How It works

Software setup on the Chromecast is simple and essentially out of band. When first plugged in, the Chromecast will form a wireless network of its own, the apps use WiFi AP discovery on the respective platforms, attach, set them up, then return you to the network you were attached to before.

Using the Android app is simplest, since the app then searches for networks, joins the Chromecast network, and lets you attach it to a network of your choice, enter the wireless credentials, and name it. The desktop apps work the same way – On OS X for example the app will automatically pull down the list of nearby networks, change wireless networks, program the Chromecast, then change back. This semi out-of-band pairing is so much better than forcing the user to tediously enter a password over a remote control, especially if you’ve chosen a secure wireless PSK with a lot of characters. Using the desktop or Android setup apps have worked flawlessly for me thus far.

 
OS X Setup

 
Android

One big use case for a lot of people (including myself) will be using the Chromecast while traveling. If the Chromecast doesn’t find the network you’ve previously attached it to, it goes into the beaconing mode and you’ll have to use setup again. Of course, if you’re in a hotel, that means you’ll need to join the Chromecast to a portable hotspot, the lack of any onboard browser means you’ll get stuck at the captive portal unless you clone your MAC address on a laptop, authenticate, then switch back. The travel use case works, it’s just subject to the same caveats that normally apply.

Chromecast also supports HDMI CEC (Consumer Electronic Control) and can turn on equipment and switch inputs to the appropriate one. I believe volume is a part of CEC as well, but that’s not supported, changing volume results in a bar popping up on-screen from the Chromecast.

The First of Two Modes

Chromecast offers two modes of operation – local streaming of the contents of a tab from chrome (encoded on the computer and sent over the network to the Chromecast directly), or the cloud to Chromecast playback of some URI. The first mode works only in Chrome right now with an extension that you’ll need to control YouTube, and Netflix from the browser on either PC, OS X, or the Chromebook Pixel. The only requirement is that Chromecast is on the same network you’re attached to.

When not casting, the Chromecast displays a simple ready to cast screen with the wireless network it is attached to, signal level, name, and backgrounds that cycle through 11 photos constantly. The iconography on the display moves around as well to prevent any burn in from happening. Chromecast is operated without a remote, all of the playback controls are exposed in the respective players.

 

The Chrome extension adds a Cast button to the YouTube player that lets you shoot a video over to it. It works flawlessly, there’s a list of the Chromecasts and tapping on one quickly makes the video play on it. Scrubbing through playback works, as does volume. One thing that’s missing from the desktop YouTube client is the ability to modify or add to the playback queue, you can only interrupt playback and immediately start playing a new video.

In Netflix on the desktop, you get a Cast button at bottom right whose functionality works the same way as it does in YouTube. Unlike YouTube however, after playback starts you can’t leave, you need to have the tab open somewhere for Netflix playback to continue if you’ve initiated it from the desktop. Scrubbing and subtitles work, but volume control doesn’t. Inexplicably the other Google Play services aren’t yet available from the web/desktop, like Google Play movies or music, though I can only assume they’re coming soon.

It’s obvious to me that the preferred interaction method is from the mobile apps, where there’s better support for the first party Google services – Netflix, YouTube, and Google Play.

Netflix on mobile works essentially how it does on the web player. There’s a cast button, and you can scrub through and control volume. On Android, the playback controls are also elevated above the lock screen thankfully, so it’s reasonable to the smartphone as your remote control.

 

YouTube playlists work only on smartphone and tablet, where you can add movies to a queue. The Cast button appears in YouTube and there’s a selection menu. Scrubbing through videos works, and there’s that add to queue button in the right places. YouTube control works well – it’s responsive and speedy. Google Play music and movies also get Cast buttons and have working scrubbing and volume control.

Playback control from the mobile devices and Chrome client works really well, initiating playback of media happens quickly and reliably, and scrubbing through things changes state quickly as well.

YouTube and Netflix both have the progressive quality feature enabled, and the Chromecast steps up through quality rather quickly for me, all the way to the maximum bitrates for each service. On Netflix, that’s up to the 1080p “Super HD” bitrate stream with 5.1 audio, which does work on the Chromecast. As far as I’m aware, that makes the Chromecast as of this writing the least expensive Super HD enabled Netflix player alone. On YouTube I suspect the VP8 streams are being used, and quality is likewise excellent.

At present the Chromecast is limited to just Google and Netflix (unless you use the Chrome tab, more on that in a second), however Google published a Cast SDK for developers to build functionality into their own services. Getting the Chromecast functionality working requires a sender (which discovers the Chromecasts, handles most of the work for status and controls), and receiver (which in the Cast SDK is a web app that gets launched and pulls down media and receives notifications).

