Chromecast in the UK - what Google got right and wrong

Latest revisions (31st August 2014)

£18 offer ended, so the price is back to £30 again.


This page is written entirely from the point of view of a UK Chromecast user (me, Richard Lloyd) and so some of it won't be relevant to other countries' users. I also primarily use Android devices running CyanogenMod and Linux desktops running CentOS, so I can't comment on the Windows, Mac OS X or iOS experience I'm afraid. If you are a CentOS 6 user like me, you'll also want to read my sister site about how to get Google Chrome running on it (you'll need that browser for some Chromecast operations).

UK launch - oh dearie, dearie me

Firstly, I'll point you off to the Wikipedia Chromecast page, which states that the Chromecast was launched on 24th July 2013 in the US and then a ridiculous 8 months later on 19th March 2014 in Canada, the UK and several other countries.

I don't believe Google have ever officially explained why there was an 8 month gap between the US and non-US release dates - their Nexus range seems to have had simultaneous (or same week/month) releases in the US and several other countries (including the UK). My guess is that they were negotiating deals with media providers like Netflix or others, but it still seems a huge amount of time to wait.

Yes, there were grey imports of the US version briefly available on Amazon UK and eBay UK (be careful about a dubious "ezCast" clone on there that isn't the Chromecast and yet - probably illegally - uses "Chromecast" in its product title), but often at prices higher than it would eventually launch at in the UK.

To add insult to injury, the UK launch price was £30 including 20% VAT, whereas the US launch price was $35, which when you add 20% to (even though that's much higher than the average US sales tax), still comes to £25.26, so as usual, we Brits have been ripped off by a mystical and completely unexplained second dose of 20% "inflation". Add the fact that Google and Netflix couldn't be bothered to offer early UK buyers 3 months of free Netflix that they gave to early US buyers, then I'm afraid it isn't quite the bargain it was in the US.

Fortunately, Google didn't repeat the stupid mistake of only selling the hardware in their Google Play online store (they did this with the Nexus 10 - yes, I have one of those - and really stifled its UK sales because of that...made even the more inexplicable by selling the Nexus 7 2012 and 2013 in plenty of online and offline UK stores). I got my Chromecast from Currys on launch day - one of the few places offering it that day for £30 with free delivery and actually having it in stock too.

Setup - fairly straightforward

I plugged my Chromecast into my LG 5.1 receiver that has three HDMI inputs and one HDMI output, plus I decided to use the HDMI extender that comes with the Chromecast to get it a little further away from the TV. I had to plug in the microUSB cable into the Chromecast and plug the other end into one of the USB ports of my plasma TV to finally get juice to it (my HDMI ports aren't powered, sadly).

An unconfigured Chromecast will appear as something like "chromecastXXXX" on your list of wireless access points and XXXX is a 4-digit random number that changes each time it is powered on (until you eventually set up the Chromecast properly, at which it keeps the name you allocate to it, but then actually hides the access point name, presumably to discourage drive-by hackers trying to play with it).

So far, so good, but how do you switch the Chromecast off or put it into some sort of sleep/standby mode like my plasma TV and 5.1 receiver can do? Answer is: you can't - you have to brutally yank the USB cable out (which is actually what I've been doing)! That's right - it has no standby, shutdown or "wake on cast" capability, so unless you rip the power out like I did, it's actually on and fully active 24x7, which I don't really like. The power plug that also comes with it is rated 850mA, so it doesn't suck a lot of juice even when on, but I stil think its lack of power management is a poor oversight from Google. And, yes, my plasma TV still powers the USB port when it's put into standby, grrr...

Unfortunately, plugging the Chromecast into my 5.1 receiver bypassed the HDMI CEC control that the Chromecast supports, so, yep, I have to manually switch HDMI inputs with my 5.1 receiver remote when I want to view the Chromecast output. Maybe people without my setup (i.e. plugging the Chromecast directly into the HDMI on their TV set) might have more joy, but the receiver is the only way I get audio (it has ARC support, so even the TV volume is permanently muted and any audio it might gen can be fed back to the receiver).

Once it's done the first boot, it'll display a setup screen that tells you to go to something like with "your phone, browser or laptop" when it really should have said "with a device running the Google Chrome browser on the same wireless network as the Chromecast will be on" (though note that if you're not wireless, they do warn you about that but still let you try to set up the Chromecast via a Web interface).

