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Experiencing Chromecast – my review  

My eagerly-awaited Chromecast arrived a couple of weeks ago. Despite the reports that Google had run out of Netflix codes my 3-month streaming code arrived a few days before by email – a great deal given that it is also valid for current Netflix customers too.

Setup

The requirements for using a Chromecast are:

  • HDMI-capable display
  • 2.4 GHz 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi network
  • iOS device, Android device or laptop with Chrome

The box

The box was quite small but contained everything you need and a couple of things you might not, specifically:

  1. Chromecast device – with HDMI at one end and Micro USB at the other
  2. Micro USB to USB cable – to provide power to the device
  3. HDMI extension cable – if Chromecast is obstructed from fitting in your HDMI port
  4. USB wall socket adapter – if you don’t have USB ports available

The device itself is a rather small affair about twice as long as a HDMI connector and a little wider and thicker.

Power

Some people are upset that it needs a USB power cable given the promo shots show no such cable.

HDMI however only supplies 50mA of power wile USB supplies 500-900mA. Chromecast is a small computer with 1080p output and Wi-Fi so it’s going to be needing a lot more than HDMI can supply. If you were hoping HDMI 1.4 would address that you’ll be disappointed.

Given that your options are:

  1. Plug USB cable into TV USB socket (if it has one that is always-on)
  2. Use included USB wall socket adapter
  3. Find something in range with an always-on USB socket

Configuration

My Yamaha receiver/amp is the hub for my system and all devices have to go through to get sound (it also makes switching device simpler).

My amp lives in a small confided space below my TV which reduces the Wi-Fi range but the Apple Time Capsule is near enough for a strong single and indeed the spare USB port it has provides power.

Connecting Chromecast to an amplifier

Once connected and powered up you’ll be presented with something like this on your screen which cycles through one of many beautiful background images both during setup and when idle. I’m not sure if the images are location-aware or Google chose it because they’re also in the bay area.

Chromecast setup on TV

Cromecast starts up with it’s own temporary wireless network. Then you download one of the two setup programs for either Mac or Windows and it will switch you to that network (with no warning, I hope you weren’t downloading anything) and will prompt you for your Wi-Fi details. With any luck it will switch Chromecast over to that and it’s up to you to switch your machine back.

A WPS option would have eliminated the need for downloads and disconnects but given how few people know about WPS (it’s very hidden away on my Time Capsule) it’s an understandable omission.

Netflix Playback

iPad

The Chromecast is a very lightweight device and as such you need another device to control it. My wife and I both have iPad’s that are normally nearby so this is primarily the source of plays.

Basically the app looks as normal however you’ll see a little icon at the top right. I’m going to call this the “cast” icon as it’s also used in YouTube and the Chrome Cast plug-in. Tapping it shows which of your devices to play on. If something is already playing you get a blue bar at the top to let you jump in to control it:

Netflix + iPad asking what to play on Netflix + iPad showing already playing

Once the show or movie is playing you get artwork for the show and a bunch of controls to move forward/backward, change audio and subtitle options or go back. Hidden behind the stack of cards at the top is the episode menu for switching episode or season. This is useful as there isn’t yet a “post-play” experience to take you to the next episode automatically.

I ran into a problem that should your HDMI link be interrupted or your iPad sleep you may get the error I captured below. If you do you’ll need to quit the Netflix app and restart it to regain control.

Netflix + iPad showing already playing Netflix + iPad showing connect error

Android

Netflix for Android behaves in a very similar way to the iPad – the same blue bar while playing and a very similar during-playback experience and menu button. I’ve not included screenshots because it is so similar but I can put them up if anyone asks :)

Web/Silverlight

Running the Silverlight based player from the website also reveals the cast icon tucked between subtitles and sharing on the playback control but only if it is running within Chrome and the extension is installed. This works on both the PC and the Mac despite Silverlight for Chrome on the Mac never becoming officially supported by Microsoft.

Netflix + Silverlight showing play on

Firefox, Safari and Internet Explorer users are out of luck for now although it there is a possibility that Windows 8.1 and IE 11 with HTML5 based playback may have the option – I’ll have to try it and report back. (Windows 8.x DRM doesn’t work in a virtual machine)

Chrome

YouTube

I have a love-hate relationship with YouTube. I love the wide variety of content but hate the duplicate content, poor encoding, confusing channel organization, re-buffering and choppy full-screen performance on Chrome for Mac. (Works fine in Safari, how odd)

Thankfully Chromecast solves a couple of these. Re-buffering and full-screen performance are great here. Just find your video and hit the cast icon at the bottom right to choose where to start it in a similar way to Netflix.

