Personal Tech

Google Chromecast 2015: Puck-on-a-string fun ... why not, for £30?

Streamer, you know you are a streamer

By Tony Smith


Review OK, so we all know what Google’s Chromecast is, yes? Someone at the back – why are they always at the back – seems unsure. In a sentence, then, Chromecast is a small Wi-Fi-connected slug that you slip into a spare HDMI port on your TV, and which plays video and audio under the direction of a remote control app.

Google's Chromecast 2015-style

Google introduced Chromecast a couple of years ago, but it took a further nine months to get here. There’s no such latency with the latest version: unveiled less than a week ago, it’s already on sale in the UK.

The update centres on improved Wi-Fi and a new physical design, but that’s about it. Changes have been made to the software, but they’re being rolled out to the first-generation Chromecast too.

Rather than simply smooth out the original Chromecast’s angular curves, which were formed from a series of straight lines so that Chromecast looked like it had been styled in a Quake level-design package, Google has completely changed it.

If your telly lacks a USB port or it isn't up to snuff, Google includes an external PSU to power the Chromecast

No longer a stick, Chromecast is now a puck on a string, the cord being an integrated HDMI cable. The upshot is that it dangles off the back of your telly, which the old one only did if you needed to make use of the bundled HDMI extension cable. No extension cable here, so if Chromecast still doesn’t fit, tough luck.

As before, the new Chromecast needs an external power source, either a bundled 5V/1A wall wart or a correct-spec USB port on the TV itself. The latter is handy if, like me, you’ve run out of power sockets. I’ve heard it said that the original ran into trouble playing 1080p video if it wasn’t plugged in to an AC adaptor, but I had no bother.

I suspect that’s a case of earlier commentators owning tellies with sub-spec USB ports, but it’s possible Google has improved the Chromecast’s innards too. That said, if you're not using a decent USB cable, then that can be a problem too as we discovered with the Amazon Fire TV Stick.

A micro USB port powers the puck

How well a TV’s USB port will work will also depend on whether the TV keeps it powered while in standby. Mine does, so thanks to Chromecast’s support for HDMI-CEC, I can just fire up BBC iPlayer, tap the Chromecast icon and my TV will turn on and switch input automatically. If everything is turned off physically, Chromecast takes about 20 seconds to boot up before an app can detect it.

Kit and caboodle

Many apps now support Chromecast, among them Netflix, Now TV, Sport, Google Play (natch), YouTube (ditto) and a host more from no-name developers – on the iOS side, many of them from the kinds of Chinese coders caught by last month’s Xcode hack, so some pre-download caution is due.

Chromecast configuration overview

Google makes its iOS and Android Chromecast SDK readily available so there’s really no excuse for a content provider not allowing their app to ‘cast’.

Apple and Amazon naturally irritate by insisting you play with their toys and no one else’s, but that’s DRM and customer-loathing business practices for you. Prime Minister Corbyn will sort them out...

While mobile apps source material for Chromecast, and control playback, they don’t actually play the material. In fact, all a mobile app does is tell Chromecast where the content is being served from and what app of its own should be run to display that content.

Chromecast has a default ‘receiver’ app, but content providers and app developers can build their own if they want to display their own branding and/or UI. Receivers are lightweight apps hosted by Google and built out of HTML5 and JavaScript.

Make your choices from a mobile device and then hand it over to the big screen

When the ‘sender’ app – the one running on the phone or tablet – connects to a Chromecast to play a file, it sends the file’s location and the ID of the receiver app that needs to be run first. The rest is just HTTP streaming from source to Chromecast.

The upshot is that unless you’re using an app which allows you to play a video format not natively supported by Chromecast, your mobile device shouldn’t be taxed by Chromecast usage. Which is good news if your phone has poor battery life.

Playing unsupported formats requires on-the-fly video conversion, and your mobile will have to do that. Chromecast supports many popular containers and codecs, including MP4, AAC, MP3, WAV, FLAC and Vorbis, but MKV and AVI files are out, I’m afraid. You can read the full list here.

Content provider: the HDMI and USB cables combine to act as an extender now

Apps such as BBC iPlayer send Chromecast off to their own sites for content, but a number of third-party apps will do local streaming, either from the mobile itself (bear in mind the proviso above) or a shared drive on the network.

All my stuff is in MP4 format anyway, so I had no trouble streaming locally, whether playing standard-definition or high-definition footage, either 720p or 1080p HD. The material looked good and certainly on a par with my Slice media player.

No 4k-ing way

In addition to mobile apps, you can stream from a computer provided you run Google’s Chrome browser, for which there’s a casting plug-in. This makes for a decent means to mirror, say, a Google Docs presentation from your laptop screen to a big TV or projector, but you’re limited to browser-viewed content.

Google doesn't want share its toys so casting from a web browser only works with Chrome

If you’re not a supporter of Occupy Flash and you still have Adobe Flash on your system, you can use Chrome to display catch-up content from services that don’t offer a mobile app, or insist that you sign up to use one.

The Chrome specificity annoys me. If Google is happy to make casting a feature of iOS, why can’t it support Firefox, Safari et al on desktops?

The new Chromecast features 802.11ac Wi-Fi, but I’m still on 802.11n and that worked well enough. The Chromecast’s Wi-Fi upgrade gives it access to the 5GHz band, which is handy if you’re surrounded by 2.4GHz WLANs and your neighbours enjoy microwave cookery.

However, if you were hoping for 4K streaming then don't expect to find that poking out of the side of a telly from Google or its competitors. Amazon has recently revamped its Fire TV box to support 4K streaming and the forthcoming Roku 4 will do the same.

Still, the boosted Wi-Fi gives the Chrome plug-in more bandwidth for its ‘Extreme (720p high bitrate)’ mode, which is handy for streaming browser-accessed media, but doesn’t improve the lag you experience with web pages. There’s still about a second’s delay between scrolling on your laptop and the TV picture being updated.

Colour TV

The Reg Verdict

My 2011 Sony TV works a treat, but its version of BBC iPlayer is no longer up to snuff and fares very poorly in comparison with the mobile app versions: it doesn’t display new content as quickly, buffers far more often than the apps do, and the picture quality isn’t as good.

Thanks to the Chromecast, I don’t give a proverbial whether the TV iPlayer ever gets fixed.

In fact, using HDMI-CEC, I can begin playing a programme much more quickly using Chromecast than I can using the Sony remote and the on-board iPlayer. Win.

Your mileage may vary, however. If you have a first-gen Chromecast, there is no point replacing it unless you think the upgraded Wi-Fi will help, and that depends on the relative positions of your Wi-Fi router and your telly.

If you have a set-top box for NAS-sourced or on-board hard drive content, that‘s a better option for playing such material because it won’t rely on an ad-filled third-party app for remote control. Chromecast naturally favours Android users – the set-up app has content-finding functionality absent from the iOS versions – but the device is easy to set up whichever mobile platform you favour.

The real point is that, at £30, Chromecast is a true impulse purchase, so why not avail yourself of one? Seek out discounts on the old one and get it cheaper, if you can. Even if, like me, you only ever use it for one role, like iPlayer, it'll be worth it. ®

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