How Chromecast Works


The Chromecast isn’t a box -- it’s tiny, the size of a USB thumb drive.
The Chromecast isn’t a box -- it’s tiny, the size of a USB thumb drive.
©Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Most streaming media junkies already have some experience getting entertainment on their TV sets from Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube or the like. You can do it with gaming systems, DVRs, Blu-ray players, smart TVs that have streaming hardware built in and set-top boxes specifically designed for streaming, such as the Roku. But with the launch of Chromecast in July 2013, Google jumped into the streaming media game.

Chromecast is an enlarged thumb drive-sized dongle that plugs into a modern television set's HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface) port and allows you to stream (or rather cast) media from your existing computer or mobile device through your home WiFi network and onto your TV screen. You can play movies and TV shows with resolution as high as 1080p, listen to music through your entertainment center's sound system and even throw Web pages onto your TV screen in some cases.

Your phone, tablet, laptop or desktop acts as the initial launching site for the entertainment and as the remote for controlling what you see and hear on your TV screen. Provided you already have as suitable device running a compatible operating system and have WiFi through a compatible router, you get all this functionality for the cost of the Chromecast, which as of its debut was priced below most similar streaming devices at $35 retail.

Read on to find out what makes this tiny but powerful device tick.

Chromecast Technical Specifications

The Chromecast is small black device with a form factor similar to a bulbous flash drive. It's 2.8 inches (72 millimeters) in length, 1.4 inches (35 millimeters) in width and 0.5 inches (12 millimeters) in height, with a weight of 1.2 ounces (34 grams). It has an HDMI output connector on one end and a micro-USB port on the other end. It also has a reset button and an LED status light.

Its innards include a motherboard with a system-on-a-chip processor, 512 megabytes (MB) of SDRAM, 2 gigabytes (GB) of flash memory and a WLAN WiFi, Bluetooth and FM module. Fun fact for any Douglas Adams aficionados: The device's model number, H2G2-42, appears to be a "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" reference [source: iFixit].

To use Chromecast, you will need a TV or monitor with at least one open HDMI port, which you should find on just about any high-definition (HD) television. The device has a maximum resolution video output of 1080p. Chromecast is Consumer Electronic Control (CEC) compatible. You'll also need a good WiFi network connection. The WiFi is 802.11b/g/n (802.11n at 2.4GHz only) with WEP, WPA and WPA2 security.

The device comes with the following:

  • A USB power cable with a micro-USB connector at one end and a standard USB 2.0 connector at the other.
  • A power supply with a USB 2.0 port.
  • An HDMI extender.

The latter two of the above can be used optionally. The extender works to plug in the device if it won't fit neatly in any of your available HDMI ports, but using it can also help improve WiFi reception if your Chromecast is having trouble connecting to your network.

The device is powered using the USB power cable plugged into the Chromecast via the micro-USB port, with the other end either plugged into a standard USB port or into the power adapter for insertion into a wall outlet.

Chromecast is supported with the following operating systems, although some of its features may work with slightly older OSes in a few cases:

  • Android Gingerbread 2.3 or higher.
  • Chrome OS (Chromebook Pixel on Chrome 28 or higher).
  • iOS 6.0 or higher (on iPhone, iPad and iPod).
  • Mac OS 10.7 or higher.
  • Windows 7 or higher.

What Makes Chromecast Stream to Your TV?

A demo of the Chromecast being controlled from a Google Nexus 7 tablet.
A demo of the Chromecast being controlled from a Google Nexus 7 tablet.
© Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Chromecast gets things to your TV screen from a remote device in part by using something called the DIAL (Discovery And Launch) protocol. DIAL was developed jointly by Netflix and YouTube, which is owned by Google. DIAL actually launched on Google TV, Google's earlier foray into TV control, and now it's being integrated into devices and apps by a number of manufacturers and content providers.

One of Chromecast's components, the DIAL Service Discovery protocol, uses Simple Service Discovery Protocol (SSDP) version 1.1, which is defined by UPnP (Universal Plug and Play), to allow a DIAL client device to locate a DIAL server device running on the same network. The other component, the DIAL REST (Representational State Transfer) Service, is then accessed to query, launch or stop applications using HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol) requests from the client device to the server device. In the case of Chromecast, your phone, tablet or computer is the client and the Chromecast itself is the server.

Google created Google Cast screen-sharing technology to work on top of DIAL, adding a lot more functionality than DIAL could offer alone. It developed the Google Cast SDK (Software Development Kit) to enable developers to add related functionality to third-party apps that can be used to launch media from the client device to the Chromecast. There are Google Cast APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) for each compatible operating system. All this allows for functionality such as pausing and volume control, as well as additional features that app developers are free to implement. As of January 2014, the SDK was still only out in preview mode and only select partners were allowed to launch apps on the device. However, that may change when Google opens up a finalized SDK to everyone sometime later in 2014.

