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Google ChromecastGoogle Chromecast helps turn dumb TV's into smart ones

By Jim Bray
March 31, 2016

Smart TV's are all the rage these days - it seems as if that's practically all you can buy - but what if you have a more old fashioned TV that doesn't come with a bunch of apps built in, yet you still want to exploit the capabilities of the online (or merely networked) world?

There is a variety of solutions available to drag your TV kicking and screaming into the current age, whether it be app-enabled Blu-ray players such as those offered by Oppo Digital and others, a dedicated media player-in-a-box such as those offered by Western Digital and others, or a "dongle" type of device you plug into a vacant HDMI port.

It can be argued that the dongle method is the most convenient, since you only have to plug it into the TV and power it up for it to work, though the media players aren't much more onerous (they just take up a little more shelf space), and there is a couple of big players in this field currently: Google and Roku. Both exploit the same basic concept of streaming stuff to your TV, though in different ways and with different capabilities.

I'll look at the Roku device in an upcoming column; this week I want to tell you about my experiences with Google's version, the Chromecast.

The Chromecast takes content that's either on your local device (smart phone, tablet, etc.), your home network or the Internet and lets you watch it on your HDMI-equipped TV. The product is said to work with iPhone, iPad, Android phones and tablets, Mac and Windows laptops and Chromebooks. I haven't tried it on all of these devices, but I use it regularly via my iPad Air and recently downloaded the Android app to see how it would work - the theory being that since it's a Google device (and Google is behind the Android operating system) that it should work at least as well if not better than on the Apple OS.

And it does. In fact, I can cast my phone directly to the Chromecast and the TV into which it's plugged will mirror my phone screen, right down to the wallpaper of my wife smiling at me (must remember to change that!). It's a great way to toss photos I've taken on the phone to the TV so people don't have to crowd around the phone to witness my latest photographic messterpieces.

One of the first things you may notice about the Chromecast is that it's cheap: it lists on and for $45 currently, which makes it pretty well an impulse purchase item. And for that small investment, you can "cast" TV shows, movies, music, or games from a variety of apps (Netflix and YouTube, for example, though there are others as well). There's also a Chromecast Audio device that hooks into your stereo system, but that's different animal and a subject for another day (especially since I haven't tried it!).

The Chromecast hardware is very straightforward: it's basically just a small dongle - and Google was thoughtful enough to include an HDMI extender cable for installations that are too crowded. I didn't have to use it in my installation, but it's there if you need it. I actually leave the extender in my carry-on luggage so it's with me when I take the Chromecast on the road, a task for which it's eminently suitable, where I'm likely to find a TV where it's needed. It may not even require a TV: it worked fine when plugged into the front HDMI port of the Rotel RSP-1582 pre/pro I reviewed a couple of weeks ago.

The end that sticks out away from the TV includes a micro-USB port for power, and there's a small status light to let you know it's fired up and ready to go, as well as a little button you can use if you need to reset the Chromecast to its factory default.

The thing is so small that once you insert it into your TV, assuming the HDMI port is on its rear panel, you may forget it's there.

Once you've installed the hardware, you can also try out new apps, such as Crackle, Spotify, Showtime, NFL Sunday Ticket by DirecTV, CW Seed, and plenty more, though not all may be available in Canada. Many of these may require a pound of flesh to access, too.

Setup is quite simple. You merely plug the thing into the vacant HDMI port, power it via the included USB cable - you can juice it via a powered USB port on your TV or use the included adapter to plug it into a wall socket. Once you've done that, and turned on your TV and chosen the HDMI input into which you've plugged the Chromecast, you'll be prompted to partake of the online setup process, which includes downloading the Chromecast app and logging into your home network, at which time you "pair" to it (it's kind of like Bluetooth pairing in how you do it, though it isn't Bluetooth) and from that point you're off to the races - or whatever non-racing programming you want to cast. It's a simple and painless process, usually.

Some Chromecast appsOne of the first things I noticed after I fired up the Chromecast was the beautiful background photos it puts onto your TV screen. I wish it told you where all the lovely locations are that they use - they only tell you some of them - but I could spend hours just watching that glorious slideshow without even exploiting the content the Chromecast, er, casts.

But that's just a bonus. I use the Chromecast most for sending Netflix or YouTube programming to the old 37 inch Samsung 720p TV in my living room and it does a beautiful job. You have to use the apps on your device, telling the app you're using that you want to toss it to the Chromecast, at which point (assuming no issues - and I've had none over the several months I've been using the Chromecast) it starts streaming to the TV. One thing to note is that in this scenario, you use the native app (Netflix, YouTube), which have built in functions that let you choose where to cast the programming. Just look for a little square with "Wi-Fi-like" arcs emanating from it; click on that and choose "Chromecast" or whatever you named your Chromecast during the setup process (mine is called "Jim's Chromecast" and, no, I didn't stay up nights figuring out that name).

You can partake of a number of paid services such as Pandora, but I'm too cheap for that so I use the Plex app to stream content from my local network - music, videos, photos - where I have about three terabytes worth of stuff stored. A nice wrinkle about using the Plex app is that when I take the Chromecast on the road with me, I can access all my home content from there. That's a wonderful feature when I'm in a hotel because their TV offerings are generally pretty generic - and I'm certainly not going to pay to view any of their premium content - but I can stream my own "premium content" from home to wherever I am, as long as there's Wi-Fi. All I need is the Chromecast, the Plex app on my iPad (and its server on my home system), and the hotel TV.

I have had issues setting the Chromecast up in some hotel rooms, but  I think it was because  they offered varying Wi-Fi network choices and that was confusing to either the Chromecast or its user. That said, I tried it on my son's TV in the Seattle area and it worked great, with no setup issues.

You don't get a remote control with the Chromecast, so you need a smart device to control it. This can be a good or a bad thing: I find that using the Chromecast and the compliant apps is easier when I want to search for stuff - for example, when trying to find something on YouTube - because I can type my search parameters into the virtual keyboard on the tablet much more easily than it is to use a remote control to scroll around a virtual keyboard on the TV screen.

On the other hand, if there were a remote included you might not have to fire up your smart device all the time. Six of one, half a dozen of the other…

There are apparently hundreds of apps and services you can cast to the Chromecast, though I haven't tried any of the paid services besides Netflix. Google also says you can access all of the Google Play content via the Chromecast, which includes oodles of movies, TV shows and music. Not for free, of course.

Depending on your needs and wants, Google's Chromecast could be the perfect solution for getting your content to your TV. Before you buy, though, be sure to check out the Roku and other, similar type devices. And check back here for my look at the Roku in an upcoming column.

Copyright 2016 Jim Bray

Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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