To be honest, I suspect most Chromecast purchasers will have a wireless Android device with the Play Store on it, so they'd probably find the Chromecast Setup app easier to deal with. You'll note I've called it a setup app, even though Google insists on calling it "Chromecast". That app does nothing other than setting up your Chromecast - it can't cast anything (locally or network based) and once it's been run once, you'll rarely ever run it again. I'll come back to this lack of non-setup functionality later on, but the app (or the Web interface) basically asks for your wireless router password details and a name for the Chromecast itself. You can also tick off the options in the settings that send data on your dodgy viewing habits to Google, so I certainly did tick those off :-)

IMPORTANT NOTE: If you are considering some sort of custom ROM hacking for your Chromecast, do not put your wireless router details in. The second the Chromecast gets a live Net connection, it immediately goes off to Google and downloads a firmware update that a) has quite a different booting and user GUI and, more importantly, b) closes a bootloader loophole that allowed custom ROMs to be installed. I only found out about this loophole a few days after my Chromecast had been upgraded, grrr...

At this point, my Chromecast couldn't get a wireless connection, so I did the IT Crowd panicky move of rebooting all my wireless routers and then the Chromecast itself and - voila - it started talking nicely. I run Cyanogenmod 11 on all my Android devices except my work phone, so guess which device was the only one that would run the Chromecast Setup app correctly - yep, my Android 4.0 work phone. And, yes, I even uninstalled Adblock Plus (which may interfere with casting if it's using a proxy) to no avail - it was an Ice Cream Sandwich device to the rescue, would you believe it!

Perhaps the most disappointing issue with the Chromecast Setup app was the lack of settings options. There's no way to set the preferred screen resolution and no option to control what's displayed when it's not casting (e.g. why is there a giant fixed clock in the bottom right - screen burn-in anyone? - and why does it download 7-9 GBs of screensaver images a month with no way to stop that or even reduce its download frequency?).

Special offer - 90 days free trial of Google Play Music for UK Chromecast owners

Until 30th September 2014, any UK Chromecast owner (it doesn't matter where or when you bought it) can get a free 90 day trial to Google Play Music (existing subscribers don't get this offer though, which is a bit mean). The easiest way to get this offer this is to power on your Chromecast and run the Android Chromecast app, select your Chromecast device and choose "Check for offers" in the app menu in the top right. You have to agree to transmit your device's serial number, but once that's done, it takes you to the 90 day free trial. The snags with the trial is that it will auto-subscribe you to the paid monthly after 90 days if you fail to cancel, it's a streaming service so you can't download/keep the tracks easily and you need a credit/ debit card to join (which is pants - I won't put one on my Google account and I have Google Play credit instead which should be usable). Because of these issues, I'm not going to redeem this offer myself. Oh, there's an alternative way to get Chromecast offers via a Web page, but you must use Google Chrome to view that page.

iPlayer - what the Chromecast excels at

The BBC released an update to its Android iPlayer app just before the UK Chromecast release to support casting and it does its job admirably. No hiccups and it can dynamically adjust the bitrate according to the speed of your connection. This is probably the shining jewel of the UK Chromecast launch - no "you can't play this content or format" messages and a free app for free casting of live and archived BBC content (UK users only, but I do pay my TV licence fee!).

I think the only downers of iPlayer aren't related to the casting element, but the fact that programmes "disappear" only 7 days after their OTA broadcasting [this will finally be fixed this summer and get extended to 30 days] and a lot of sporting events and movies aren't present in the iPlayer catalogue (presumably due to Net-based rights). Note that the latest iPlayer Android app allows you to download programmes for offline viewing at long last, which I'll play around with shortly (presumably casting those downloads requires you to keep your Android device on to keep the cast going?).

YouTube - works well

The Android YouTube app does its job well, though I personally think it's not much better than a slightly prettier looking version of the YouTube Web site. The latest version of the app allows you to cast live streams at long last, which is a feature that should have been in from launch, especially since it's a Google app!

Tab casting on Android devices - epic fail

One of the apparent selling points of Chromecast at its UK launch was casting a browser tab to your TV. Whilst I suspect this is a "last resort" (particularly for gaming or video playback), it's actually quite a nice feature for presentations. However, despite Google having had 9 months since to resolve this issue on Android since the Chromecast was launched in the US, there is still - quite astonishingly - nothing that can cast a tab from any Android Web browser.