The Chromecast is actually running a pared-down version of the Chrome browser, and the applications on the device are Web applications that receive the aforementioned HTTP requests and react accordingly. Once the app is launched, it will actually be running on the Chromecast, but a communication channel will be open that allows the client device to act as a sort of remote control. This dynamic allows you to turn off your mobile device without stopping whatever is streaming from the Chromecast to your TV.

To set up Chromecast, you have to either install a special app or a Chrome extension, depending upon what device you're using as a media launcher. Once it's set up, you use third-party apps like Netflix, YouTube or the Chrome browser to do the actual launching and controlling of your content.

There are currently other apps that work in conjunction with set-top boxes like gaming systems to enable you to use a smartphone or tablet as a remote control. But in those cases, you have to launch the app on the set top box and the app on the mobile device and run them simultaneously. Chromecast (via DIAL) eliminates a step by allowing launch and control of an app from a single device for playback on the TV through the Chromecast. It may herald the future simplification of our living room remote control situation.

Read on to find out what apps currently work with the device.

What Services Work With Chromecast?

At launch, not much besides Netflix and YouTube worked on Chromecast, but quite a few other services have become integrated with the device since them. They include video, music, news, media storage and sharing apps, and even Google's own Internet browser, Chrome, with some caveats.

The following could be launched on Chromecast as of early 2014:

  • HBO Go
  • Hulu Plus
  • Netflix
  • Pandora
  • Plex
  • PostTV
  • RealPlayer Cloud
  • Red Bull.TV
  • Songza
  • Vevo
  • Viki
  • YouTube
  • Google Play Music
  • Google Play TV & Movies
  • Plus any tab on your Chrome browser, if you add the Google Cast Extension to the browser.

The Chrome browser tab-casting feature is still in beta on all but a few Chromecast optimized Web sites as of January 2014. It doesn't work yet from smartphone Chrome browsers and requires a fast computer on a fast WiFi network with a strong connection to function properly.

You will, of course, need to register, and in some cases pay, for many of the services listed above in order to stream content from them.

Setting Up Chromecast

The setup instructions for Chromecast are simple -- and they’re printed on the inside cover of the box. You might need a little more help than that if you have network issues or an unsupported OS, though.
The setup instructions for Chromecast are simple -- and they’re printed on the inside cover of the box. You might need a little more help than that if you have network issues or an unsupported OS, though.
© Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

If you have the requisite WiFi network, a compatible device that is connected to that network, and the desire to use any of the services that can stream through Chromecast, the next step is getting one and going through a few simple steps. You will need to know your WiFi password for setup.

It may also require some configuration of your WiFi router under certain circumstances, and it's possible for your router to be incompatible with the Chromecast. Google's support site has a Chromecast Router Compatibility page with a long list of compatible routers, which also includes the firmware version, possible workarounds for certain issues and contact information for the router manufacturers.

Barring connection issues, you simply plug the USB power cable into the Chromecast and into a power source, and plug the Chromecast into an HDMI port on your television set. The HDMI connector on the Chromecast can also be plugged into the included HDMI extender, which can be connected to the TV, either if there is no room for the device directly in the HDMI port or if you are having WiFi reception issues.

Suitable power sources are either a USB port on a device like your TV, or the included power adapter plugged into a wall outlet. There's a warning on the Chromecast site and in the documentation not to plug the USB cable into a port labeled "service," but only into one clearly marked as a USB port.

Once the device is connected and powered, switch the TV's input to the right HDMI port, and the television will display a "set me up" screen that prompts you to visit google.com/chromecast/setup. You should go to this site on the device you want to use to control the Chromecast. The setup screen also shows the default name of the Chromecast.

From there, you'll download, install and run a Chromecast app if you're using a smartphone or tablet (it will direct you to the appropriate app store), or the Google Cast extension for the Chrome browser if you are using a desktop or laptop. If you are using a computer that doesn't already have the Chrome browser, you will have to install that, as well.

If you go to the setup site from a device that runs an unsupported operating system, it will warn you but let you try to install software anyway. The Google Cast extension may install on some non-supported OSes, and in some cases may even work to an extent, but the functionality will likely be unpredictable.

In the case of the Chromecast app, it will take you through several more steps to set up your new device. You connect your phone's WiFi to the Chromecast itself rather than your home network. A code should appear both on the TV screen and on your launch device screen. You confirm that they match to move forward. You'll be prompted to change the name of the Chromecast to something personal. You then select your home WiFi network, enter your password and hit a button to finish set up.

