Cast Adrift

It’s probably not a fair comparison given their price difference – especially since I didn’t pay anything for the Chromecast (it was an Xmas present) – but now that I’ve got both an Apple TV and a Chromecast not comparing them is impossible. Before I get to the comparison, and inevitably going into the Chromecast’s shortcomings, let me make clear that the Chromecast is a vast improvement over the Netflix enabled blu-ray player that it replaced. I don’t know if the Blu-ray player is vastly underpowered or its Netflix interface is just badly implemented, but using it to stream Netflix is just painful.

Beyond its interface performance the blu-ray player has another shortcoming in common with the Chromecast: it can’t play stuff I have stored in iTunes. While there’s no way to remedy this for the blu-ray player, for the Chromecast I could use Plex – but I’d have to pay for it. And paying for extra stuff rapidly erases the Chromecast’s only advantage over the Apple TV: price. It doesn’t even have to be a full $70 of extra stuff to pay for; at some point I’ll cross a threshold and paying an extra $20 or $30 to get an Apple TV won’t seem so bad. Plex’s $40 price tag to get Chromecast streaming definitely gets me to that threshold, especially since that’s a yearly subscription fee. Plus Plex can only deal with stuff I’ve ripped from DVDs, the content I’ve actually bought off iTunes won’t work. We don’t play a lot of iTunes content on the TV that the Chromecast is hooked up to so using the “iPad to HDMI” cable that I bought for when we’re traveling works ok for streaming iTunes, it’s just less than optimal.

The bigger problem is the lack of a standalone remote control. Which is funny because the whole point of the Chromecast is to get rid of crappy standalone remote controls and let either your phone of tablet be the remote. For choosing what to stream this is actaully a vast improvement, especially if you need to search based on title: an actaul keyboard easily beats selecting letters using the direction buttons on a remote control. The problem comes when you need to pause or rewind. With a dedicated remote – like the Apple TV has – it’s just a quick click that probably doesn’t even require you to look at the remote with its physical buttons. But with the Chromecast I have to unlock the device I’m using to control it, wait for the netflix app to become repsonsive (two to five seconds on my second generation iPad), and then hit the button I want. This fails in both the “quick” and “not having to look” departments. It usually fails in the “quick” department bad enough that I go from needing to just pause to needing to “back up ten seconds and then pause”, a button that netflix doesn’t provide in their app. Though they do provide a “jump back” button and given how long it takes to rebuffer after hitting it there’s plenty of time to hit pause (why they can’t hold on to the last thirty seconds of data to make the “jump back” button work instantaneously is beyond me).

If Netflix, and other video apps that can chromecast, could hook into the lock screen audio player controls on iOS the lack of a remote would not be so big a deal. Instead of the whole unlock dance described above, all that would be required is a double click on the home button and then a tap on the screen. Still not as easy as something with physical buttons, since it’s nearly impossible to hit on-screen buttons without looking, but still a big improvement timewise. Either I’m the first person to think of this or Apple will only allow audio apps to hook into the lock screen audio controls. I’m guessing its the latter as this seems like a somewhat obvious bit of interface to include. If it is the latter then Apple is shooting themselves in the foot since apps that are airplaying could also use those controls. But on the off chance that it’s the case that no one has though of this, that Apple allows it, and that someone with the power to make it happen is reading this (the off-est chance of all) it would be great if “casting” apps – Chromecast or airplay – could take over those lock screen controls.

I suppose I could just leave the casting device unlocked so that the controls are always readily available. But then I’ve got a glowing distraction sitting in my lap. Plus, if the casting app doesn’t block screen auto-lock then I’ll have to fiddle with the device every so often to prevent locking or remember to disable auto-lock before starting the stream. There’s also battery life to think of, and the spot where I’d be doing this doesn’t have a convenient outlet to keep the device plugged into. Again, a dedicated remote or lock-screen controls would be a much better solution.

My only other complaint, and this isn’t really a complaint about the Chromecast itself but more about what I assume is a bug in the Netflix iOS app, is that now that I have a Chromecast I can no longer airplay from the Netflix iOS app to my Apple TV. The Chromecast button has taken over the screen real estate where the airplay button used to sit. The airplay button is nowhere to be found and the Apple TV is not in the list that comes up when I hit the Chromecast button. The HBO GO app can do both so this seems like an oversight on Netflix’s part. Luckily the Apple TV has a remote and on-screen interface that I can use instead. Again, if someone from Netflix is reading this, here’s something for you guys to get on.

So, like I said above, the Chromecast is a big improvement over its predecessor. But had I not gotten it for free, I probably would have held out for another Apple TV before getting a Chromecast.

[Update: I noticed the other day that the Netflix app on my phone now allows the use of both airplay and Chromecast. I did update to iOS 7 since writing this and there have also been updates to the Netflix app so I have no idea which update fixed it – though I doubt it was the iOS update. Either way, credit where credit is due for the fix.]

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