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Watching Streaming Video with Google Chromecast

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Chromecast is Google’s $35 dongle-like device that lets you stream Netflix and other video and music services directly to your flatscreen TV. How does Chromecast work, and with which services? In this article, author Michael Miller tells you all about Chromecast – and why you might want to buy one for your own use.
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You like to watch Netflix and other streaming video services on your computer. But how to do watch these Internet-based videos on the bigscreen TV in your living room?

Up till now, the answer was to purchase a bulky and expensive streaming media box, such as those offered by Roku and Apple. Now, however, Google has introduced a smaller, less intrusive alternative – a low-priced USB memory stick-sized device dubbed Chromecast.

What is Chromecast and how does it work? Read on to find out.

Introducing Google Chromecast

Google Chromecast is a device you use to stream videos and music to any TV equipped with an HDMI input. Chromecast plugs directly into your TV's HDMI port, no connecting cable required. That's because the Chromecast device looks like  a USB memory stick – it's less than 3 inches long, less than an inch and a half wide, and about a half inch thick. Just plug the Chromecast into your TV's HDMI input and you're good to go. You control what you're watching from a Chromecast app on your smartphone, tablet, or notebook PC.

Figure 1 The Google Chromecast streaming media player thingie

What exactly can Chromecast stream? The list is small but growing, and today includes the most popular streaming video services, including Netflix, Hulu Plus, HBO GO, and YouTube. It also streams music from Pandora, Google Play Music, and other services. Chromecast also lets you simulcast anything you have on your computer screen to your TV screen, which is a nice workaround for other streaming services.

And here's the really nice thing about Chromecast – it's cheap. Just $35, to be precise. All the other streaming media devices (including the recently introduced Amazon Fire TV box) cost at least twice that much.

The size, convenience, and (especially) price of the Chromecast device is certainly appealing. Which would you rather have, a small dongle sticking into to back of your flatscreen TV (likely not visible from the front) or an ugly black box sitting somewhere nearby, with cables running back and forth? Assuming the setup is as easy as plugging it in (which it is, kind of), what's not to like?

How Chromecast Works

So how does this Chromecast thing work, anyway? It's fairly simple, at least on the surface.

First, the connection. All you have to do is plug the Chromecast dongle into a free HDMI input on your TV. Most TVs today have several HDMI inputs, so you should have a free one.

If you run your home theater system through an audio/video receiver, you can plug Chromecast into one of the receiver's HDMI ports, instead. This way you can get 5.1-channel surround sound on those services offering it when watching via the Chromecast device.

Sounds easy enough, but there's a slight complication. Chromecast is not battery powered, so it needs to get power from somewhere. The most common method is to connect a USB cable from the Chromecast dongle to a free USB port on your TV or receiver. (On the Chromecast dongle, there's a micro USB port on the opposite end from the HDMI connector.)

Figure 2 Chromecast connected to a typical HDMI-equipped TV

If your TV doesn't have a USB port (not all do), you can run the supplied USB power adapter cable from the Chromecast dongle to a nearby wall outlet. This solution is maybe a little less elegant, especially if your TV is hanging on the wall. If your TV is on a table stand, however, what's one more power cable?

Chromecast connects wirelessly to your home network via 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi. (There's no Ethernet connector, so it's wireless or nothing.) The setup is quick and easy, using your handy smartphone or computer. Content is streamed from the Interent via Wi-Fi to the Chromecast device, and thus to your TV.

Figure 3 A Chromecast-connected TV, ready for receive your casts

You control Chromecast with your smartphone, tablet, or any computer with Google's Chrome web browser installed. There's general Chromecast app that you use for initial setup, but after that you use the apps you already have installed for your favorite services. For example, to stream Netflix, all you have to do is launch the Netflix app, choose a program, tap the Cast icon, and then choose to play on Chromecast Netflix. A few seconds later, whatever you chose is playing (through Chromecast) on your TV.

Figure 4 A Chromecast-connected TV, ready for receive your casts

As simple as that sounds, the content you view isn't actually streamed from your computer or device. Instead, your device launches the process, but Chromecast uses its own Internet connection (and built-in apps) to stream content directly from Netflix and other services.

The Chromecast app works on both iOS and Android devices. Chromecast can also be controlled by Windows (version 7 or newer), Mac (OS 10.7 or above), or Chromebook (Chrome OS) computers. Chromecast itself supports HD video up to 1080p, if the source service provides it.

What's Available on Chromecast

Chromecast supports most of the major streaming video services, including:

  • Netflix
  • Hulu Plus
  • HBO GO
  • YouTube
  • Vevo
  • Google Play Movies and TV
  • Crackle
  • Red Bull TV
  • PostTV
  • Viki

Obviously, appropriate subscriptions are required. At present, Chromecast does not support Amazon Instant Video.

Chromecast also supports streaming audio from Pandora, Rdio, Songza, and Google Play Music. You can also stream locally stored media using the Plex app, or music from the cloud via the RealPlayer Cloud app.

In addition, Chromecast can "cast" content from your computer's Chrome web browser to your TV. Essentially, any content on a given tab is displayed, as-is, on your TV. Theoretically, this enables you to stream any audio and video content that's available online but not yet officially available through Chromecast.

For example, you can use this browser-based streaming to view and listen to music, videos, and photos stored on your PC, as well as videos from Vimeo and similar sites. (Again, Amazon Instant Video will not "cast" from a browser tab.)

Is Google Chromecast for You?

Chromecast is certainly priced right. It's also small and easy to connect, and relatively easy to use. Those are the plusses.

The minuses might come in what services are offered. Granted, most of us do our streaming through Netflix, Hulu, and Pandora, and Chromecast has all of these covered. But if you like to watch Amazon Instant Video, you're out of luck, as that fairly popular service isn't (as of yet) supported by Chromecast.

For that matter, Chromecast doesn't offer near the same number of streaming services as you get from Roku and similar media streaming boxes, especially on the music front. If streaming audio is important to you, you might want to stick with those devices.

Chromecast also isn't the greatest in streaming media stored on your own home network. The Plex app does the trick, if you have the Plex Media Server app installed on your main PC, so there's that. Theoretically, you can also call up your media in a Chrome browser tab and cast it from there. But streaming local media isn't really what Chromecast was designed for; let's leave it at that.

Bottom line, for $35 for the easy-to-use Chromecast device, it's hard to go wrong. Even if you run into some of its streaming service limitations, so what? You're out $35. And you can still watch Netflix and listen to Pandora, all controlled from the comfort of your smartphone or tablet.

Now, if your streaming needs are more sophisticated, or if you need more outputs than just HDMI, then by all means go for a more expensive Roku, Apple TV, or similar media streaming box. For most users, though, installing a cheap Chromecast dongle on every TV in the house wouldn't be a bad bet.

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