YouTube asking what to play on

When it’s already playing the Chrome Cast extension gets involved and shows you what is going on:

Chrome Cast extension showing details

If you try clicking this icon to cast either YouTube or Netflix you’ll get a warning telling you to use the icons within the players themselves. This is a bit clunky and I would imagine Google will improve the interop here in the future so you can just always use the Cast button.

Web

As well as video streaming you can browse web sites from Chrome using the Cast extension. Simply hit the Cast button on the toolbar and choose again where you want it to go:

Chrome Cast extension menu

There are also various options available to control how things look on the screen.

Chrome Cast extension options

Rendering quality is okay from a distance but a mess close-up most likely due to the 720p limit and some sort of scaling going on. 1 pixel lines and curves are a mess as is small text.

Usability is okay as long as you are looking at your laptop and not your TV as there is no mouse pointer, context menus, toolbars and a second or two of lag even over fast solid Wi-Fi.

Weirdly selected text shows as selected and web sites with hover effects show that effect even with no mouse. I think these omissions and inclusions are simply the result of what Chrome renders via Webkit rather than a rational set of choices.

Oddly I received performance warnings on a MacBook Pro 2.6 GHz with no major apps running.

Desktop sharing

Usability and screen display quality were massively improved by choosing the semi-hidden and experimental “Cast entire screen”:

Chrome Cast desktop sharing option

This could give offices a very cool and simple way to setup sharing for presentations in Keynote/PowerPoint without the dreaded hunt for the right cable or adapter that always seems to happen.

Lag was also improved when dropping down to lower resolutions.

Suggested improvements

It’s a great device but there is always room for improvement. I’d like to see:

  1. More video streaming services – Hulu & Amazon Prime
  2. Some music streaming services – Spotify & Pandora
  3. DLNA streaming support for existing media/libraries
  4. Native Mac OS X & Windows drivers to add Chromecast as additional wireless display
  5. Configure a source for background images when not in use

More streaming services are coming so that’s covered.

Getting DLNA support (or indeed Airplay for Mac loving friends) will probably require some open source efforts. Thankfully Google have the start of a Google Cast API/SDK available so that should just be a matter of time.

The wireless second display option would be awesome for developers, testers and presenters. Let’s hope somebody figures that out.

Conclusion

The Chromecast is a great device.

From the time we switched it as completely taken over our Netflix home viewing. We were using an Xbox 360 but the Chromecast:

  • is faster to launch
  • is quieter
  • supports 1080p (the Xbox runs native 1080p on only a handful of titles, everything else is hardware upscaled)
  • supports Netflix profiles
  • doesn’t play cheesy UI effect noises through my surround system
  • uses less power

Additionally instead of watching YouTube on our laptops we just cast them over to the big screen and sound.

For $35 it’s an absolute steal.

[)amien

Disclosure: As a former Netflix employee I have stock options in Netflix.

Six great new features at Xbox.com  

It’s been quite a while since xbox.com had a major update and today sees the launch of the new version with a clean new look and a whole host of new features that our teams here at LIVE engagement have been working on.

There are a whole great new set of features, my favorites are below… note that some of these are not available in non-LIVE locales.

Showing the xbox.com Avatar Editor in action

1. Avatars

Avatars are no longer just for the console but are escaping out onto the web and Windows Phone 7. With the new Avatar Editor you can create your own avatar or modify your existing one with a new easy-to-use interface from your browser.

The new Avatar Marketplace lets you search and find cool items for your avatar to wear and try them on right-there in the search pages. Head on in either by game or by lifestyle (brands) (click the little grid icon to see sub-brands such as your own university’s sports team!).

Because these guys are 3D animated they require Silverlight to be installed on your machine (the streaming videos on xbox.com also require it)

2. Marketplace search & results

A brand new search function means we get much better results than before, fuzzy matching and some dynamic filtering options that appear on the left-hand side letting you dig down into family friendly games (e.g. by game ratings).

Another cool use is to search for your favorite band and see what tracks and packs they have available. Then head to the game filter on the left to see only the ones that work with your game (e.g. Rock Band, Guitar Hero, Dance Central etc!)

When you visit the product detail page it now shows the images and streaming video inline (goodbye popups) as well as game add-ons showing which games they work with – useful for those music track packs!

3. Hand-picked promotions

Our content teams can now put together collections of themed hand-picked games, add-ons etc. that you can you filter, sort and explore from such as the new Kinect games (gone) or family-friendly fun (gone).

Gold and family gold members should keep an eye out for Gold exclusive offers or pricing!

