Friday, July 4, 2014

Chromecast: A Week in Review

Chromecast dongle


Background

I decided to buy a Chromecast to replace my Raspberry Pi as a Plex client and general streaming device. 

I use a few services quite regularly for watching shows and these are a requirement for me to consider a new set-top box for the TV. 

My "Streaming Trinity" is: 

  • Crunchyroll - for legal anime subs. (Ad-based and subscription options)
  • Netflix - for movies, TV, and legal anime dubs (subscription)
    and 
  • Plex  - for local media on my computer and I'm trying out some 'channels' as well to watch videos from official websites such as CBC and Discovery
    (Paid mobile apps,Free web/desktop clients, optional subscription or one-time lifetime unlock, requires a computer for a server)
The Chromecast had my trinity and more so for about $50 CAD (after shipping and tax) I figured it was worth a shot! I also purchased it in the timeframe to receive $20 on Google Play (this offer is over now, sorry). I heard you can also purchase them in-stores in Canada which would reduce your costs notably.

The Chromecast itself is a one-time fee to buy the device (no "Chromecast subscription").
The only additional costs are for (some of) the apps and their associated subscriptions.



Chromecast Setup

The initial setup was a breeze, the box showed 3 simple steps which worked exactly as described.

Steps: Plug HDMI and USB in, turn on TV to the right input, config it for your wifi.

However, they fail to mention that you can also use the Chromecast app to perform this configuration. The Chromecast gets you to setup the password for your wireless network, performs an update, reboots, and is ready to go!

I went to my friend's house to show it off and it took a couple of tries to get it to work, so the setup isn't always flawless, but still relatively easy. I used my phone again to set up again.

Device Context - "What phone/tv do you use?"

I have my Chromecast plugged into my living room TV (which is connected to the kitchen with no divider). My router is right beside the TV and Chromecast, and when I tested at a friend's we tried it both in the basement and main floor with similar stream quality. (Of course your home may behave differently with wireless).

My TV is a cheap RCA TV, meaning the HDMI CEC control is somewhere between limited and non-existent. While at a friend's I tested the HDMI CEC on a Dynex (didn't work) and a Philips (did work). Best to look up your TV in particular if this is a deciding factor for you.

I have tested the Chromecast with an Android phone, iPhone, Android tablet, and a laptop to cover all the bases on how well things work.


Usage

At the moment, the Chromecast simply displays its name, the time (12/24hr configurable) and a photo on your tv if you're not using it. The first day I tried out a variety of apps to see what I would like to use and what features different apps have. I use the Chromecast fairly regularly to watch TV shows on Crunchyroll and from my local Plex server.

Each app has some sort of 'cast' icon to click and then select the Chromecast you wish to play it on.

Performance overall is great! However it is often on a per-app basis so I'll go into details with each app I use. I mostly use an Android phone to control it so my information primarily comes from that experience. The iPhone compatibility has only been tested by a friend.


Websites vs Apps

Google has put out a Chrome Extension called "Google Cast" (which appears to be the name for the protocol) which is required to send content to your Chromecast from the browser.

Now for the most part you'll likely want to use the tab casting to watch videos. However, if you want to you can cast a regular tab like Facebook or Reddit, but be prepared to squint. On my TV the Chromecast did not fill the TV with the web page, but cut off the sides.
However, when watching a video that supports fullscreen it would expand to the full size, I tested this with Facebook.


Many of the sites that support Chromecast will also give you direct casting capabilities through their website (eg: Netflix, YouTube, Plex).

Tab-casting can apparently be much worse than the native tab cast support, so when possible use the native casting support rather than casting the tab in any event. (I'll denote this for apps below). I tried Crunchyroll with fullscreen and tab casting and it seemed fine, a fraction of a second behind the computer but the audio was synced with the Chromecast and the picture was smooth.


Apps


Plex - Paid (~$5.50 CAD. )
Official Site - Native tab cast 

Play Store 

I was using Rasplex on my raspberry pi before so this was a requirement for me to switch to Chromecast. The UI elements look great on the TV, it shows a slideshow of fan art in the background at first and also shows the synopsis on-screen.
The only issues I ran into was it was very slow to load one episode of a show, but when I stopped and tried again it worked fine. It also didn't want to play some episodes from the Food Network Channel I have installed on my Plex Media Server, but those files may have been taken down. In the end not a big issue.

Once the streams have started the picture quality is great and I haven't noticed any stuttering.

Note: A friend had issues if she started casting after hitting play.




