Chromecast celebrates its first birthday in July 2014, and looking back, it’s clear the dongle has already had a big year. The tiny, affordable HDMI stick and its casting method of streaming your favorite content on the big screen has changed the way we think of media devices, and eclipsed the failings of Google TV by providing a whole new way to stream.
While the Chromecast’s popularity has spread far and wide already, those who have yet to be initiated into its world may still have a lot of questions about how the dongle works and what it can do. We cover all of that below, and have added an updated list highlighting all the best apps that support the device.
Check out our Chromecast tips and tricks to get more out of Google’s content streamer.
What is Chromecast, and how does it work?
The Chromecast is a 2-inch dongle that doesn’t look much different from a USB thumb drive you might plug into your laptop. The dongle runs off a simplified version of Google’s Chrome OS, and has only 256k of memory – which is nothing. However, it doesn’t need to have a ton of memory because it’s not much more than a glorified gateway. It gets plugged into your HDTV’s HDMI port, connected to your home’s Wi-Fi network, and acts as a portal for the content on your mobile devices to be cast onto your TV.
Here’s how casting works: Using apps on your mobile device or computer, you essentially hand off, or cast, content to the Chromecast. Using the information it receives about what you want to watch, the Chromecast finds the material on the Internet and streams it directly from the source. This way, your phone or tablet’s resources aren’t hogged up with streaming tasks, and battery life doesn’t take a huge hit. Think of your mobile device or computer as a remote control for the Chromecast. One exception to this rule is when the Chromecast mirrors your Chrome browser on your computer. In this case, the Chromecast is depending entirely on your computer as the source for what it is displaying. The other exception is an app called AllCast, which we dig into a little bit further along.
What devices work with Chromecast?
Thanks to its “all devices” philosophy, Chromecast can run on Android tablets and smartphones, iPads and iPhones, and Chrome for Mac and Windows. However, those with BlackBerry or Windows phones are out of luck … for the most part. Recently, a new app called Tube Cast was developed, which offers some limited Youtube functionality for Windows phones over Chromecast; but for now, it’s safe to say that functionality is extremely limited at best.
What apps work with Chromecast?
The past few months have seen rapid growth for Chromecast, thanks in part to Google’s open source philosophy. Google recently hosted a Chromecast hackathon for 40 developers from over 30 countries leading up to the release of its software development kit (SDK) to programmers at large. One of the results? More apps!
The device doubled its stable of mainstream apps back in December of 2013 with the inclusion of some powerful new tools like Plex and RealPlayer Cloud. More recently, Chromecast has added even more familiar faces, and has also supplemented its current offerings with new tools and features.
While the budding streaming stick still has a long way to go if it wants to catch up to the Rokus and Apple TVs of the world, Chromecast now hosts a slew of capable apps that should keep users happy as they wait for more developers to unleash more Chromecast-friendly apps. Digging deep into the Google Play store will reveal a host of beta and off-brand apps ranging up to around 100 choices at present. But few of those will make it to your TV with much recurrence.
Below, we’ll take a closer look at some of the more useful apps that make Chromecast worthy of holding down permanent residency in one of your TV’s HDMI inputs.
No surprise Chromecast is quite proficient with the Google-owned video mecca. Directed by the YouTube app from your mobile device, Chromecast pulls the video from the cloud and plays it directly on your TV. You can search on your device without disrupting what’s happening on the TV. Users can build up a playlist of videos, hypothetically creating a video music box from YouTube music videos, or just zoning out on random memes from the web.
No dongle would be complete without the king of streaming. Another stalwart app that launched with the Chromecast, Netflix is part of the daily tool kit for so called “cord-cutters.” The app works extremely well across multiple devices, allowing you to save your place no matter what you’re using for casting. So, if you’re watching a movie with your spouse’s iPhone, and he or she has to leave to pick up the kids, opening the Netflix app on your own device allows you to instantly control the movie and continue watching.
A distant, but important second fiddle to Netflix for cord-cutters everywhere, Hulu Plus is the place to catch up on current episodes of all of the most popular network programs, old movies, and even some original programming. The app was a major acquisition for Chromecast, joining the smaller team of apps in the device’s early days.
The third leg of the cord-cutter tripod, Amazon Instant, is still missing for the device. The omission is ironic, considering Amazon’s shopping site was by far the biggest host for Chromecast’s debut last July. But with Amazon’s recent unveiling of its own streaming device, Fire TV, it’s hard to say when these two tech moguls will come together in app form.