Once it's connected to WiFi, the Chromecast will probably do an auto-update to grab the latest software, which may take a few minutes. Anytime updated software is available, the device downloads and installs it automatically, whether you're performing setup or not.

After all this, provided there are no connection issues, your mobile device or computer should be ready to stream to your TV via Chromecast. The next step is opening an app and casting away.

What You Can Do With Chromecast

To use Chromecast on your mobile device, make sure you're connected to WiFi, and open a supported application, such as Netflix, YouTube, Hulu Plus or Pandora. Installation of the Chromecast app (which you already did for setup, most likely) makes a special Cast icon appear within supported apps. You may see the icon as soon as you enter the app, or it may appear once you select a video, song or other media to cast. When you click the icon, it prompts you to select a Chromecast (in case you have multiples) and, after a moment, your chosen media should appear on the TV.

In the Chrome browser on a computer, once you've installed the Cast extension, a cast icon will appear in the upper right-hand corner or your browser that lets you cast a single tab to the screen. You also use the icon to stop casting the tab. There are some Web sites, like Netflix and YouTube, which are already optimized for Chromecast. They will include a Cast icon on each video that allows you to rather seamlessly cast the media to your TV rather than the tab itself, which should result in higher quality and fewer playback glitches. Video cast from a Chrome tab has a maximum resolution of 720p, whereas video streamed via the Cast button for a video housed on a supported site can reach 1080p.

You generally control streaming from your mobile device using a volume bar, a scrub bar (the scroll bar that lets you move forward and backward through a song or video), and stop, pause and play icons on the screen. There may be other controls available, depending upon the app. The volume in this case is Chromecast's internal volume, so you may have to use the TV's remote to really get the volume to your preferred setting. If you have an Android device, you can also control your streaming from the lock screen or notification bar.

You can leave the control screen and browse within the app, go to other apps, let your computer or mobile device go to sleep and even shut it off, and your chosen entertainment should keep playing on the TV via the Chromecast. The latter cannot be done when casting a Chrome tab, but it does work with Netflix and the like.

While you're streaming a video via Chromecast, if you select another video from within the same app, that video will likely play to your TV screen instead. But you can actually go to another application and play a different video on your mobile device or computer while the original video continues to stream on your TV screen, unless you choose a cast icon in that app (if available), in which case the video in the new app will take over your TV. If you have wandered off and want to take control of a streaming video to once again, you go back to the app, and there should be a "Now Playing" bar or similar that takes you back to the control screen for that video.

Multiple devices can be used to launch content to the Chromecast, provided they can all connect to your WiFi network and have the appropriate apps or extensions installed. They can include your phone, your tablet, your computer or the devices of other household members or friends who are over. That means you can end up fighting for control of the TV, or you can purposefully do a bit of organized social streaming of videos or music.

Comparison to Competitors

The Roku Stick is similar in size to Chromecast, though it isn't USB -- it requires a Mobile High-Definition Link port.
The Roku Stick is similar in size to Chromecast, though it isn't USB -- it requires a Mobile High-Definition Link port.
Image courtesy of Roku

There are quite a few other methods of streaming content to your television, including game systems, DVRs and Blu-ray players. If you have one of those and don't mind the inconvenience of regular remote controls, you may not need an additional device. But if you're interested in a stand-alone streaming device, Chromecast isn't the only game in town.

One choice, the Roku box, has four different models ranging from $50 to $100 as of early 2014. The base Roku LT streams at a maximum of 720p, whereas all others can stream at 1080p. All include WiFi, but the most expensive, the Roku 3, also includes Ethernet. Roku offers more than 1000 channels of content, far more than Chromecast and a lot of other streaming boxes on the market. It also comes with its own remote and doesn't require that you have a tablet or smartphone for control, but you can download an app to use your mobile device as a remote if you want. You need an HDMI cable if you want to watch in high-def and it doesn't come standard, so that's an additional cost. Roku has another device, the Roku Streaming Stick that, like Chromecast, looks like an oversized flash drive. It costs around $70 ($90 with a remote) and requires the fairly rare Mobile High-Definition Link (MHL) connection port. The beauty of using MHL is that the Roku Streaming Stick does not require a power cable, but unfortunately, most TVs do not currently have MHL. Roku is also working on incorporating DIAL into its devices.

Another competitor is Apple TV. It costs $99 and allows you to stream anything from your Mac computer or iOS device (iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch), or anything in iCloud, to your television. It supports more than 25 channels, including Netflix, Hulu Plus, HBO Go, ABC, PBS, Crackle, YouTube, Vimeo and several Disney, sports and news channels. You can stream your own iMovies, photos and videos from your computer, as well as podcasts and any media from iTunes. You can also mirror anything on your iOS device screen to your TV and use your iOS mobile devices as remotes. The major downside is that it doesn't work with Android devices. You can get to some things through Windows computers, but Apple TV really better suited for Mac enthusiasts.

