Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

Google Chromecast review

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Photo of a Google Chromecast

There were only a couple of presents that I specifically asked for Christmas this year, and one of these was a Google Chromecast. At £30, it’s a cheap and easy way of getting internet content onto your TV.

Roku versus Chromecast

If you’ve read my blog for a while, you’ll know that I’ve had a Roku 2 XS since summer 2014. I wanted a Chromecast to complement it, and alleviate some of the Roku’s shortcomings.

The Roku is good little device, especially as it now supports almost all streaming media services in the UK with the recent additions of Rakuten’s Wuaki.tv and Amazon Prime Instant Video. And it’s easy to use, since it comes with a remote control – unlike the Chromecast. The main issues I’ve been having are:

  • Speed – apps such as BBC iPlayer are very slow. You can press pause, and the Roku will take several seconds before it actually responds in any way. I imagine newer Roku devices (the third and fourth series) are much faster; the Roku 2 series was on its way out when I bought it in 2014. That being said, it’s still receiving software updates which is good.
  • Stability – sometimes the Roku crashes, and has to reboot. I’ve had particular problems with the YouTube app causing this.
  • Netflix – the Netflix app on the Roku (second series at least) is poor. It doesn’t support multiple user profiles per account, so whatever you watch goes on the viewing history of the main profile. And parental controls don’t work, so you can’t watch any shows on the Roku which require a parental control PIN.
  • Spotify – Roku has a Spotify app, but you need to be a Premium subscriber to use it – that means paying £10 per month. I’m on Spotify’s £5 per month ‘Unlimited’ plan, which suits me but doesn’t work with the Roku.

Where the Chromecast excels

Setting up the Chromecast is quite easy – it took around 10 minutes which included installing a software update. And installation is as simple as plugging it into a spare HDMI socket, and then connecting the USB cable to a spare socket (a mains adaptor is included if required).

To ‘cast’ something, you just need to open an app on your Android or iOS mobile device, and look for the cast icon. Whatever you’re streaming will then appear on your TV, and you use your device to control it – playing, pausing etc. And, it only casts the content that you’re streaming, so your TV won’t flash up any notifications for example. This is a big advantage over simple Bluetooth speaker systems, for example, which simply broadcast all of the sounds that your device makes.

Compared with the Roku 2, the Chromecast is very fast. Tapping the cast icon in an app registers almost straightaway on the Chromecast and the only delays seem to be caused by buffering, rather than the device itself being slow.

Netflix works as well as it would do on a mobile device, so we can watch more adult things when Lizzie isn’t about, but also ensure that her profile doesn’t show them. And Spotify streaming via Chromecast is available to all users – even those with free accounts.

There’s also a guest mode, which lets anyone who doesn’t have your Wifi password to cast to your Chromecast – provided that they have the PIN code displayed on the home screen. The PIN changes at least once a day.

…and some pitfalls

I’ve already mentioned the lack of a remote. But this problem is exacerbated, in my view, because you have to go into the app to access the controls to play and pause. On iOS, at least, the controls don’t appear on your device’s lock screen. You can lock your device and the content will still play, but pausing when the phone rings (for example) is a bit more involved. It’d be nice if there was an iOS widget that could pause whatever is playing, but I don’t know if that’s possible.

Not all apps support Chromecast. The big one that’s missing is Amazon Prime Instant Video, although there is a relatively easy workaround. The other app that I miss is UKTV Play, which is the only way that we can watch shows on Dave, like the new series of Red Dwarf. Living in a valley prevents us from receiving Dave via Freeview, we can’t get Virgin Media, it’s not on Freesat and we’re too cheap to pay for Sky.

I was also hoping that my favourite Podcast app, Overcast, would work, but apparently not. A tweet from the developer suggests that it would not be trivial to add this in future. And you’ll need to use an app such as AllCast if you want to view photos and videos from Dropbox on your Chromecast. I had mixed results with this in my testing.

Also, none of the built-in apps on iOS support Chromecast. This isn’t suprising – Apple sells a rival device, the Apple TV, and has a rival protocol called AirPlay. AirPlay is, in my view, more basic than the Chromecast protocol. With AirPlay, your mobile device acts as an intermediary – it receives the content stream, decodes it, and then sends it via AirPlay to your Apple TV. The Chromecast, instead, streams directly from the content provider – your device merely sends some instructions. The main benefit is that it won’t drain your device’s battery.

Sadly, I also had some stability issues when using the NextUp Comedy app with the Chromecast. Like with the Roku, these caused the Chromecast to lock up and restart. However, at least my device remembered where it was, so I could pick it up again easily after a restart.

Putting Chrome into Chromecast

There’s a reason for the Chromecast having such a name, and that’s because you can cast web pages from the Google Chrome web browser on the desktop. This is how you can get the aforementioned Amazon Prime and UKTV Play onto your Chromecast, but it does mean that you’ll have to play and pause playback using your computer. Which isn’t ideal when your computer is in a different room to your TV, like it is in our house.

Overall

The Chromecast isn’t perfect and has some key pitfalls as mentioned. But it’s great value for £30, and relatively simple for a moderately tech-minded person to use.

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