(Pocket-lint) - It's been nearly 20 months since Google Chromecast debuted, but after all this time, there's some growing doubts about whether the inexpensive HDMI dongle has lived up to all the initial hype.
If you're keen to stream media content, you have many options to choose from, including Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, Amazon Fire Stick, Roku Streaming Stick, and others. Thus, with streaming media devices aplenty, it's no wonder you've questioned the need for Chromecast.
It may be only $35, but is it still worth the money?
How does Chromecast work, and what can it do?
A bunch of things, but at its core, the thumb-sized media streaming device plugs into the HDMI port on your TV and allows you to cast content from your Android phone, Android tablet, iPhone, iPad, Mac, Windows laptop, or Chromebook. The process of casting will automatically turn on your television and start streaming said content to the big screen.
To get started with Chromecast, you need a display or a TV with an HDMI input. Your Chromecast will plug into the HDMI input, but it also needs access to a power outlet or an USB port on your HDMI-enabled display. Once it's plugged in and ready to go, connect it to your wireless network. It needs a 2.4 GHz 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi network connection.
You'll then have to install the Chromecast app by navigating to the Chromecast setup page on your mobile device. The Chromecast app will guide you through any final setup tips (laptop users will also need the Chrome web browser).
Chromecast works with several apps, including Netflix, HBO GO, YouTube, WatchESPN, and Pandora. You can check out the Chromecast apps page to see a complete list of apps. The idea is that you can open any one of these apps, such as YouTube, then load whatever is you want to watch or hear, and tap the in-app Cast icon to start streaming to your TV.
Chromecast also lets you mirror, which means you can send what you see on your laptop or Android device to the TV. If you're on a laptop, you must use the Chrome web browser to mirror. To mirror a website, for instance, load the page in Chrome, then tap the Cast icon in your toolbar, and the page will appear exactly as you see it on your TV. Simples.
Streaming local content
Everyone has a computer or a hard disk filled with movies, TV shows, and music. Chromecast lets you enjoy that on the big screen. All you need to do is download Plex. It's an app with full support for Chromecast, and it is one of the best ways to enjoy films and TV shows stored on a computer or NAS on the big screen.
Another solution is BubbleUpnP. If you have movies on your Android phone or tablet, then the app can stream them in high-definition quality. It only supports formats that can play on the Chromecast and is dependent upon the speed of your home Wi-Fi network. It can even access files stored on your local network.
You can also use Chrome browser to stream local stuff. You do not need any apps (except the Google Cast extension for Chrome), but streaming quality is limited to 720p with high bitrate and not all files are supported. Just type the local file's name into the address bar, then once it starts playing in Chrome, you can cast it using the Google Cast extension.
With Chromecast, your mobile device becomes a remote control. Most Chromecast-supported apps will let you search, browse, play, pause, rewind, control the volume, and make playlists. Your friends and family can connect their mobile devices to your Wi-Fi and start casting to your TV or controlling what's playing as well.
Chromecast can turn your TV screen into a backdrop filled with personal artwork and photos whenever it's not actually casting contact. To start using this feature, go to the Chromecast backdrop page.
Tips and tricks
Check out Pocket-lint's tips and tricks round-up for more information about unlocking Chromecast's true potential.
Do you need a Chromecast?
It all depends on you. Chromecast is, admittedly, a weird device, and on its own, it doesn’t actually do anything. It's not a home media box like Apple TV. It doesn't come with a remote. You can't plug your external USB drive into it.
Chromecast is basically just a wireless display adapter/bridge, or rather something that lets you connect and display what’s being shown on the screen of your smartphone, tablet, or PC on your TV. It's the physical form of Apple’s AirPlay feature, but it is compatible with a wider variety of devices and not just iOS.
So, all that aside, is Chromecast something you need to fully enjoy a range of entertainment and content at home? There's something about the $35 price tag that that makes it easy to say "yes" - even if you only end up using it a few times. Google has also promised to continually update the device, so you know it won't be shelved next week.
It's also super compact, so it's not going to take up a lot of space in your entertainment center, but it does need to use up ports on your TV. Sticking with pros, though: Chromecast also has all the major apps covered. Apart from the ones mentioned earlier, it has VLC, Showtime Anytime, Starz Play, Hulu Plus, Vevo, MLB TV, Crackle, Vudu, and more.
It's basically super easy for developers to add "Cast" support to existing Android or iOS apps, meaning Chromecast's library of supported apps is just going to keep rapidly expanding.
There's no onscreen user interface or a standard remote. You control it with your smartphone or tablet, which means you need to unlock and have your device on-hand every time you want to pause or rewind content. It's also not the most user-friendly device, as many people still have trouble setting up and streaming local content.
Rival devices, such as Apple TV and Roku Streaming Stick, have full-fledged interfaces and sometimes come with remotes, making it super easy for both kids and elderly to start watching what they want without any hassle. Speaking of watching stuff, some argue that the app selection could still be improved (like more and better live TV apps).
Another major downside is that there is no cross-platform search. On the Roku or Amazon's Fire TV, for instance, you can search for a specific movie or clip or song across all the supported apps. Some third-party apps offer a similar functionality, but it's not even close to speedy, helpful integrated search.
And finally, as we hinted at earlier, screen mirroring and casting in general can be spotty. TabCasting is still a beta feature on the Chromecast and isn't available in 1080p, and it doesn't work as well as similar screen-mirroring features available on the Apple TV and latest Macs.
Consumers have also complained that the Chromecast's 2.4 GHz 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi network connection is not enough to stream high-definition films from Netflix without suffering from hiccups and caching.
The bottom line: Is Chromecast what we wanted it to be?
Chromecast is dirt cheap, and that's perfect for those of you who want something other than a $100-and-up streaming media box. It also fits neatly behind your TV and is easy to tote around while traveling. If Google wanted to improve its HDMI dongle, it could make screen mirroring and Wi-Fi more stable as well as add an interface and dedicated remote.
Google's $35 Chromecast is a fun way to send video and music to your TV, but it still isn't as fully featured as some of the alternative choices available. In a dream world, it would be a better mix of both. But, hey, maybe Google will fulfill all our hopes and desires with a major update by Chromecast's second birthday. Or maybe it won't. Sigh.