Google has a new way to stream video from your PC or mobile device to your high-definition TV.
But its capabilities are relatively limited, and it leaves much to be desired — especially if you’re using a Windows PC.
You’ve probably heard of Chromecast (website), Google’s U.S. $35 HDTV dongle for Internet video streaming. Small and easy to install, the device lets you watch movies and television shows. You control it with your PC, tablet, or smartphone via your home network. It works with Windows (except RT), OS X, Linux, iOS, and — not surprisingly — Android.
After trying it with my Windows laptop, iPad, and Android phone, I can say it works — but the experience was — at least on a PC — far from pleasing.
Chromecast setup: Chroming your HDTV
At first glance, the Chromecast dongle looks like a common USB flash drive that’s eaten too much fatty food (see Figure 1). But in place of the usual USB connector, you find a standard HDMI plug.
Unlike USB, the HDMI interface doesn’t provide power to devices. So at the other end of the Chromecast dongle, you’ll find a micro USB port, used strictly to power the device. The kit comes with a cable and an AC adapter, allowing you to power the gadget from a wall socket or an open USB port on the TV.
After plugging the dongle into an open HDMI port on the TV and connecting the USB power cable, you then download a setup program onto your PC that will connect the device to your Wi-Fi network (see Figure 2). Finally, you install the required Google Chrome extension onto your PC — or download the Chromecast app to an Android or iOS device.
And you’re ready to watch TV.
What you can watch and how you watch it
As I write this, Chromecast fully supports only three video services: Netflix, YouTube, and Google’s own Play Movies pay-per-view service. That’s relatively slim pickings, though Netflix and YouTube are both extremely popular — so popular that if you have an Internet-capable HDTV, game console, or Blu-ray player, you almost certainly already have big-screen access to both streaming services.
With a Windows PC, you’re not limited to those three services: you can send virtually any video stream to the Chromecast device. But you’ll probably be disappointed in the resulting video quality on your TV; more on that in a moment.
Chromecast doesn’t have a user interface you can control on your TV, even for the streaming services it supports. It also doesn’t include a remote control. You’re expected to use your PC, tablet, or smartphone to control it. Using a versatile, intelligent device as a remote has its advantages, but also some disadvantages. For example, a laptop PC, with its keyboard and mouse, is an excellent tool when searching for a particular movie or browsing for something that looks entertaining. It’s a bit harder to search from a tablet and phone, but their smaller sizes make them better remotes.
Once you start the video, using any of those devices as remote controls can be less than ideal. For example, if you’re using the phone as the remote and it rings 40 minutes into a program, you might find it hard to locate the video-playback pause button before you lose the call — especially if you first have to enter your phone’s passcode. You could miss the big plot twist — and your phone call, too.
A few additional notes:
- Chromecast starts up and begins playback remarkably fast.
- There’s no way to display on the TV how long you’ve been watching that movie or how much of it is left. (Whether that’s a fault or a feature is up to you.)
- Chromecast probably won’t work if you’re running a virtual private network. I learned that one the hard way.
The Chromecast experience from Windows
You’ll find two distinctly different ways to send video streams from a Windows PC to the Chromecast dongle — and through it to the HDTV. Which option you use depends on what you’re watching.
Streaming from the supported services: You’ll get the best experience with Netflix or YouTube, which integrate directly with Chromecast. Oddly, Google’s own pay service, Play Movies, must be played using the unsupported-video-streams method discussed below.
Using Chrome (other browsers need not apply), go to Netflix or YouTube and start watching something. You then click the Chromecast icon in the lower-right corner of the video window (not the one in the upper-right corner of the browser window) and select your Chromecast device, as shown in Figure 3.
As soon as the video begins playing on your TV, you no longer need the PC. You can put it to sleep or shut it down entirely — well, at least until you want to pause, replay, or fast-forward. You’ll then need to wake the PC up again. (Obviously, using a desktop PC in another room isn’t practical.)
Streaming everything else: On a PC, you can also use Chromecast to stream services it does not directly support. Essentially, if you can play a video in a Chrome browser, you can easily send it to your TV.
And I do mean easily. Installing an extension into Chrome puts a Chromecast icon in the upper-right corner of your browser window. Click it, and whatever is playing in the current browser tab is sent to your HDTV. The image remains on your PC as well; you’ll want to click the video’s full-screen icon so the image on the TV doesn’t have a webpage around it.
In this setup, Chromecast is receiving video directly from your PC — not from a website. If your PC goes to sleep in the middle of playback, video on the TV freezes.
That’s the least of the problems, however. I found video quality on the TV relatively poor and audio rarely synched properly. I tried to watch a feature film from a password-protected Vimeo feed. After about six minutes, I gave up. I plugged the laptop directly into the HDTV, grabbed a wireless mouse, and enjoyed the movie. (You can buy a wireless mouse for less than one-third the cost of Chromecast.)
Using Chromecast from your mobile device
The Chrome-based, stream-any-video feature isn’t supported on mobile devices. (It’s strictly a Windows/Linux/Mac option.) And yet, Chromecast is best when used with an Android or iOS device. And, as you might expect, your experience is best on Android. Either platform is fine for watching Netflix and YouTube; you’ll want Android for Google’s Play Movies service.
Google currently doesn’t offer Chrome extensions for Android or iOS — you download and use Chromecast-compatible Netflix, YouTube, and (in Android) Play Movies apps. To watch a video from one of these three services on your TV, start playback on your mobile device and then tap the Chromecast icon; Chromecast will pick up the stream from the Internet and send it to your HDTV. From there on, you’ll need your tablet or phone only as a remote control or to change the video.
For the most part, size and form factors make tablets and phones better Chromecast remote controls than your laptop PC. Sure, searching is easier with a real keyboard, but when you’re relaxing on your couch, it’s easier to pick up a tablet or phone.
Android offers another advantage. When your device goes to sleep and locks, it keeps a pause button handy. If you’re interrupted while watching a movie, you don’t have to enter your passcode; just hit the On button and then the pause icon on the lock screen (see Figure 5).
Bottom line: At this point, Chromecast’s primary attraction is its low cost. It’s an inexpensive — albeit limited — way to watch Netflix, YouTube, and Google’s paid Play Movies. Most of us already have some form of Netflix/YouTube streaming capabilities on our primary TV. But Chromecast could be a good addition to an office or guest-room TV. Provided you have a good Internet connection, it could also be handy for streaming movies to a hotel-room TV. (Most hotels now have HDTVs, though Internet is typically wanting.) For YouTube especially, I find Chromecast superior to the app built into my Blu-ray player.
As long as you understand and accept its limitations, Chromecast is a fair value.
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