This post has been updated to include information about the new version of the Google Chromecast announced in October 2016.
What is the Chromecast?
The Google Chromecast is a streaming media player, which means it takes content from the Internet and displays it on your TV.
As of October 2016, the Chromecast comes in two flavours: Chromecast and Chromecast Ultra. The Ultra version supports 4K Ultra HD and HDR video and you can also use it with an Ethernet connection in addition to Wi-Fi. The regular Chromecast has a list price of $35 and the Chromecast Ultra is $69. Also, at least for an introductory period, when you buy the Ultra you get six months of YouTube’s paid Red service for free.
The Chromecast works differently than the Roku, Apple TV, and Amazon Fire TV, the other major streaming devices. Those players all have on-screen interfaces that display the channels/apps that can be played through them and they all come with remotes to navigate through the interface. With the Chromecast, you find the content you want to watch/listen to/play on your Android or iOS mobile device or in your Chrome browser and then “cast” it to your TV through the player. (You’re not actually sending the full signal to the Chromecast from your device; you’re just sending the URL and it picks it up directly from the Internet.)
What can you do with a Chromecast?
Watch Streaming Videos
Not surprisingly, the Chromecast can stream videos you buy from the Google Play store. But there are many other top content providers that work with it as well, including Netflix, Hulu, HBO GO/HBO NOW, Sling TV, ESPN, Disney, PBS, History, YouTube, NBA, and many more. The one major content provider that you can’t use with it is Amazon Video.
Note: Buying a Chromecast does not give you access to the content you can watch on it, just like buying a TV does not give you access to cable TV shows. You need to have accounts with each service that provides the content (some free, some paid) and/or subscribe to a cable/satellite package that gives you permission to access specific networks.
Listen to Streaming Audio
The Chromecast supports lets you play music from several popular services as well, including their own Google Music, Pandora, Spotify, and iHeart Radio.
Mirror Your PC and Android Device Screens on Your TV
Using the Chrome browser on your Windows desktop or the Google Cast app on your mobile device, you can mirror its entire screen to your TV. So, for example, it would let you watch a video that’s only available online or read your email or display a presentation on your screen.
NOTE:The difference between casting and mirroring is that with casting you can do other things on your computer without interrupting whatever content is being sent to your TV. So if I’m watching Jessica Jones in a Chrome browser tab and I cast it to the Chromecast, I can switch to my email and the video will continue playing. With mirroring, you’re basically just replicating whatever is displayed on your computer screen on your TV. So if you move from one program to another, the same thing will happen on your TV. In the Jessica Jones example, when I switch to my email client, that’s what will now show up on my TV.
So is there anything NOT to love about the Chromecast?
Well, since nobody’s perfect (not even Google—shocker, I know!), there are a few things.
- Since there’s no on-screen interface, you have to know whether a particular app works through the device. However, the new Google Cast app does have a search feature to make it easier to find those apps.
- While casting from a Chrome browser is a great feature in theory, it wasn’t particularly well implemented in the original device. The audio was often out of sync with the video, especially if you started using a different application than Chrome. I really had high hopes that they would address this in Chromecast 2 but based on my initial usage, it’s even worse. The audio/video lag is even more obvious.
- I’m not a gamer myself, so I may be wrong, but it looks to me like the list of games that Chromecast supports isn’t as good as some of the other streaming media devices, which offer popular games like Crossy Road and Angry Birds. Plus, there’s no game console or motion control remote, so you definitely are limited to playing the more casual types of games.
My Two Cents
To be honest I rarely use my Chromecast, partly because of the issues I mentioned above. However, the bigger reason is because of the way it’s designed to be used. I’m just not someone who has a mobile device in my hand at all times; I much prefer using a remote when watching something on TV. So, for me, the Amazon Fire TV stick for $40 is a much better option than the Chromecast for $35.