Crunchyroll - Free app (subscription optional for ad-free and full access)

Official Site - Native tab cast 
Play Store 

Note: I only use the Anime subscription, I'm not sure how the manga portion works.

Crunchyroll has been working great for me. The support through Plex/XBMC wasn't cutting it for me as it wouldn't sync my progress so I really wanted that feature. The video looks great and the subtitles are crisp.

EDIT (updated July 10, 2014): I have been having some issues with crunchyroll lately where it starts buffering and then just stops. I am unsure if this is the app, the service, or my wifi so I cannot make any judgements on it. However I figured it was worth pointing out.




Netflix - Free app (subscription required)
Official Site - Native tab cast 
Play Store 

Same quality I have come to expect from Netflix, their Android app recently updated with their new branding and looks great. Luckily with Chromecast all the browsing is done on your device so the UI is still great (unlike on certain platforms).


YouTube - Free
Official Site - Native tab cast 
Play Store 

My favourite thing about YouTube and the Chromecast is the 'TV Queue'. Which lets you add videos and anyone else who can connect to your Chromecast. This is great for YouTube parties.




Apps I've briefly used (and may not have as much to say about)

Crackle - Free (ad supported)
Official Site - Native tab cast

It seemed like a good experience, it was on-demand TV/movies with ads (otherwise free) so I couldn't complain. The company is owned by Sony so that's how they get the streaming rights.



 Pocket Casts - Paid (~$4 CAD)
Official Site - Native tab cast (n/a)
Play Store

This is my go-to podcast app and the streaming seemed good, I just haven't had a chance to listen to podcasts at home recently. It shows the podcast art and the progress bar on the TV.


 Lakitu - Free
Play Store

Lets you watch Twitch.tv videos on your tv (as the official app doesn't yet). My favourite part was if I wanted to save my phone's battery there was an option to continue the stream after disconnecting (most apps don't do this).


AllCast - Free or Paid (~$5.50 CAD)

The limiting factor is a 5 minute window and ads for the free version. This app lets you stream local content, Dropbox/Drive content, and from some select sources to your Chromecast and to other devices as well (full list in app description but it includes consoles, Apple TV and set top boxes). I used this to show a video from Facebook I downloaded.

I haven't found a need to pay for it yet and the cost scares me away for the moment, for some people it may be worth it though!

Some supported services include Muzei (wallpapers), Twitch (no searching it seems), and Google+ Photos. Note: The Photos app supports streaming.


Rdio - Free or Paid (optional Subscription)
Official Site - Native tab cast
Play Store

I could not get to work. However it may work for you so give it a shot! The web app was great in my opinion and I tried the mobile app via a free trial. I'll try it again later and hopefully it will work.

For me it crashed every time in the Android app and the Web site just errored on me.
This lead me to find...



Songza - Free
Official Site - Native tab cast
Play Store

This is a great music app everywhere that I only just discovered (and I'm using right now!)

 It has curated (by music professionals apparently) playlists based on moods, activities, and decades. It goes one step deeper and allows you to pick from several playlists that would fit that mood/decade/activity.

The Chromecast support is great, it takes half the screen for album art, and half the screen for info such as play position/duration, artist, album, and playlist.
Note: The company just recently got bought by Google.

Pluto.TV - Free
Official Site - Native tab cast
Play Store

This is a cordcutter's dream, for someone who wants a TV-like experience. It has curated channels (based on topics) so channel-surfing is possible. I've always wanted this experience in a non-tv environment just for the option. As I like having something I can watch half-way through without worrying about bad shows or commercials getting in the way.

Note: Animal video lovers rejoice there are channels such as Cats 24/7, Dogs 24/7, and Polar Bears 24/7.

If it takes off I hope they can partner with a streaming service such as Netflix to integrate shows into their channels.


Conclusion

I love my Chromecast so far and use it every day. I've started watching more YouTube channels because of it and have even learned a lot from leaving CGP Grey's "Grey Explains" playlist. (The audio quality is much better later on so I linked to a recent video).

I feel my purchase was worthwhile and would definitely recommend it as a buy for anyone looking for an all-in-one streaming device that uses the services I've listed!

Updates: Added some clarification on costs, other background info, and fixed some typos.
July 10, 2014 -  Added some more info about Crunchyroll and talked about Pluto.TV


Agree? Disagree? Any other apps I should know about? Typos? Let me know in the comments down below!


Image Sources:
Chromecast Dongle - Wikimedia Commons - License: CC BY-SA 2.0

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