While Chromecast doesn’t offer inherent mobile device “mirroring,” or the transference of exactly what’s on your mobile device to your flatscreen, AllCast is an app that was created shortly after the Chromecast’s debut to do just that. While Google decided to block the app in a very unGoogle-like show of exclusionary force, recent developments have revealed that AllCast is back and ready to spread the love from your device to your favorite HDTV.
The app is Android specific, so iOS users are out of luck, and it’s also “very much in beta” according to the app’s developer, Koushik Dutta, but if you want to magnify just about anything on your Android-powered handheld, AllCast is still the best way we know.
Plex Media Server
One of the most useful recent additions to Chromecast, the Plex Media app allows you to leverage Chromecast as a bridge between your TV and Plex’s Media Server program (free) running on any home computer. It allows you to watch any content or listen to any music stored on or connected to said computer through Plex’s intuitive and well-organized interface. To use Plex, simply download the Plex Media Server application to the computer and point the program toward the folders where your media is stored. Plex will catalog all your movies, TV shows and music and, voila, you can now access it using the Plex app for nearly any platform, including Chromecast.
A recent update allows those who have signed up for the $4/month Plex Pass to also easily share any photos directly from their iPhone’s photo library which will land in Plex’s photo library automatically from your wireless network.
Vudu and Crackle
A recent update added video streaming sites Vudu and Crackle to the Chromecast family, both of which bring some excellent options to the table. Vudu allows users to access a plethora of newer on-demand movie titles and TV shows, most of which are new releases, for a charge of around $1-8 per title. It can also provide access to your cloud-stored UltraViolet titles.
Crackle adds its own list of older movies, as well as some excellent TV content such as The Shield, Damages, Seinfeld, and the comedic legend’s newest show, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.
Sure, the premiere of Game of Thrones Season 4 may have knocked HBO GO out of commission for a few tortuous hours, but the site is still the best (legal) way to access HBO’s unparalleled array of original programming. That makes the subscription-based app a must-have for any legit streaming device, and Chromecast scored a major coup when it added the app to the list last November.
Music apps have been rapidly joining the Chromecast army since its inception, including many of the big names in the genre. Most of us are familiar with Pandora, the app that plays the songs, albums, or artists that are like the songs, albums, or artists you want to hear. Casting Pandora to your TV from your devices is an extremely simple way to open up the service’s notoriously prescient musical algorithm on your home theater system. Add in a sound bar or other supplemental sound system, and your home theater quickly transfers to a powerful wireless jukebox.
Other popular music apps available on the device include Napster, Rhapsody, Songza, Vevo, and Rdio. It’s not all gravy for music services on Chromecast just yet, however. The voraciously popular service, Spotify, is still conspicuously absent from the Chromecast arsenal, as is the new service from Beats, Beats Music. But for those who are Spotify junkies, there’s an app for that too – if you know how to do the work around. Using an iOS app called Projectify, users can access their Spotify and Rdio libraries, allowing control over their libraries, and viewing of a myriad of music videos from Youtube and Vimeo, all from one app.
Of course, there’s nothing quite like family. The Google Play store offers a host of movies, TV shows, and music choices for purchase, all of which are ready and waiting to be streamed to the Chromecast.
Want to watch a video from your Chrome Web browser? After all, it’s not like every video on the Web is on YouTube. Though seemingly perpetually in beta, Chromecast will allow you to access content from the Web from a Chrome tab projection. Basically, Google’s admitting that watching videos via your computer’s Chrome browser isn’t perfect, but it’s an option. And no, it’s not just mirroring your entire desktop; instead, it just flings the one tab you tell it to. So, if you have 10 tabs open but just want to view content from one tab, everyone in the room won’t see all the other tabs you have open on your computer, nor will they see the URL. Google also pointed out that this works well for things like photos. Finally, sharing all those vacation photos just got easier.
With Chrome, you can access the entire Web, meaning you can watch every type of content you can think of – yes, including porn – right on your TV. Anything you can view on your Chrome browser, you can watch on your TV.
The list above is just the beginning of the mainstream apps we expect to see supporting Chromecast. With the SDK released in the wild, brilliant apps designed to circumvent the status quo, and with a mostly open source attitude, Chromecast’s only real limitation is the imaginations of programmers. Unfortunately, Google does a terrible job of listing all of the options for third party apps. Fortunately, there’s an app for that too. Check out this link to find an Android app that curates Chromecast-compatible apps in a much richer, categorized list.
Did we miss anything cool from the Chromecast family that you use regularly? Let us know in the comments below.
[This article has been updated to reflect that Beats Music is not yet supported by the Projectify app, 4/14/14 ]