Monday, March 17, 2014

Albo's Doohikey of the Month: The Google Chromecast

Google Chromecast Review

I spend a great deal of time in front a computer screen.  Eight hours during my day job and perhaps another two to three hours per evening after I get home.  The day job precludes me from doing much more than listening to some streamed music at low volume, but at home while I work on other endeavors, I prefer to have some ambient noise surround me as I "focus".  I could just add a DirecTV receiver to the 32" Samsung Plasma that I have hanging in our home office, but for the sake of convenience I've experimented with a number of Streaming Media Devices to route some goodies from my Windows Home Server, Netflix and Hulu.  While dalliances with Western Digital and Roku streaming devices proved entertaining, neither provided the simplicity or intuitiveness that I want in an everyday use device.  

The Google Chromecast, OogleyGoogley may just be on to something:

There are many Android devices providing various levels of Android-on-TV, but none are this inexpensive ($35) or come with the "street-cred" of being an official Google product.  While it is still burgeoning in it's usefulness, this Wifi enabled dongle lets you utilize the technology you already possess (Android, iOS, Windows or MAC) to view an expanding universe of internet delivered material.  Netflix, Youtube, HBOGo, Hulu+, Pandora and Google Play are all there.  An expanding roster of services is promised in the near future, and if you have Google Chrome installed on your computer....the world is your oyster. 

....we'll get to that.

Opening the packaging provides introduction to the Chromecast and virtually all of the instruction you will need to start streaming new entertainment to the television of your choice:

Specifications (quite robust for what seems to be a simple little device):

Output: HDMI (CEC compatible)
Max. Output Video Resolution: 1080p
Dimensions:72(L) x 35(W) x 12(H) mm
Weight: 34g
Wireless:2.4 GHz WiFi 802.11 b/g/n
Power:USB (Power adapter included)
Supported Operating Systems:Android 2.3 and higher, iOS® 6 and higher, Windows® 7 and higher, Mac OS® 10.7 and higher,
Chrome OS.

Open the box and you'll find:

·      (1) Google Chromecast Dongle
·      (1) HDMI Extender
·      (1) USB Power Cable
·      (1) Power Adapter
·      (1) Product Information Booklet

Setup is simple (here, I'm setting up a Chromecast in our Master Bedroom), though you should be mindful of your TV's ability to supply an adequate amount of power through it's HDMI ports (anything less than HDMI 1.4 will purportedly not work). The included USB cable is meant to supply just that extra oomph, with one end plugging into a hopefully available USB port on your TV or into the supplied power adapter with an equally hopefully placed power outlet in the vicinity of your TV. 

Once that's accomplished, download the Chromecast app on your smart device of choice (for illustrative purposes I'll be using my Moto X, however I also have utilized a first generation Nexus 7 and an iPad 4).  Keep in mind that the source device and the Chromecast need to be on the same Wifi network in order to function.  I repeat...Wifi.  An Ethernet connected device cannot connect to the Chromecast.  That's not a negative, per se, since the device itself does not stream content to the Chromecast. It simply provides instructions for the Chromecast to pull said content from the Internet (especially helpful when you want to multitask with your tablet or smartphone).

Setup on the Android app is as follows:

Once connected to your Wifi network, the Chromecast will contact Google's servers to download an update and then restart:

After the connection is complete, the Chromecast and your connected device will be able to communicate.  I fired up the Netflix app on the Moto X and was able to connect to the newly minted "Master Bedroom" Chromecast with no trouble.   Video on my now old Sony Plasma is still fine at 720p and sound comes in perfectly synced.  It doesn't hurt that the wireless router that is providing the signal is only 12 or 13 feet away, but I've had good results throughout the house (I now have three Chromecast dongles set up).

I started out earlier talking about additional functionality that the Chromecast has when used in conjunction with the Google Chrome browser.  The addition of the official Google Cast extension allows just about any Chrome browser tab to be "Cast" to your Chromecast connected TV.  I also mentioned that the Chromecast works only over a Wifi connection, so it is imperative that the computer you are casting from also be connected to the same Wifi network.  The PC in my office is hard-wired via Ethernet to my home network, but I was able to simultaneously add an old USB network adapter to it to connect to my Wifi network.  This allowed me to pull up my Netflix account in my browser and cast it to the TV in my office.  

For those looking for a more utilitarian use for the Chromecast, you can also mirror whatever website you have open in your Chrome browser:

It sports great functionality now, but the Chromecast started from humble beginnings.  When first introduced, this amazing little doohickey had more limited functionality.  It allowed streaming from just a few partnered services and no approved third party apps.  Google has since seen fit to release the SDK to allow for third party app development and an ever-increasing list of compatible services.  One limitation that had many users and critics alike bothered, was the lack of ability to cast locally (or network) stored video files.  The initial workaround was to convert said video files into an acceptable format (ie. .mp4) and drag and drop them into an open Chrome browser tab.  The browser's native ability to play video files allowed the user cast that specific tab to the Chromecast, therefore allowing expanded usage.

As always, the future holds new wonders. Among others, Plex Media Server (an application that I've used for some time to curate my own media library) has recently been upgraded to allow users to cast video libraries saved locally or on network attached storage.  As more developers adopt similar functionality the usability and desirability of the Chromecast should grow into a far greater piece of the market that is dominated by the Apple TV and the Roku brand of devices.  The fact that Google provides their device at a fraction of the price of both manufacturers leaves the Chromecast on top of my Media Streaming world.

Here's my rundown of the Chromecast's virtues and vices:

  • Inexpensive
  • Simple setup
  • Smooth user interface and functionality
  • Multitask friendly (start your cast and forget it)
  • An expanding set of partners and services

  • Lack of Windows Mobile support
  • Limited to Google's own Chrome browser (If you prefer Firefox or Opera, your out of luck for now)
  • An expanding, but still limited number of supported apps. Apple and Roku win the day in that regard.

...and yet...

My final verdict is still a positive one.  The price of entry, and the user-friendliness leave the Chromecast as my chosen media streaming device.  Personal experience (and difficulties) with devices from Western Digital, Roku (and Apple) leave much to be desired, with Google's offering bringing nothing but easy access to entertainment.  Here's to hoping that the "magic smoke" doesn't escape from my fiber-optic modem!

It's available from most local electronics retailers (Including Best Buy, Google Play and Amazon) for $35.00, though it often goes on sale for less.

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