04 August 2013

ChromeCast in the UK

ChromeCast dongle
The ChromeCast Dongle
My "other" boss - the one in the USA - managed to get hold of some of the first batch of ChromeCast devices, and was kind enough to post one to me to try out.

Of course, it's not officially available over here yet, which meant I was expecting that there might be some problems, so how did I get on?


Packaging

I had said that there wasn't much point in sending the US power brick, so I wasn't expecting any packaging, but when the parcel arrived, it actually contained the full box and contents:

Chromecast Box
ChromeCast box
Open box with dongle
Open box, with dongle
Open box with dongle (and USB cable) removed
Open box with dongle (and USB cable) removed
The entire contents of the box
The entire contents of the box
Look at all that wasted space!  Without a power brick, the box could have been two thirds of the size.  Still, a box measuring 12 x 12 x 3.5cm can hardly be classed as large.

As a Hitchhikers' fan since the original radio series was first broadcast, I was delighted to find that this is, indeed, the mysterious media streamer with model number H2G2-42 that was submitted for FCC approval in May this year, as reported by AndroidCommunity.com.

Installation

The petite instruction leaflet says you should plug in the supplied USB cable to one end of the dongle (with the other end attached to a power source - a USB port in your TV if you have a suitable one, or some kind of power adapter if not);  plug the HDMI end into your TV, and follow the instructions.

It took a couple of minutes for anything to appear on the screen, during which time the only activity was a flashing light on the dongle.  Once it did, I was instructed to go to google.com/chromecast/setup, where I was prompted to install the Chromecast app - which is where I hit a stumbling block:


So, one email and a side-loaded app later, I ran it.  (Yes, I probably could have used the Chrome browser on my PC to complete the installation, but there was a principle at stake!)

Update:  As of October 2013, the ChromeCast Android installation app is available in the UK (and worldwide, as far as I can tell).

From then on it was simply a matter of following the simple instructions.  The ChromeCast comes with a default name, which is used to start off with.


Check that you've switched your TV to the correct HDMI port by confirming that you can see the code on the ChromeCast picture:

Give your ChromeCast device a meaningful name (for various reasons, I didn't set it up on our Lounge TV):

Tell it the SSID name and password for your WiFi network:

... and you're done.  That's really all there is to it.


To prevent screen burn in when idling, the background changes periodically, the "Ready to Cast" and the cast icon both disappear completely from time to time; in the smaller text, the line fades between different colours quite frequently, and the text moves up and down to different positions almost imperceptibly as you're watching, but covering quite a lot of ground over time.


Casting

So, the 6 million dollar question:  Does it work in the UK?

I'm pleased to say that the answer is an emphatic "YES"!

On an Android device, you need a compatible app to cast to your TV.  Currently, these include YouTube, NetFlix, Google Play Movies & TV, and Google Play Music.  

The basic premise is that you start by connecting to the ChromeCast by tapping the ChromeCast "screen" button in a sending app. 


Once you have done so (and chosen your ChromeCast device) the screencast button turns blue, and your options depend on the sending application, but all will allow you to play and pause, and, of course, disconnect from the ChromeCast by tapping on the button again.  You can also control the volume using the sending device's volume controls (up to the level currently set by your TV's own volume control).  Once you're connected, anything you play in that app will be Cast to the TV.

Google Play Movies and TV



We have fibre broadband here, and watched the free episode of BattleStar Galactica right through without a hitch.  Play/Pause (when we needed it for comfort breaks) was very responsive.  It was easy to forget that we weren't watching recorded TV or a DVD. The sending app acts as the remote control, of course. 

YouTube

YouTube was the first sender we tried, and gives you options to either play directly to ChromeCast, or add content to the queue (even though YouTube doesn't have a queue as such if you're not Casting). 


Here you see the YouTube queue, which includes a history, the currently playing episode with a progress bar, and the episodes in the queue.  You could tap on the Play button to play any one of them.  You can't move things around in the queue, but you can remove them.

Google Play Music

Play Music starts each track by displaying large artwork and track details, and then reduces the size of the artwork and gently bounces it around the screen as a screensaver.  Unlike the video apps I've tried, when switching between local playback and Casting, music tracks always start at the beginning.

The Video apps resume quite accurately where they left off - but so far, Google's in control of the server end for all the supported apps I tried, so I would expect resumption of streaming to be pretty accurate. Once there are more sender apps, allowing access to other servers, the accuracy of the resumption will depend on how the host's servers are set up.

Netflix

I don't have a NetFlix account, so couldn't try that out.

iOS devices

Again, none of those here, so can't comment.

