Google’s Chromecast hit the market two years ago, and has sold well because of its promising features and its compellingly low pricing. Here’s how it works and what might make it a good purchase for you.
How it Works
Chromecast is essentially a tiny computer that pipes media content into an HDMI port on your TV. That’s about all it does. You can’t interact with the device’s software aside from attaching it to your WiFi network and changing the background image it displays when it’s idle. All of the device’s settings must be changed through the mobile app or from a small desktop app for your computer. It doesn’t make your TV into a separate computer; instead, it acts much more like an HDMI cable.
The primary purpose of Chromecast is to help you display your mobile device’s video or audio stream on your TV. Chromecast uses Google’s new Cast technology to function, which many apps now support. In an app that supports Google Cast, all you have to do is tap the Chromecast icon and you can cast your screen and audio output to your TV.
The cool part about casting media from your mobile device is that in a Cast-enabled app, the media stream is handed off from your device to the Chromecast entirely. That means that you can start playing a YouTube video on your tablet, tap the Chromecast icon, and then lock or turn off your tablet. In apps like Netflix, Hulu, or YouTube, your Chromecast will stream the requested media straight from the Internet without having to go through your mobile device. This is where Chromecast starts to sound a lot more appealing than an HDMI cable.
Chromecast also offers a feature for desktops that’s still in beta mode: the Google Cast browser extension for the Chrome browser. Using this extension, you can cast Chrome tabs or even your entire Windows or Mac desktop to your Chromecast. However, this is not the most reliable Chromecast feature, at least for now.
The utility of Chromecast also depends on the features your TV provides. Chromecast can’t draw power from the HDMI port alone, so it requires a USB power supply as well. On newer TVs with built-in USB ports, you can simply hook up your Chromecast to one of the TVs USB ports. On older TVs that only have “service” USB ports, you’ll have to use the bundled external power adapter. Also, if your TV is new enough to have HDMI ports that support the Consumer Electronics Control feature, starting a cast will cause your TV to automatically switch inputs to display what you’re playing on the Chromecast.
Why You’d Want It
If you want to enable internet streaming for an old TV, Chromecast is perfect. It’s cheap and easy to set up and works with Android and iOS tablets and phones. If you regularly use mobile devices and want some way of easily streaming music or video to your TV, Chromecast is for you. The ability to cast media while your device is locked or turned off is impressive and useful.
However, if you’re looking for some way of connecting your desktop or laptop to your TV, Chromecast may not be as useful. The Google Cast browser extension for Chrome works well on sites that are optimized for Chromecast, but otherwise casting tabs can be laggy or unreliable. The connection quality, being wireless, is easily bested by a direct HDMI connection.
Also, if you’re looking at Chromecast as a way to play DVDs or other offline media on your TV, you’ll be disappointed to hear that you can’t. Google Cast for desktop only supports casting media that can be played in the Chrome browser. You can open offline music files of certain types in Chrome, but as of now there is no way to play DVDs or CDs.
Bottom line: if you use mobile devices often and need some way to play music or video on your TV while still being able to use your tablet or phone, Chromecast is for you.
Setting it Up
Google has done a good job making Chromecast easy and fun to set up. The pictures below are of the unboxing, and the last two show Google’s simple in-box instructions on how to set up the Chromecast. Essentially, you plug your Chromecast into your TV and into the power adapter, and then download the app on your mobile device or on your computer.