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Technology Untangled: Google Chromecast designed for entertainment, not business

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technology-bourI am always on the lookout for tools to help me present content from handheld devices onto larger screens, since so much of what we do these days is accessed through our smartphones and tablets. Sharing that content, especially video, is difficult when you have colleagues hunched over the tiny display of a handheld. Today we will look at an inexpensive device from Google designed to help with this. Chromecast is a small dongle-type device that plugs into your HDTV and facilitates video streaming.

I did not do much research into the Chromecast device when it first came out last year. I thought it was simply another video streaming box like a Roku that could add Smart TV capabilities to an HDTV. While it does do that, it also offers more. The small Chromecast package at the electronics store caught my eye when I noticed it had a picture of someone holding a phone in front of a large TV, and both were displaying the same video stream. The text said, “Send video or anything on the Web to your TV from your smartphone, tablet or laptop.” The price really got my attention, only $29 on sale. What could this thing possibly do for a price this low? I bought one to find out.

I was hoping to find an easy method to play back videos and photos that were stored on my smartphone out to a big screen. I did eventually discover one not-so-easy method to do that, and in the process learned more about other strengths and weaknesses of the Chromecast.

Here is what is involved with the setup and operation. The Chromecast dongle looks like a slightly oversized USB thumb drive, only it doesn’t plug into a USB port but rather an open HDMI port on the back of your HDTV. Strangely, it does not get power from that port, but has a separate micro-USB power cord and charger similar to the type used for your phone. The unit communicates with your WiFi router and acts as an Internet streaming device, but it doesn’t act alone. It needs to interact with your phone, tablet or computer in order to function. To complete the setup you must download the Chromecast app to a device that is on the same WiFi network and follow through with some simple pairing instructions.

Even though this is a Google product, it works well with both Android and iOS phones and tablets. Once the Chromecast app is launched, some of your favorite Web streaming services, Netflix and YouTube for example, will include a new icon in the corner of the screen. You tap that icon to facilitate playback of videos on your TV instead of your tablet. The term Google coined for this transference is “casting” your video. You then can use the tablet (or phone) as a simple remote to rewind, fast-forward, pause and adjust volume of the video stream. This data stream of video is not actually being beamed from the tablet to the Chromecast, but is instead being fed directly from the WiFi router to the Chromecast dongle. Unlike the picture on the package implied, you cannot simultaneously view the video on both your TV and smartphone.

There are a number of other entertainment apps that now include this Chromecast functionality, such as Hulu, Crackle, Pandora and HBO GO. Google continues to add more apps. Based on the offerings, this device is clearly designed for entertainment and not for business. I do not see a great advantage in using the Chromecast as an entertainment mainstay as opposed to a Roku or a Smart TV. In fact, it is less useful because you must employ a phone or tablet in conjunction with it to get it to work at all, and it has no remote of its own. This partially explains why the price is so low.

There is still one other casting function that might prove useful for business purposes. It works in conjunction with your laptop and allows you to project any Web page from the computer to the big screen. Google calls this “tab casting.” One catch: It will only work from within the Google Chrome Web browser. Setup is similar to the smartphone. Once the computer and the Chromecast are linked, you can display any Web page and any Web content simultaneously on the laptop and the HDTV. Resolution, however, was not as clear, and video playback was glitchy. That is because simultaneous casting uses a lot of computer resources and a big slice of your WiFi router’s bandwidth. This brings me back to that not-so-easy solution for playback of videos from a smartphone. If you upload your videos and photos to a sharing/viewing site on the Web, you could play them back via tab casting through the laptop to the Chromecast device. There are definitely better ways. There are also better ways to stream Netflix and other entertainment to your TV. In spite of its price, the Chromecast is not really worth it.•

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Stephen Bour (bourtech@iquest.net) is an engineer and legal technology consultant in Indianapolis. His company, the Alliance for Litigation Support Inc., includes Bour Technical Services and Alliance Court Reporting. Areas of service include legal videography, tape analysis, document scanning to CD and courtroom presentation support. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author.

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