When it comes to getting streaming video and audio to a television, it’s tough to find a solution that is easy, affordable, and flexible. That’s why when Google released the Chromecast media player in the US last summer, I was intrigued by the potential it had to hit those key points. Well, it was made available in Canada for the first time this March, and at a price of $39, was too enticing to pass up as a way to bring the internet and its media to my bedroom TV. I’ve now had enough time to play with the device, so let’s take a look at Chromecast and its ability to connect your television to “the cloud”.
Contents & Setup
After arriving at my door only a day after placing the order on Amazon (complete with free shipping) I was eager to get the thing set up. This was incredibly straightforward since the box only contained four small parts. The Chromecast itself is an HDMI dongle not much larger than a memory stick. The power cable is standard USB, but you can use the wall adapter if the back of your TV doesn’t have a USB port (though most do). There is also an HDMI extender, which helps make plugging the dongle into an HDMI port less awkward.
Once I had these things plugged in, the final step involved downloading the Chromecast app on my smartphone. The app’s only function is to connect to the Chromecast to input your WiFi settings during this initial phase. That’s because the device only works by connecting directly to the internet through a WiFi network.
The Apps: YouTube, Netflix, and More
Now, the main course. The primary method for watching video on a Chromecast is to “cast” the content from within the relevant app on your phone, tablet, or PC/laptop (Android, iOS, Windows, and OS X are all supported). When you set your TV on the correct input, the screen will display a randomized wallpaper, indicating that you are “ready to cast”. Go to a video on your phone’s YouTube app, tap the Cast button at the top-right corner, and within a few seconds the video will play on the TV. Playback is controlled on the phone, with the ability to skip through the video like you’d expect. You can continue navigating through other videos and add them to a queue so the next one starts without prompting.
You can even exit the YouTube app on the phone and do something else without interrupting what’s on the TV. That’s the advantage of how Chromecast works. It isn’t being sent the video from the controlling device, only the instructions that tell it what content to stream directly through WiFi. The whole thing is fast, simple, and works without issue. I can see this being especially useful in a living room scenario where everyone wants to show a video to the group—no more huddling around the person holding up their phone!
Netflix works much the same way. Find the TV show or movie you want to play as if you were going to watch it on your phone or other device, hit the nearby Cast button, and playback will now begin on the TV. This effectively turns the Chromecast into perhaps the cheapest Netflix player for your television, and should be a no-brainer for subscribers looking to bring the service to more screens. The only limitation is the inherent design of the Chromecast—that it requires another device to control it—but at a time when smartphones have become more standard than wristwatches, the remote is always in your pocket.
If you’re concerned about quality, rest assured knowing that you can watch video in high definition at 1080p with 5.1 surround sound when available. This applies to YouTube as well, as both use something called adaptive bitrate streaming, which means that the quality is automatically adjusted to the best your internet connection can handle.
Since Chromecast is relatively new, the number of supported apps is growing as developers gradually incorporate it into existing apps, as well as create entirely new apps to take advantage of it. On Android phones, for example, BubbleUPnP is recommended for its ability to cast the audio, video, and photos stored on the phone. Similar apps exist on Apple’s App Store. For convenience, reddit maintains a list of compatible apps for all platforms.
A lesser known feature of Chromecast is its ability to mirror the content of a Chrome Browser tab from a PC or laptop. All that’s needed is the installation of the Chrome Cast browser extension, which adds a Cast icon enabling the functionality whenever your computer and Chromecast are on the same WiFi network. This is a handy workaround for when a particular website doesn’t support the Chromecast natively, since you can play whatever you want through the browser and have that mirrored on the television. Unfortunately, this task is more resource intensive and is highly dependent on both the speed of the computer and the performance of the WiFi. In my experience, getting this to work well is hit-or-miss, often requiring a change to the browser’s settings that control the quality of video being sent to the Chromecast. Still, it’s a nice option to have while there are many potential reasons for viewing a browser on a television.
After using a Chromecast for a few weeks, I can definitely say that it is worth the tiny $39 investment. Being able to watch Netflix on a TV without having to use a larger and more expensive box (such as a video game console) is the major selling point, as is the ability to trawl through YouTube videos without getting tired of holding one’s phone up the whole time. The lack of a dedicated remote or user interface on the TV may be a drawback for some, yet for others this may be an advantage—it is controlled by devices you already have. The only other issue worth considering is that Chromecast runs on WiFi, potentially creating problems for those with poor reception in apartment buildings or other challenging environments. Still, at forty bucks the Chromecast isn’t a big risk and will only provide even greater value as app creators find more ways to unlock its potential.