Chromecast: a review
When I received a Chromecast for Christmas I was excited because I love new toys, but admittedly I wasn’t really sure how much use it would get. I already had a living room computer that did media handling duties, and it seemed like that would be much more flexible, if more elaborate, than a Chromecast (Amazon link).
One month later, my living room computer has been powered off and the Chomecast has become an integral part of my media consumption. Who knew?
The first thing that struck me about the Chromecast is how small it is. The hardware itself is no bigger than a chunky USB key, although I was surprised to see that it does require a power cord and outlet (included with the box). Installation is also quick — just pop it onto an HDMI port on your TV and run the free Chomecast app on a smart phone that’s connected to your wifi network.
It will ask you to identify the correct Chromecast (which means you could run more than one in a household if you have multiple TVs), then it’ll download a lot of software updates, and then you’re pretty much done!
I was sort of confused about how it all works until I saw it in action, but in practice it’s straightforward — you tell the Chromecast what you want to stream from your desktop or mobile, and then it takes that address and downloads the media itself. That means that your phone, for example, is basically just sending a file URL so the stream isn’t limited in any way by your mobile hardware.
You also use the mobile app to install specific Chromecast support modules, like YouTube and Netflix. These are fairly limited in number at the moment, although there have been vague promises by Google that they’ll open up the API later this year. Once you add a module to your Chromecast it affects both the desktop and mobile versions, so if I’m sitting at my computer or on my phone watching a movie I can just tap the Chromecast symbol, select “living room”, and in a few seconds the film is playing on my TV at the exact point I left off.
This is great, but the real power of Chromecast for me is the Chrome web extension, which will cast any tab in your desktop Chrome browser to the TV. A lot of the stuff I watch is foreign-language television, which can come from a variety of video sources like Daily Motion or Dramafever. The “cast this tab” feature means I can watch any online video on my TV with the Chromecast, which really opens up options.
What what about offline video, like downloaded AVIs and the like? Chromecast has official module support for media managers like Plex, but at the moment it’s all behind premium service paywalls. If you’ve already got a Plex Premium account that’s fine, but for the rest of us there’s a little trick — use the free Plex manager to play your local AVIs, and then stream it with the Chrome tab streaming! It’s a little kludgy, but it works just fine.
Speaking of kludgy, while I’m extremely satisfied with the Chromecast there are a few nagging issues. Streaming from a tab that is set to “full screen” messes with the aspect ratio so you lose some of the top and bottom of the image. It’s only a tiny bit, but I find it frequently chops off subtitles in particular.
Also I wish there were more consistent volume controls, much less some kind of volume normalization. It’s hard to tell when something is going to start blasting out of my TV speakers. Adding a “cast this tab” option from my mobile Chrome browser would be high on my wishlist as well.
And while I appreciate the simplicity of the Chromecast interface, it would also be nice if it produced an error log somewhere. When I initially started using it, the Chromecast would frequently drop out of a stream. After a lot of trial and error I figured out that my router needed a firmware upgrade, but even minimal error messaging might have helped me make that discovery a lot faster.
All in all, though, the utility of the “cast this tab” feature in particular plus the super low $35 price tag makes the Chromecast a easy sell. If you don’t already have a Roku or AppleTV or whatever, or you’re looking for something with “grandparent-friendly” simplicity, I highly recommend it!