Hopefully additional services like Spotify, Pandora, Vimeo, and maybe even games will leverage this and add Cast support.

Inside the Chromecast and Power The Second Mode - Chrome Tab Casting
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  • sleekblackroads - Monday, July 29, 2013 - link

    Google really gets the message sometimes. Will be such an amazing product with a few tweaks and services!!! Reply
  • diamondsw - Monday, July 29, 2013 - link

    Ah yes... the constant refrain of "just wait, it'll be amazing soon!". Not to pick on Google fans - Apple fans have said the same about the AppleTV for years ("it will have apps soon, because it just has to!").

    It's always best to buy based on what the product does *right now*. If it's solving an issue now, then buy it, and anything else that comes later is gravy. But if you buy something hoping it will improve later, you're more often than not throwing your money away.
    Reply
  • CynicalPhred - Monday, July 29, 2013 - link

    Well sorry, I don't get it... This is basically a device that you have to push content to. You need to sit there with a PC, phone or tablet, choose the content on that and then send it to the Chromecast thus needing to run that device as well. I want something a little more independent. Some thing that can pull media from my various media servers or from the internet and which does that without forcing me to directly run a second device to do it. Reply
  • Guspaz - Monday, July 29, 2013 - link

    Have you ever tried using Netflix with a TV remote? Being able to browse and select content to play with an iPad or iPhone and have it play on the TV without any effort sounds fantastic. That's a much better experience than using Netflix "independently". Reply
  • Samus - Monday, July 29, 2013 - link

    exactly. death to the tv remote. most people always have their phones on them, anyway, so why wouldn't you want a larger, more responsive 4-5" screen to use over a T9 remote (or heaven forbid one of those awful Samsung "flip" QWERTY remotes that's about as responsive as a 96-year old behind the wheel of a towncar. Reply
  • imutau - Monday, July 29, 2013 - link

    Actually the Roku remote is pretty sound for using Netflix. Apple TV's remote is similar too. Besides on screen keyboards (which every remote that does not include a native keyboard will suck eggs at) it works fine for me.

    The most awesome thing is that it's only $35! That's less than a new PS3 game and a 3rd of the price of a Rokum or Apple TV. For what it does it seems like a really great device.

    But as some have mentioned if you have something that does this already like a Roku (configured with PLEX) or Apple TV (hacked to run XBMC) there really isn't a need for this.

    Some draw backs is the fact it is only WIFI AND that it can only do 720p playback. Also that the only local content it seems to stream with any consistency is .mp4. Also it doesn't seem to as yet be able to stream local content from a wireless device like a phone or tablet.

    I am sure once it gets opened a bit more where it will be able to run more apps from the Play Store it sounds like it will be a really great device. But for now I am willing to wait.
    Reply
  • MaulBall789 - Tuesday, July 30, 2013 - link

    @Guspaz, I already have a 42" Sony Google TV and through the Netflix app on my iPhone I can choose the program I want to watch and it will ask me if I want to view on my Google TV or iPhone. If I choose GTV it starts playing right away. Chromecast doesn't do anything to improve this, as far as I can tell, and so far only has Netflix and Youtube, same as the Google TV has had. That being said, I want to play around with this device to see what it's really capable of. Maybe I'm missing something. Reply
  • rwei - Tuesday, July 30, 2013 - link

    I just plugged in an old laptop and spent my $35 on a Logitech K400 wireless keyboard/touchpad. And the Netflix experience is great with that, as well as any other source of content I can think of, including my NAS and shared drives, plus browsing, chat...

    Don't get me wrong, the Chromecast looks to be a great product serving an unmet need at a tantalizing price point. But it's not going to revolutionize content consumption...

    What might is the Xbox One when it comes out. All of the above capabilities and true, full-featured integration with my desktop and phone (cable too if I had that), plus a 10-ft UI that doesn't even require a remote much of the time.

    Assuming Microsoft executes on its promise, which it does do to an impressive degree sometimes while delivering real head-scratchers at others. Which will this be...?
    Reply
  • Marthisdil - Tuesday, July 30, 2013 - link

    And I use my media pc with XBMC on it...using a Lenovo remote with trackpad/keyboard and I don't have to do anything special. Ever try typing out letters/numbers in a search box on a tv remote that doesn't have a full keyboard? it sucks. Reply
  • darwinosx - Tuesday, July 30, 2013 - link

    Google wants you to use Chrome so they can collect more data about what you do and sell it to advertisers while turning it over to the NSA. Reply

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