Chromecast: First impressions

I got a Chromecast recently, and it’s worth writing about because I feel it’s part of an important step in how we enjoy media (television, movies, music) and will do in the future.

So, on to my observations.

My general misunderstanding of what they did

Before getting one I never properly understood how they actually worked and what they did. I did understand that videos weren’t streamed to the Chromecast via your client device, and that instead the Chromecast directly fetched the video to stream.

What I didn’t understand was that the number of things you could stream on it were endless, and limited only by the vast array of apps on the Chrome Web Store, Play Store (Android) or App Store (iOS) which chose to take advantage of it (and that anyone could develop such an app of their own).  I assumed that it was limited to a small set of high-profile apps: Netflix, YouTube, Play Movies & TV, Play Music, and probably a handful of other things Google will have deemed worthy of building into the device.

In reality, the Chromecast device itself has no “apps” built into it, well, apart from the thing that sets up its wifi connection and the thing that shows wallpapers as a sort of screensaver when it’s idle.  The “apps” all run on the client device and control it from there, whether that is your Android device, your Chrome web browser on a computer, or an iOS device, and anyone can write an app for any of those three devices that can control it.

The device can basically stream a bunch of different video or audio formats or display pictures, which it downloads from whichever server the app specifies.  The app you are using tells it what address and protocol to fetch video, audio or pictures from, and how to show it on screen.  Once you start a video streaming, you can kill the app and it’ll keep streaming on the Chromecast, but because it has no inherent controls or intelligence itself, that’s all it will do – you can’t pause, restart, or change anything unless you are still using the app and the app is still connected to it.

Issues I’ve found

Even though I wouldn’t say I’m elderly, looking down at my phone, then back up at the screen, repeatedly, strains the eyes a bit.  Once you get a video or music started, you don’t really need to do this much I guess.

Once you’ve been watching a show for a little while and you want to pause it because the baby is crying or something, it’s not a case of finding just one pause button on your remote: because it’s your Android device, it has probably gone to sleep.  So you wake up its screen first.  The app you were controlling the Chromecast with may have a pause control on the lock screen, but if so the button will be small so you actually have to focus on the screen a bit to see where the button is a press it carefully to pause.  But occasionally the app may have closed so you have to unlock your device and find the app again in your home screen or app drawer.  Sometimes the app may have even disassociated itself with the Chromecast, in which case you have completely lost control over it; the only way to stop it is to go back in to the app, re-connect with the Chromecast, choose the Chromecast device from the menu, then hope it brings up what was playing – and if not, you may even have to search for what you were watching all over again. This is obviously more an issue with the individual app than with the Chromecast model in general.  If the app that was in control of the Chromecast stayed running always, and always had lock screen controls working and visible, this would minimise some of these problems.

I started a YouTube “mix” of 50 videos and for some unknown reason the Chromecast stopped playing after only 4 videos.  Waking up my phone showed that the YouTube app was no longer running but opening it up again showed that it did still know it was connected to the Chromecast, it just wasn’t playing anything for some reason.  I don’t know what to blame this glitch on.

I watched a TV episode using the Stan app (I have free subscription to Stan) and with 2 minutes remaining it mysteriously stopped playing and again I looked at my phone to find no sign of the Stan app running.  Going back in, I found that it had disassociated itself from the Chromecast and didn’t remember where I was in the episode: sharing to Chromecast and pressing play again sent me to the start.  Again, more an issue with the individual app than the Chromecast or that model in general.

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