Chrome Browser

To Cast from a PC, you need the GoogleCast Chrome extension (not ChromeCast, which is something else entirely).  With that installed, you can Cast any Chrome tab, which could be showing a photo slide show, video, or anything else you can see on the internet - as long as it's using a codec that ChromeCast supports.  Exactly what you see on the TV screen depends on the content - some pages are ChromeCast-aware, so you just see the content (photos, etc.) without the page background.  Unless I've missed something, you can't install extensions for Chrome on Android, so this is a desktop-only option for now.


Regardless of the sending app, once you've Cast something, you don't need to keep the source on your screen, or even running.  ChromeCast just gets on with it without needing the sender.  The only thing you need the sender for is remote control functions - and in the case of Android senders, these are available from the notification drop down.  I've started a YouTube video playing and rebooted the phone without the ChromeCast apparently even noticing - and my phone was the only connected device at the time.  To regain control, I just had to run YouTube and connect again.

Multiple Users

The slick bit about ChromeCast is that once it's set up, anybody connected to the network can use it.  All they need to do is connect to it using a supported sending app.

However, how well this works depends entirely on the sending app.

YouTube has the best implementation of those I've tried.  As soon as any user connects to the ChromeCast from the YouTube app, a new item called TV Queue appears in the YouTube menu drawer. 

From there, you can see what's playing, what's in the history and what's in the queue - regardless of who put it there.  Any user can add items to the queue.
Google Music has the most rudimentary support.  A second user can't see what's playing, and in fact, if they start Casting something, the original user actually gets disconnected.  That seems a bit antisocial.

Google Movies & TV is somewhere in the middle:  A second user can connect, but the only place you can see what's currently playing is in the notification bar.


Conclusion

The ChromeCast itself is nicely implemented.  Incidentally, it updated its software yesterday - it politely displayed a message on the TV screen while it was idle, to say that it was about to update, and then got on with it.  To tell what version it's running, you need the ChromeCast app.  (For the record, it updated to Build 12840.) 

 
Once past the installation of the Android ChromeCast app (which is really only needed for the initial setup), the fact that I'm in the UK had no impact whatsoever. 

Ultimately, ChromeCast will live or die by the quality of the apps that support it.  As I've already said, YouTube currently has the best implementation of the current sender apps that I've tried, and should perhaps be used as a benchmark by other developers.   Of course, from the UK point of view, the most obvious sender apps that I'd like to see support ChromeCast are the on-demand TV apps - BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, etc.  Offer that, and you can turn any TV with an HDMI port into a SmartTV for a very small cost - as long as you also have a Smartphone or tablet to control it, of course.

Is it worth having?  Definitely.  I already want one plugged into every TV in the house!  And at that price, why not?  I'm really looking forward to these being available over here.  As it is, I find myself unplugging mine and moving it to other TVs (and looking for nearby power, or using a portable charger), depending on where I am and what I'm doing.

The real power, however, may turn out to be the possibility to create receiver apps in the Chrome browser, which would allow any PC running the browser to act as a receiver.

Possible enhancements

Unified TV queue

I'd quite like to see a unified queue for all sending apps to use, rather than each app stepping on the toes of what's being Cast by any other app.  A unified queue would also make it possible to use a small generic app to simply connect to a ChromeCast and get access to Play/Pause buttons without having to know which app is currently Casting to it.  Or at least identify which app is currently Casting.  Given that it supports multiple users, it would be good to have a little more co-operation between apps and their users. 

Optional restrictions for sending devices

For some households or situations, it would be useful to have ways to lock control of the ChromeCast to certain devices (to prevent mischievous intervention by some members of the household) - either by configuration, or using a more on-the-fly approach - blacklisting or whitelisting certain devices.  Of course, this needs to include a fall-back to other devices if the allowed devices are no longer connected (e.g. the allowed devices' owners have left the building), so that you don't get into a situation where nobody can hit the Pause button.

Multi-Chromecast synchronisation

Finally, for distribution around the house (something we rely on quite a lot for our normal TV/PVR viewing), it would be good to be able to connect to multiple ChromeCast devices simultaneously, and send the same output to each of them.  The application for a "party mode" is obvious.

I'm not a developer (and my computing degree rather pre-dates ubiquitous networking), but I suspect that this would be rather more complicated, as I imagine it would require the connected ChromeCasts to share the same data stream (which would also mean that you wouldn't need to use 3 times as much data to play the same thing simultaneously in 3 different rooms) to keep the playback in sync for all devices involved - and that's probably asking rather too much of this particular device.  Still, I can dream.

Maybe the solution our house needs for this kind of distribution is a small PC running Chrome, with receiver apps, connected to our AV distribution system ...  but that's definitely starting to drift off topic!


Hardware and software versions used:
ChromeCast model H2G2-42; Build 12840
(Android) Google Play Music v5.1.1107K.753159
(Android) Google Play Movies & TV 2.6.9 [GB] [GB]
(Android) YouTube 4.5.17
2 x Samsung Galaxy S3 smartphones running the sender apps  


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