Google ChromecastApril 21, 2014. Updated May 1, 2014.
INEXPENSIVE, HIGH QUALITY STREAMING
We take Google's new streaming HDMI dongle for a test drive.
Despite being available in the US since its launch last July, it wasn't until 18th. March, 2014 that Google released its HDMI media player Chromecast in the UK and 10 other countries.
The device is small and light, just 72mm in length, draws its power from a USB port or mains adapter (supplied) and is designed to plug into an HDMI port on a TV or display. Competing against Roku/NowTV from Sky and Apple's Apple TV box, Chromecast undercuts both on price. At £30, it is less than one third of Apple's device, to which it bears a strong similarity in function if not form.
WHAT WOULD YOU USE IT FOR?
Instead of connecting a cable between your computer and a TV, you can throw video wirelessly using a Chromecast and a compatible browser or app. Additionally, it can stream content on its own from an increasing number of dedicated apps.
IN THE BOX
The packaging: a well-designed box creates an impression of quality.
Included is a USB mains adapter, a USB cable, and a short breakout HDMI adapter cable to enable the device to be used in a restricted space.
To enable setup on a computer or mobile device, the Chromecast App has to be downloaded first. The App will look for the device once it is powered up and nearby.
If Chromecast is plugged into a USB socket on a TV, the TV has to be turned on, otherwise the device won't be found. Chromecast advertises itself to the App, which then switches its WiFi to your main router, so that your computer and Chromecast are on the same network. This is essential, as otherwise Chromecasting won't work. The App enables a WiFi password to be entered in your choice of base station.
You can re-name your Chromecast to something more memorable such as "living room", if you intend to buy more than one. Multiple Chromecasts can be set up in the home, allowing a video stream to be sent to a bedroom or kitchen from a home PC, or Android and iOS devices.
One limitation of Chromecast is that streaming from a PC or Mac is only possible from the Chrome browser. Internet Explorer, Firefox and Safari will not work.
After switching a TV to the HDMI source used by Chromecast, a welcome screen is displayed with the name of the device and the current time. All that's necessary is to click on the Casting icon in the top right of the Chrome browser window and choose to cast to your device. If there is more than one tab open, choose "cast this tab".
Picture and sound will appear from your computer on your TV, mirroring whatever is on your PC's screen. You can then set a video stream to be full screen.
The BT Sport App has recently been added. If you have a BT broadband account, log in with your username and password. The App includes BT Sport 1 and 2.
If your TV has CEC support, it will automatically switch to the right HDMI input when you start to cast a video, even if another HDMI source was previously selected. (Samsung's version of CEC is called Anynet+)
DESKTOP COMPUTER PERFORMANCE
The developers appear to have put in some hard work on maximising picture quality and sound.
BBC iPlayer is good on live streaming and excellent on catch-up. If HD content is chosen in catch-up or download, quality is outstanding. Sound is perfectly synchronised.
The smoothness of pictures depends on the video capabilities of your computer. If there are bottlenecks in video processing on your PC, these will be mirrored on Chromecast. We found a 2006 iMac to be better than a 2011 Macbook in this respect, which was a big surprise.
The new BBC iPlayer, currently in beta, offers much better performance than the older version, the difference being Chromecast support is now native. iPlayer now includes a casting button, allowing the extraordinary facility of closing up a computer or shutting it down whilst casting. The Chromecast device will continue to play the stream on its own, until it is powered down by turning off the TV. This feature beats any other device we've seen.
If a stream is cast from a non-native website, picture quality will be reduced as the computer will be mirroring a display, which requires more processing power. Native websites include YouTube, Netflix, HBO Go and the new BBC iPlayer. These will allow your computer to display a secondary static image, or be shut down altogether when casting.
Quality was very similar or slightly better than Apple's more expensive device, which is larger, not portable and requires a remote control.
MOBILE DEVICE PERFORMANCE
When we tested two iOS devices, an iPhone 5 and an iPad 2, we had a glimpse of the future. Not only is casting easy from BBC iPlayer, quality was outstanding, approaching that of the original broadcast. Note that iPlayer needs the current version with native Chromecast support.
Choosing a programme, changing channels, accessing catchup and casting is vastly easier on a handheld device than with a PC or a TV remote control. (Users of so-called "smart" TVs will be familiar with the number of unintuitive remote control presses needed to view a catch-up programme.)
All that's necessary to stream TV in very high quality are two devices that will fit easily into your pocket: a smartphone and a Chromecast.
BBC iPlayer now includes support for Apple TV and Chromecast. Apple TV and Chromecast icons will be displayed in an iPlayer window if either device is found on the local network.
Windows 7 or later, Mac OS X 10.7 or later, or Chrome OS
Mirroring web video requires a recent laptop and strong Wi-Fi
Silverlight, Quicktime, and some other video plugins not supported
Android 2.3+ smartphones and tablets supported.
Chromecast will work with an HDMI splitter if you don't have enough sockets on your TV.
Both the Chromecast App and the Chromecast extension have to be installed if using a desktop computer.
You may experience network issues if you use your computer or mobile device too far from your home WiFi base station, if your computer is old, or if there are other intensive users on the same network.
Output: HDMI, CEC (Consumer Electronics Control) compatible.
Max. Output Video Resolution: 1080 p.
Dimensions: 72 (L) x 35 (W) x 12 (H) mm.
Weight: 34 g.
Wireless Standards: 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi (802.11 n 2.4 GHz only).
Wireless Security: WEP, WPA / WPA2.
Power: USB (USB cable and power adapter included).
Plugs into TV directly and powered from TV's USB port or wall outlet.
PROBLEMS AND LIMITATIONS
It took us three attempts to set up our Chromecast. This may be a limitation of BT's Home Hub 5, which is temperamental when devices are removed or added. (Older BT Home Hubs are even worse). We had to re-boot the home hub before we could get the Chromecast working on the same network. It sounds really obvious, but the a TV has to be switched on to supply power to Chromecast if a built-in USB port is being used to supply power.
Chromecast will not mirror your desktop. An Apple TV can, from a Mac computer or iOS device.
Google say that a Chromecast will not work over a VPN. A VPN is necessary to use BBC iPlayer out of the UK. What Google may mean is a VPN running over your home router won't work. A device running its own VPN independently is OK, however.
We tested Chromecast running on VPN services from Vibe VPN andTunnelbear on our computers and iOS devices with no problems. All VPN services with a UK server will probably work, but it's unclear whether multicasting support is needed. ( Vibe VPN definitely allows multicast.) Most modern computers and mobile devices have built-in VPN software.
We didn't try Chromecast with a Smart DNS service, these can be problematic if your IP address changes regularly.
Chromecast looks to be a winner in performance, ease of use and price. It matches Apple's box in the first two, and beats it soundly on the third. For expat users and travellers, all you need to view high quality streaming on any HD TV with HDMI anywhere in the world are an internet connection, a computer, smartphone or tablet, a VPN/SmartDNS (if you want iPlayer) and this tiny Chromecast device.
Unlike NowTV/Roku, no Sky account needs to be set up or card details entered. Native Chromecast support in BBC iPlayer means the device is easier to use than ever, offering very good quality at a low price.