4. Streamlined account creation

It’s now easier-than-ever to sign up for a free Xbox live account. Less questions, less steps and we’ll give you a randomly-generated gamertag you can change for free later when you’ve had chance to decide on the perfect name for your game-playing alter-ego. (We’ve seen some fun auto-generated ones during the development cycle including FirmJunk,

Comparing games on Xbox.com

5. Compare games with your friends

Okay, you could compare games before but the new UI is better and there’s a cool hidden feature that lets you compare against multiple people at the same time.

To do this head into My Xbox’s Game Center and choose a friend to compare with. Now, notice the url at the top of the page? Put a comma after it and another gamertag to see three… or another comma and a gamertag to see all four (the maximum) side-by-side.

6. Family center

New with this update is the Gold Family Pack (discontinued) which lets you get four gold subscriptions for $99 a year and lots of cool family features including play time reports, gifting points, allowances etc.

There are a whole host of extra features to be seen at xbox.com including mobile-to-web gaming, improved messaging, simplified UI etc. so go check them out!

[)amien

The secret driven-development/design acronyms  

We’ve all heard of BDD, DDD and TDD but that still leaves 23 letters unaccounted for.

I can now exclusively reveal more! You may recognize some from projects you’ve already worked on but didn’t know had a name much less a recognized methodology.

ADD, Agro Driven Development

Developers code features directly proportional to the amount of heat they are getting from users, sales or managers. Results in a jack-of-all-trades, master of none.

CDD, Clone Driven Design

Features and design are achieved by cloning somebody else’s product thereby removing the pesky overhead of having to come up with ideas of your own. Sure fire way to stay firmly behind the leader.

EDD, Ego Driven Design

Where the direction of the project is dictated purely on an individuals ego and their ability to shout long and hard until they get their own way. The individual involved is rarely the target audience for the product which is often the ego-bruising trigger in the first place.

GDD, Golf Driven Design

Where features and specifications are agreed on the golf course by people who neither use the software nor are responsible for implementing it but want to write off the whole trip as a business expense. With any luck they won’t check the final product.

LDD, Lunch Driven Development

Where features, goals and APIs are decided over lunch by the developers and users who care enough to meet up over their lunch-time. Lunch must not be provided or you stray into Golf Driven Design instead.

PDD, Psychic Driven Development

Where specifications are not so much decided through real communication but rather obtained via a psychic link with potential users with mixed results. Often seen in conjunction with Ego Driven Design.

QDD, Query Driven Development

Every page or screen starts with a question to the user what they want to see, writing that as a SQL/LINQ query statement and then dumping results out via a simple UI. Would likely be better off in Access or Excel but people involved want to claim they have intraweb experience.

XDD, Xenophobic Driven Development

Where the majority of development time is given over to making sure others can’t do anything BUT what the original developers wanted. Typically observed by large sets of exception messages, the absence of hooks and a sprinkling of the sealed keyword.

YDD, Yesterday Driven Development

Features added today are the ones the customers thought they were getting yesterday. Generally used in very-tight rapid methodologies.

ZDD, Zzzzz Driven Development

Every waking hour is given over to the development process at the expense of quality and design ideas that are only appreciated by the sleep-deprived. Normally observed on tight schedules such as those in the gaming industry.

[)amien

Fun entertainment online  

Lolcats bungee I’m missing my DVD collection terribly and might just give in and get it shipped over now I have a Pioneer DVD player that can play region 2 titles here albeit with a poor interlace PAL > NTSC conversion.

In the mean time I’ve been entertaining myself with the following comedy gems until I can at least find a proxy server in the UK to let me back into iPlayer (BBC) and Catch-Up (Channel 4) so I can watch QI, Top Gear and Grand Designs.

Podcasts

Adam & Joe – highlights from their BBC Radio 6 show has me laughing out loud in the office sometimes to the bemusement of colleagues.

Jonathan Ross more highlights this time from Jonathan’s Saturday morning show that is always worth a giggle. (removed by BBC)

Comics

Weebl & Bob – two egg-shaped friends make sense of a purple world that never has enough pie but an abundance of silly voices, ninja pirates and tiny bovines.

Joy of Tech – geek cartoons from some Apple loving talent.

Pictures

ICanHasCheezBurger – because there’s no such thing as too many pictures of cute cats with crazy captions aka Lolcats. (My own attempt shown at the top of this post)

Videos

Fonejacker – George just needs your bank account details and sort code for your gas refund (3 million Ugandan dollars) and the sales pitch of Internet service providings who offer a better level of Internet service providing.

MineSweeper The Movie – the only computer game left to convert into a movie. (Well, except for Half-Life which is just dying for a good movie). Some of the other strips on this site include Street Fighter: The Later Years.

Zero Punctuation – video game reviews full of more great English humor, quip and amusing animations to take your favorite games down a peg.

[)amien