Yes, there is grindingly slow work going on with both the Android Google Chrome and Android Mozilla Firefox browsers to be able to cast a tab and the latest Android Google Chrome beta claims to be able to do it (but maybe only for HTML5 videos? I dunno), but I failed dismally even after enabling the top secret flag for casting and switching YouTube's Web interface to the HTML5 version. This is a truly shocking state of affairs, but the only compensation is that Linux desktop Google Chrome with the Google Cast extension does cast a tab, albeit with a noticeable lag if you try to scroll the page. Just don't ever use the 480p setting - it's appallingly pixellated.

Dolby Digital AC3 audio support - ridiculously omitted

There is a massive amount of video out there for, ahem, downloading (TPB anyone?) that uses Dolby Digital AC3 for its audio and, completely bewilderingly, the Chromecast doesn't natively support AC3. It's probably for licensing reasons, but it really does cripple the ability for the Chromecast to stream local or networked video without having to transcode at massive CPU expense. No, I am not re-encoding the audio on my many, many videos just because Chromecast won't play that format when all the other video players I use (MX Player, BS Player, VLC, Linux mplayer and even my hard disk recorder!) can play AC3 audio. It's probably to save a few quid on licensing fees, but I'll tell you now, Google, you should have paid those fees!

LocalCast - functionality that should be in Google's Chromecast and Gallery apps

It is very bizarre indeed that Google hasn't released any Android apps at all that can cast local or remote (e.g. DLNA) photos, videos or music files (I don't include Photowall here because it infuriatingly tiles them randomly with no control over it and it pointlessly seems to need some sort of account/upload too), which is surely the first thing a new Chromecast owner is going to want to do. Even Google's own Gallery app (not sure why that's not on the Google Play store, since most other Google apps are now) that's on a huge number of Android phones and tablets out there can't cast any photos at all, which definitely warrants a "WTF?!" here.

It's been left to an ever-growing number of third party apps to provide this basic casting functionality and I like the free LocalCast app quite a lot at the moment. It can cast videos, music and photos from both local and DLNA sources, but still suffers from that AC3 audio issue I mentioned earlier because Localcast does no transcoding. Still, it will play H.264 video fine, albeit silently of course.

Plex - transcodes AC3, but Android client isn't free

Some client/server casting apps are appearing and on a whim, I bought the Android Plex client app a while back when it was something like £1.27 (no, I've not bothered registering a Plex account or getting the PlexPass stuff). I never actually found a use for it until I purchased the Chromecast, at which point I installed a free Plex Media Server (they even have an RPM for CentOS 6 - kudos to the devs) and pointed the Plex client to it. Volia - AC3 audio is transcoded and casted playback was fine on the TV for 720p H.264 content. The big snag is that it really hit all 4 cores on my i7 2600 desktop, so it's not the most power efficient way of doing things. Still, it's an option for those with AC3 audio that won't want to use Handbrake or something similar to convert all their video files.

A general complaint I have about the Plex server is that whenever I move videos into one of the directories I've specified for serving up, it fires up a mult-threaded CPU-intensive Python script that seems to thrash for 10+ minutes to rescan, even though I added just a few files. I'm not impressed with its resource usage at all really. I've also yet to find a way to just display my video catalogue as a flat set of date-ordered or alphabetically-ordered items, perhaps omitting those I've fully watched already.

What Google still needs to do

Here's a list of things, as of June 2014, that Google need to sort out with Chromecast:

So after all that, is the Chromecast worth buying?

I'd say a qualified "yes". If you subscribe to Netflix (I don't, which is why I haven't covered it) or watch a lot of iPlayer and/or YouTube, then I'd definitely say yes. If you're like me and occasionally watch iPlayer (a Freeview HD hard disk recorder is a better investment because it covers a lot more channels and even has more BBC content), but have a huge amount of networked media (in AC3 audio) available, you would perhaps be justified sitting on the fence for a little while.

I suspect even dilly-dalliers would eventually give in and buy a Chromecast because it's so ridiculously cheap, it doesn't require yet another remote control (that would be the 4th one I'd have lying by my TV!) and the number of apps supporting casting is growing all the time.