If you read this blog, then you know that Underground Woman and I are cut-the-cable enthusiasts.
Perhaps that’s putting it mildly. We believe that any personal finance makeover begins by eliminating the obscene expense of cable television. Everything you want to watch is available online, and at a fraction of the price. All you need is the intestinal fortitude to crush those technical bugbears.
Or you can read my cut-the-cable guide. In it, I recommend – with caveats – the Roku streaming player with US firmware (not the Canadian edition), to stream content from providers like US Netflix, Hulu Plus, Pandora, and Amazon Prime.
I say “with caveats” because setting up the Roku for US content streaming is a royal pain. Furthermore, Roku doesn’t allow you to stream from the full inventory of US content sites supported by DNS proxy services like Unblock-us.com. Finally, my aging Roku XD and HD players have developed the delightful tendency to seize up and reboot during Netflix streaming. I don’t know why this happens (yet), but it’s frustrating as hell – and the source of my renewed search for Roku alternatives.
Enter Chromecast, Google’s contribution to the nascent streaming player category. This shockingly inexpensive gadget isn’t available in Canada, per se, but you can still buy one on Amazon.ca from a handful of sketchy-looking, though well-reviewed, electronics vendors.
I have no idea where they get their inventory, or how long that supply will last before Google notices. For now, the markup is tolerable (barely) and several vendors allow Amazon to fulfill their orders. So it’s a secure purchase with free shipping and a very generous return policy.
Chromecast is not like Roku, Apple TV, or any of those other puck-shaped Streaming Mimis. It’s a dongle that plugs into your TV’s HDMI port and uses a USB power cable for juice. It does not come with “channels” and a remote. Rather, it streams media to your television that you might ordinarily view on your computer, smartphone, or tablet. This includes streaming from apps like Netflix or YouTube, photos or videos from device storage, or content from a Chrome browser tab.
The promise of this last feature is what really made my nipples hard. Ever since we cut the cable, two years ago this February, Underground Woman has had to watch the current season’s Survivor and The Good Wife on her laptop. Neither is available on Netflix or Hulu Plus, and there’s absolutely no way we’ll pay to watch them on Amazon Prime. Not when they’re free to stream from the CBS website.
In Chromecast, I thought I’d found Valhalla: an inexpensive alternative to my flakey Roku players that would, at long last, allow us to enjoy every morsel of our most cherished content in the comfy La-Z-Boy goodness of our family room.
Chromecast setup’s a breeze. You plug the thing into your TV, then download a configuration app to your Android or iOS mobile device. If you use Chrome on Windows, you can install a browser extension. The app/extension connects your device to Chromecast and installs an icon that you click to stream high definition content to your television. When it works, it works brilliantly.
When it works. For smartphones and tablets, you can stream only from a very short list of Chromecast-supported apps. As of this writing, there are 14.
Three (HBO Go, Hulu Plus, and Pandora) are available only in the US. I have tried everything I know to bypass Google Play’s country restrictions. Absolutely no dice. Play is locked up tighter than a nun’s ass.
Another three (YouTube, Play TV & Movies, and Play Music) come pre-installed with Android.
Plex, the personal media streamer, requires a paid subscription to unlock the Chromecast icon. (Fuck you, Plex.) And the remaining seven apps are, quite literally, absurd. Unless you’re into Korean dramas, “inspirational programming from Red Bull,” or neoconservative punditry by the friendly conspiracists at Washington Post. Wow.
The Netflix app works very well. If you subscribe to a DNS proxy service like Unblock-us.com, then you can use it to Chromecast from US Netflix. The results are superb.
Forget streaming from Chrome tabs. This is not a feature for mobile devices, and you need a state-of-the-art computer (third generation Intel Core i5 or higher) running on a state-of-the-art home wireless network (802.11AC), to stream content hobbled by so many latency issues that it’s virtually unwatchable.
Indeed, my browser popped up a Help notice when it sensed Chromecast was not performing with optimal glee.
Based on Google’s recommendations, I lowered the device bitrate to 420p and spent two full days over my Christmas break tweaking my wireless network. To no effect: the picture remains lossy and the sound is out of sync. Two days are all I’m prepared to invest in this venture.
So my search continues.
Chromecast, as you’re likely to read elsewhere, is a good idea whose time hasn’t quite arrived. It needs more apps to support it, and some sort of firmware overhaul to improve its delivery of tabbed content.
If you need only to stream Netflix and YouTube, Chromecast is an excellent value and I urge you to buy one today.
But if you’re in the mood to end your cable TV subscription, Roku is still your better option. For now.