicity, the Chromecast has a single hardware button: an emergency reset button on the back. It is a testament to the importance and reliability of physical input rather than software solutions.
Chances are most people will never use the Chromecast’s reset button. Whether you have the original Chromecast, a second-generation model or a 4K Chromecast Ultra, this button has only one function: if all else fails, you can hold it down hardware factory settings back to ‘fresh out of the box’ settings.
(The process is actually interesting: pressing the button forces the Chromecast to boot into a USB boot mode, where it searches for a local copy of a signed system image and loads it. Entrepreneurial users tried to use this mechanism to load their own software on Chromecasts too!)
It’s not a button press that can be taken lightly: Google warns in bold on the support page that “This action will erase your data and cannot be undone.” It’s only the kind of thing you’d use if you sell your hardware or run into issues so profound that the only solution is a clean slate. Even activating it requires more attention than a simple restart, asking users to press and hold the small oval button on the back long enough to make you really want to do this.
But it’s not the mechanism of the button itself or the physical hardware (it’s not a particularly exciting button) that fascinates the Chromecast reset button. It is even a button.
Google’s Chromecast is one of the simplest plug-and-play devices around. You take it out of the box, connect it to power and an HDMI port and you’re ready to go. There is no remote control or even a power button. You just plug it in and it works without user intervention. You will then need a different device to control everything about the Chromecast, from setup to what you want to stream.
That is except for this one feature: because even such a simple device so dependent on software is subject to the whim of software. Maybe you can’t let your Chromecast connect to your Wi-Fi or your phone refuses to recognize the connection. Hardware is the last resort. Unless the physical button breaks or the whole device does not boot at all, it is a way to get back to normal which cannot be affected by any software issues.
And that’s why even on a digitally focused device like a Chromecast, there’s still a button to press – just in case.