But that probably makes me a bit of an outlier or, at the very least, a bit of an old fogey. 🙂 For people who do use their phones or tablets for everything and are constantly using one app or another, the Chromecast is a very convenient option at a very good price. A while back I recorded an episode of The Luddite Lounge podcast with Ryan Downey from The Streaming Advisor. He gave an example that a Chromecast makes a great dorm room player, i.e. you’re sitting there studying and are in the mood to listen to some music so you open up your Pandora app and send it to your Chromecast. In other words, it would make a GREAT gift for your college-aged kids or grandkids. 🙂
And if they ever get the Chrome browser extension working better, then I would probably use it more because I’m on my laptop most of the day so it adds a level of convenience for playing videos or listening to music through my TV speakers without needing to deal with another piece of hardware.
The process for setting up and using the Chromecast is different than with the other players because it doesn’t have its own on-screen interface.
- Connect the Chromecast to your TV and plug it in. Switch the input on your TV for the port you’re using.
- Connect the Chromecast to the Internet. You can either do this through the Google Cast app on your Android or iOS phone or tablet or by downloading a special utility to your computer.
- Open apps for a content provider on your mobile device. Supported apps will have a casting icon that you click to send the info to the Chromecast.
In addition to reading the detailed steps below, check out this unboxing/setup video I made for the new Chromecast:
Connect the Chromecast to your television and plug it in
Insert the Chromecast into one of the HDMI ports on your TV.
Note the number of the port (e.g. HDMI 1, HDMI 2…) and use your television remote (NOT your Roku remote) to switch to that input. You’ll know you’re on the right channel when you see the Chromecast setup message on the screen.
Note: If you don’t have your television’s remote, your cable/satellite/universal remote probably has an Input button but if it doesn’t your TV should have a button on it to switch inputs. When you want to go back to watching regular TV, use the Input button to switch back to the port where your TV signal goes into the TV.
Then connect the power cord’s mini-USB end to the Chromecast. You can either plug the other end into a USB port on your TV if you have one or you can plug it into the included adapter for a wall outlet. Note that there is no on or off switch for the Chromecast; it’s always on (but uses very little energy when it’s not actually in use).
Connect the Chromecast to the Internet
When you switch to the correct TV input, you’ll see a message directing you to go to chromecast.com/setup in a web browser, which basically just tells you where to download the Google Cast app for your phone or tablet.
Once it’s installed, it will automatically recognize your Chromecast device and walk you through the process of getting it setup with your Wi-Fi network. The instructions are very clear so I’m not going to repeat them here. I set mine up using the Google Cast app on my Android phone. Here are a few screenshots to give you an idea of what to expect as you go through the process. Some are from my phone and some are from the TV.
Note: If you don’t have access to a mobile device, you can go to the URL in your computer browser and it will give you a link to download a utility to walk you through the setup process.
Now you can…
Cast to the Chromecast from the content providers you want to watch/use
Open an app you want to cast to your TV. You can use the Chromecast app to find which other apps are on your device that work with the player.
NOTE: You can also use the Google Cast app to find other supported apps to install, as well as to manage your device settings.
The screenshots below are from the Netflix app on my Android phone.
Somewhere on the screen there will be a casting icon, usually at the top or bottom right.
Click that and it will open a menu listing all the devices it can find that it can cast to. In this case, I want to cast to my Chromecast2.
NOTE: As mentioned before, casting is not the same as mirroring. So you won’t see anything show up on your TV until you hit the play button for the video you want to watch (song you want to listen to, game you want to play, etc.)
Congratulations. You’re now ready to enjoy your Chromecast!
Cast to the Chromecast from Your Chrome Browser
To use this feature, you need a version of Chrome that has the casting feature built into it. You’ll know you have it because you’ll see the casting icon at the top right of the browser.
To cast the content of the tab you’re on, click the casting icon and select the name of the Chromecast device you want to cast to.
The page will display on your TV and if it has any media on it, like a video, you can start playing it in Chrome and it will play on your TV. Once it’s casting, you can switch to other tabs or other applications on your computer and that tab’s content will continue to appear on your TV.
If the streaming isn’t very good, you can adjust some settings by clicking on the casting icon again.
You can also mirror your entire screen to your TV by clicking the dropdown arrow and selecting that option. This is NOT like casting; anything you do on your computer will now show up on your TV screen.
You may also be interested in:
Frequently Asked Questions about Streaming Media
The links below will take you to the Streaming Media FAQ page that has answers to questions relevant to streaming players and content in general.