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What is Chromecast?

The Chromecast is the Nexus Q after Google listened to feedback. The Q was a $300 device that plugged into your TV and was designed to be a social media player - with a tap of an NFC device you could use your phone to send content to it and have it play video or audio. But it was $300 and didn't do much more than a $50 set of Bluetooth speakers for audio and video support was limited to Play Movies and NetFlix. It turns out Google listened to complaints about the cost and decided $35 was a good price to pay.

Chromecast also does not have (nor need) NFC, it communicates to your phone via WiFi but this is only a control channel. The Chromecast streams from the content source directly, once your phone instructs it to start playing it's out of the picture and can be powered off. Starting up any device and connecting it to the Chromecast will give you basic remote functionality depending on the app (play/pause, volume control, sometimes things like repeat the last 10 seconds, etc.).

PC Support

You can also stream from a Chrome Extension. This works like streaming from your tablet/phone, but you can also cast a tab or your desktop. You can't do this from a mobile device because there is a lot of horsepower you need to drive this so don't expect to watch HD movies on your $200 Chromebook.

Why aren't all apps Cast-enabled?

When Google announced Google TV it created a lot of buzz. Suddenly you could access the whole world's content on your TV! And content providers panicked because web content was now available on their bread-and-butter device so they immediately disabled access to Google TV devices. Chromecast went the opposite route, they put the content providers in charge of deciding whether to support Chromecast. Chromecast was also released in typical Google fashion - released to developers and early adopters. Not that the API is available we're seeing more and more apps, but it's still up to the content owners, not Google, who can enable the app for Chromecast.

Sharing Content

This is currently an Achilles heel for the system. NetFlix is designed to be a shared account, and Pandora can be used this way as well. But Play content is another story, to let my daughter watch a movie on my account she needs access to a device that has the ability to read my email. Once the movie is started someone else can control it, but I must start it. There are a few solutions for this:

  1. A shared tablet that only syncs Play content. You can still access email and Google+ content from anyone on the tablet, but at least it's hidden a bit.
  2. A dedicated account. If I could do it over again I would create a dedicated media account and put all of my Play content on it rather than my primary Google account.
  3. Wait. I'm sure being able to link accounts and share content under a "family" construct is coming. I don't know if it's a 2014 deliverable or something for long after I'm dead, but it's a necessity.

Miracast

Most "Chromecast competitors" are actually Miracast devices. Miracast is a mirror of the phone screen and it's great in that whatever's on the phone is sent to the display. The problem is that whatever's on the phone is sent to the display. With the Chromecast you've got two benefits:

  1. Battery life is greatly improved, the phone/tablet isn't downloading and playing the video the Chromecast is.
  2. You can do other things while watching. While my daughter's watching movies I browse Google+, check email, or look up who that actor is on IMDB.

Calling Miracast a Chromecast competitor shows a remarkable lack of insight into what Chromecast is and does. Miracast predates Chromecast by a significant margin, if anything Chromecast is a Miracast alternative. Miracast itself is an alternative to box-based solutions like the Roku. Chromecast sits smack in the middle, it eliminates the smart box next to the TV and replaces it with a two-part solution - a smart device close to the user and a dumb streaming device plugged into the TV. This pairing gives you a familiar UI but offloads the processing to the Chromecast so you don't drain your battery during the course of a movies and you can use your media selection device for other purposes.

The layman may think both are devices used for streaming content from your phone, but this is a very limited (and incorrect) definition tantamount to saying the XBox and PS are competitors to Parker Brothers because both are about games.

Miracast is certainly useful for apps that don't support Chromecast, but it's a very different model - perhaps one that will be available in Chromecast or Chromecast-like devices soon but it loses all of the magic that made the Chromecast popular.

Google TV/Android TV

Android TV is an app-oriented model. Think of Android vs. ChromeOS, Android is about having a complete OS with apps and individual customizations while ChromeOS is about keeping everything on the cloud and making the device a blank slate as soon as you log out of it. The Chromecast has no user-specific data or settings, your phone is the UI and the remote. Android TV needs to be tied to your account. This works well for sharing your content with the family, but it means any email or social media access is visible to everyone. If you want apps and games on your TV, Android TV is what you're looking for. If you want to stream media to your TV the Chromecast may be a better choice.

HDMI-CEC

HDMI-CEC is what lets the Chromecast turn on the TV and switch inputs. Starting with build 27946 the Chromecast now also supports play/pause commands via the remote. This is great for multi-device households since it's a lot easier to grab the remote than it is to figure out which (and whose) device started the cast. Most applications just work, as of 2015-03-16 the following do not:

  • NetFlix (surprise!)
  • Pandora

Applications

There's no longer really a great need for this section. There's a complete list of apps, and most of them work just fine these days. For local content consider Plex, you can move your local content to a server, stream from that server at various qualities, and even send it to your mobile device for offline viewing in a format that makes sense. The primary apps I use on the Chromecase are:

  • Plex - far and away the most common app for me.
  • Play Movies - I have some content here that isn't on Plex.
  • Netflix - they never do things in a standard way so it tends to be the most quirky when detecting the Chromecast, but it largely works.
  • Pandora - my TV speakers work well to fill the room, I can even set my TV to an audio only mode. It's easier than Bluetooth speakers in that I don't need to worry about starting up another app and having the sound interrupt the music.
  • Play Music - for when I want to control the content I listen to.

Hacking

Chromecast seems to be fairly easy to play with and much of the UI is based on simple web commands. There are some sources on the Internet that can help with this, I'm just now starting to get data on this.