Miracast is another alternative, but it isn't one particular dongle. It is built into multiple devices of varying prices (some nearly as cheap as Chromecast), and sometimes even built into TVs. It works through WiFi Direct, which, as the name implies, lets devices connect to each other directly via WiFi. One device creates a mini-network to which the other connects, rather than both connecting through your home WiFi network. It allows you to mirror content from a device to your TV, meaning whatever is on your mobile device screen shows up on your TV. One major downside is that your smartphone or tablet has to stay active for the content to stay on your TV screen, so it can quickly run down your mobile device battery, and whatever you are viewing will disappear if the device auto-locks.

Google TV is another option that's not a single device, but rather hardware and software built into either smart TVs or streaming set top boxes. Some of the boxes include the Netgear NeoTV Prime, the VIZIO Co-Star, the Hisense Pulse and the Asus CUBE. Google TV devices sometimes come with large remote controls that include keyboards for text input, although newer remotes sometimes feature microphones that allow you to give voice commands using Google's cloud-based voice recognition system. It makes a few streaming apps available to your HDTV, as well as Web browsing capabilities, and allows you to switch easily between online streaming and traditional television.

Critical Reception and Future Development

The Chromecast has been very successful since it went on the market in July 2013. Initially, it sold out very quickly, and the availability of a limited Netflix promotion (three free months of service) ran out within a few hours of launch -- the device wound up on backorder for up to three months for some purchasers. By the end of 2013, Chromecast was readily available from retailers.

Reviewers praise the device for being one of the cheapest streaming options, for ease of setup, for working quite well via its supported apps and for its unobtrusive form factor that allows it to hide behind your TV in most cases. It does require a power cable, however, which can make it a slightly awkward addition to your home entertainment system, although it does avoid adding a new box to your collection.

Its Chrome browser tab mirroring functionality gets some criticism for poor picture quality and technical glitches, although that feature was still in beta as of early 2014. The strength of your WiFi network can also affect Chromecast's streaming picture quality. Some users experiencea lag of a few seconds between casting media and when it actually plays. And if you don't have a compatible client device running a supported OS and a compatible router, you're out of luck entirely.

Because any compatible device on the same network can control any Chromecast on that network, multiple devices can interfere with each other. The last one that tries to play a video or music or cast a tab to your Chromecast will win out. This might not be much of a problem on a home network, unless someone unintentionally casts something they wouldn't want their family or visiting friends to see (or if you live with a jerk).

The only real security is your WiFi password, provided your network is password protected. Anyone with this password can stream through the Chromecast. But as of January 2014, the only authentication information it prompts you for is your WiFi password, so you may not be able to use it with WiFi networks that require other information, like corporate sites that ask for a username or hotels that ask for your room number and name.

So far, Chromecast has far fewer channels available compared to other streaming devices on the market, which isn't terribly surprising since it is the new kid on the block. Google plans to release the finalized SDK and to launch the device outside of the United States in 2014. Wider availability and access by more developers should lead to a much larger number of Chromecast-compatible apps over time. And once the device's ability to run things from a Chrome browser tab comes out of beta, the sky might be the limit as to what it can stream.

Author's Note: How Chromecast Works

I bought and played around with a Chromecast as part of my research for this article because I really needed another way to get Netflix to my TV besides the four consoles I already have attached to it.

But all sarcasm aside, so far I do not regret the purchase. There are some minor downsides. It took me a little while to get it working with my network. I didn't do much but try over and over again, and then add the extender, which really did seem to help with reception instantly. It only works with a few apps right now, and I can't yet use my Mac fully because I'm on a slightly older OS that isn't supported. But that said, I did install the Google Cast extension anyway, and even though I get a 404 error when I try to cast a browser tab, it allowed me to play a YouTube video.

With my phone, I've been able to stream videos and music without any issues. I was even able to launch a TV show, exit the app and take a picture of my TV screen with the phone while the video was still going, which was impressive.

Still more useful is the incredible ease with which I am able to find and play YouTube videos. I hate, hate, hate searching YouTube on my other consoles. Entering the text with a remote or game controller is maddening, and the video I'm looking for rarely ends up in the top 10 without a couple of search parameter changes. But now it is easy and painless to find a video on my phone or computer and throw it to my TV, and the picture quality on the big screen has been better than expected so far. I may never stream YouTube any other way.

Netflix also gives me the 10-second back button that I sorely miss whenever I'm running the app on a console. I'm always trying to backtrack to hear dialogue I didn't quite catch.

Time will tell how much I use this device, but my initial impression is favorable. I usually play around on my phone when the TV is running anyway. Now it can do double duty.

Related Articles

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