What is Chromecast?
Chromecast is a new Google product, and one that’s a whole lot more mainstream than Google Glass and a totally different proposition to the Nexus 5 or Nexus 7.
It’s a little dongle that ends in an HDMI port rather than the usual USB socket. You plug it into your TV and it lets you stream Netflix, YouTube, BBC iPlayer, and a growing selection of other sources, from your mobile and desktop devices on to your TV screen. And for around £30-40 it’s an efficient way to turn an older TV into one with modern features.
It’s been on sale in the US for a while now, and has more recently landed in the UK. Our verdict? It’s still needs a little work, but it’s £35 worth spending for any Android devotee and is a sure footed competitor to the Apple TV and Roku streaming Stick.
Google Chromecast – Design
The Google Chromecast dongle is a bit larger than a USB flash memory stick. The reasons why are pretty obvious – not only does it have to incorporate a chunky full-size HDMI socket, it also crams in a Marvell Armada 1500-Mini 88DE3005 processor. This isn’t a dumb stick, it’s a little computer.
However, Chromecast is not about getting Android – or even Chrome – on your TV. It’s much simpler, and more useful for the average person.
Jam it into your TV or home cinema receiver, get it hooked up to your home network and your non-smart TV or home cinema setup will suddenly get streaming abilities.
The button is used to factory reset the Chromecast
There are some little design elements to account for, though. The Chromecast needs its own power supply. It’s a 5.1V 850mA supply so is a bit too much for non-powered USB ports on computers or home cinema receivers. It can be powered by some TVs, though. Check your model to make sure. You do get a power supply in the box in case your TV can’t power it, but you’ll need to set aside a socket.
The dongle itself is also a bit chunky – more so than an HDMI cable – so it will clutter up busy home cinema receivers a bit. However, both the US and UK versions also come with a little cable extender to help out. Not only does the extender provide a way of folding the dongle out of the way if space behind your TV is a tight it can, in some cases, help improve the Chromecasts connection to your Wi-Fi network.
Google Chromecast – Apps and Streaming Performance
Google Chromecast does not come with a remote control at all. Instead, you use a phone or tablet to act as the middle man between streaming services like Netflix and your TV. Although this is a Google product and therefore plays well with Android, it does work perfectly well with Apple products like the iPhone 5S, iPad Mini and iPad Air too.
In use, Chromecast works a lot like AirPlay. You stream whatever you’re watching – or listening to – on your device from within supported apps. Once your chosen TV episode or film is playing on the TV, many of these apps will allow you to go off an browse the in app directories. Some even run in the background so you can leave the app itself and read, for example, your emails or surf the internet.
Here’s how the interface works in Netflix on an iPhone. It is currently the most useful Chromecast app.
Press the ‘transmit’ button and you’ll see your Chromecast pop-up
The iPhone and Android apps are a little different from each other too – the Android version offers a bit more content, and suggestions of Chromecast-compatible apps:
Android phones and tablets used to offer better app support than iPhones and iPads but iOS devices have come a long way since our initial review with Chromecast support for lots of apps. Both mobile operating systems now support Netflix, YouTube, BBC iPlayer, Google Play movie player, Google Play music player, BT Sport, Vevo, Plex, Blinkbox, Red Bull TV, Deezer, RealPlayer Cloud and a handful of small-fry picks we can’t imagine many people wanting.
Anyone for the VikiTV Korean movie portal? Didn’t think so.
The app list is growing every day so it’s worth checking out the official list of supported Chromecast apps over on the Chromecast site, but if you’re straped for time you can check out our round up of favourite Chromecast apps.
There are obviously dozens of apps we’d like to see get Chromecast support, especially things like 4OD, LoveFilm, Now TV, Spotify, Amazon MP3 and MX Player. Part of investing in Chromecast is having faith that support will come but, going by the adoption rate for many of the big names, we are sure the rest will follow.
We found Netflix streaming to be rock-solid with a good connection, and once you’re hooked up with a film there’s no need to keep your phone or tablet on. Although it seems like Chromecast is streaming from your mobile, it actually makes a direct connection with streaming services over Wi-Fi.
The exceptions are when you’re streaming from one device directly to another – these are some of the Chromecast’s most interesting, and least talked-about skills. With a Chrome browser plugin on your laptop or PC you can beam your browser window straight to your TV. At the moment it’s quite flaky, but it does work (don’t rely on it for presentations just yet though).
The Chrome plug-in in action
What you can’t do is stream content directly from the phone’s internal memory to the Chromecast. While the Google Play Movies app works with the dongle, when you head to the Personal videos section you need to use the ‘Videos’ app to play them, not Google Play Movies. This doesn’t offer Chromecast support. The closest you can get are with the Plex app (currently £1.52), which creates a media server from your PC media library, and Avia. This is an app that lets you stream a limited array of video stored locally – but not many kinds of MKV files work perfectly. Plex, on the other hand, supports a vast array of media formats. We’ve been using it in cinjuction with the Chromecast for a couple of months now and have found it to be the perfect way to enjoy a personal media collection via the TV. Gone are the days or connecting up dedicated media machines to the Tele via bulky cables.
We are, however, a little way off limitation-free pure, direct streaming, it seems. And that’s bad news for media pirates or those with smartphone photos and videos they want to see on the big screen. It also means you can’t stream any locally stored music to Chromecast. If you try it using the Google Play Music app you get this error message:
However, Chromecast will happily deliver 1080p video where available, and can deal with surround sound. There’s no discernible loss of quality unless you’re using the Chrome browser streaming, where the image becomes quite artefact-ridden when there’s lots of movement on-screen.