There’s been a lot of effort directed at finding ways to transfer content from a smartphone or tablet wirelessly to the big screen (i.e., TV). The problem has been the lack of a universal standard that everybody can use, and as a result the technology either comes already hardwired into the TV or in a “smart TV” box that’s bulky and often expensive. So Google decided to wipe out all these issues with their $35 Chromecast HDMI Streaming Media Player which doesn’t turn its nose up at Apple or Android devices or whatever computer OS you are using (Mac or PC).
One of the selling points for the tiny dongle-sized Chromecast is its portability since it can be plugged into the HDMI port of any HDTV. But if where you want to use it does NOT have a WiFi network, or it’s where the network doesn’t reach (such as a basement), then Chromecast will be useless. Google includes a short HDMI extender but this isn’t the freebie it sounds. Most HDTVs are close to the wall, if not wall mounted, and plugging the Chromecast into a port on the back means its antenna doesn’t have the space to pick up a good signal (besides being subjected to a close proximity to RF interference). So I used one of the side-mounted HDMI ports on my Sony HDTV. This was doubly good because the Chromecast requires a USB power source to function, and there was a USB port on the side to plug into also. I read online that if the HDMI port is both 1.4 version and MHL enabled, then the Chromecast doesn’t need external power, but I didn’t find this to be true (the glowing white LED when on stayed off). Time spent: about 2 minutes.
Activating/personalizing the Chromecast is a straightforward procedure in which you first pair directly to Chromecast’s built in WiFi, followed by giving it a name, telling it about your WiFi home network and finally, reestablishing your WiFi connection as normal. Since I was using an iPhone and there wasn’t a dedicated app for setup, I used the Chrome browser app to do all this. Time spent: about 6 minutes.
The Chromecast box says it can send video or content from the web to your HDTV. What it doesn’t say is that this can only be done from selected apps (for now anyway) — the first two being Netflix and YouTube. You can also send video/audio from a computer to the HDTV, providing that it’s the Chrome browser and the Chromecast extension (which is in Beta) has been installed.
Bringing up Netflix I saw a “CAST” icon that wasn’t there before. I picked the animated film “Nightmare Before Christmas” and got a menu choice of streaming either to the phone or Chromecast. Picking the latter, a few seconds passed as the iPhone’s screen only displayed a playback controller. But on the TV I now had the picture and sound (stereo). I let the video run for about a half minute before playing with the playback controls to see how responsive they were — hitting Play or Pause had the picture on the TV reacting almost immediately. I took out my iPad and brought up the Netflix app and found that I could work control from here as well. The playback, by the way, was clean and clear and similar to what it would have been if an app on the TV itself had been used for the streaming. And while the movie was playing, I brought up another app on the iPhone without causing any problems with Netflix. YouTube also performed in a similar fashion and if you like fuzzy videos, you’ll really love them blown up. But that’s all on lo-rez being played on YouTube, not Chromecast.
The chrome browser is the most embracing since anything you bring up in a window can be streamed through Chromecast to the HDTV — providing you’ve downloaded and installed the extension. Keep in mind, though, that the computer is directly streaming its content to the HDTV, unlike the apps, so any issues with the CPU can come into play. Also, you will have to keep running back and forth to it to change content to see, although what is playing can be controlled from another device. On the plus side it’s the biggest web browsing screen experience you’re going to get; one that looks good and doesn’t rely on any of that nonsense of “optimizing” web sites.
I found that I could “drop” MKK, MP4 and MV4 files into a browser window and then play them through the HDTV — and boy did they look good big (I left the setting at 720p and had no artifact issues, but could see changing to the lesser 480p if others are using my network while I’m streaming). After listening to some streamed music from my Amazon Cloud Player, I went to Google Play which demonstrated how “bigger is better” from my playing some of its free games. But if I didn’t have the TV in the same area as my computer, I could see that using a laptop seated in front of the TV would have been the better option.
Bottom line: It’s hard not to find Chromecast HDMI Streaming Media Player appealing, especially when factoring in the web browser capabilities to its ease of use, portability and price. But for those looking to “throw” any/all of their mobile apps on to a TV screen, Chromecast’s limited app support shows that it is just in diapers and has yet to learn to crawl, much less walk.
Automated user-free updates, HDMI extender, cheap ($35)
Requires external power supply (in my experience)
Marshal Rosenthal is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and journalist specializing in technology, consumer electronics and pop culture.