Outputting your computer to your HDTV via HDMI works well. Unfortunately, your computer’s placement depends upon the length of the cable. With Google Chromecast, however, you can literally mirror any browser tab or even your desktop, from anywhere, in just a few clicks.
The point when video card manufacturers started including HDMI outputs was a great moment. Similarly, when TV makers began adding VGA inputs, we had yet another great way to add a huge second (or third) display to our setups. The implications, beyond the logical I-can-project-my-computer-screen-now train of thought were pretty apparent. If you wanted to use your TV now to play games from your computer, or watch movies on a big screen, you could now do so easily and cheaply.
The problem, as we mentioned, is that you have to set up your computer right next to your TV. Most HDMI cables are six to ten feet long. You can obviously buy longer lengths but the point is, even with all these fantastic projection capabilities, you’re still tethered by an ugly, black cable.
Enter Chromecast, Exit Cables
Google Chromecast is an amazing little gadget that costs less than a tank of gas. For $35, you get a tiny HDMI dongle that’s about the same size as a peanut butter cup, and while not as delicious, it does some pretty cool stuff!
One of the Chromecast’s best features is the ability to “cast” tabs or even your entire computer’s desktop.
To get started, you obviously need a Chromecast. You also need to use Google Chrome and you should install the Google Cast extension. You might also want to install the Google Cast app on your phone or tablet while you’re at it, but it is optional.
Casting Chrome Tabs
With your extension installed, you can start casting, which is more akin to mirroring, but who are we to split hairs? To cast a tab, click the “Google Cast” button in Chrome.
If you have more than one Chromecast on your network, you’ll obviously see them here. Select the Chromecast you want from the dropdown menu and your Chrome tab will appear on your TV’s screen (just make sure you’ve turned your TV to the correct input).
If you want to stop casting, simply click the Cast button again, and then click “Stop casting”.
If you want to cast another tab, select it, click the Cast button and click “Cast this tab”.
Casting tabs is super easy, but your results may vary. It works fairly well though, and we don’t notice a disconcerting amount of lag and stutter.
If you are casting a tabbed video, you can click the full-screen button and it will fill out the whole screen on your output device. You can then tear off this tab as a separate window and minimize it to your taskbar or dock. Just keep in mind that, if you’re using a slower computer, you might notice your output quality suffer a bit if you continue to use your computer for other tasks.
Know also, not all video formats are supported. You can overcome this limitation by either casting your entire screen (described below) and using a video player like VLC, or moving the file over to your Android device and casting your screen.
Videos aren’t the only types of files you can display in a Chrome tab and ultimately cast to your TV. If you want to learn more, we suggest you read our article on four other file types you can display in Chrome.
Advanced Casting Features
Casting tabs is easy, but there’s far more to it than just that. Clicking again on the Cast button in Chrome (make sure you’re not casting a tab first), choose the small arrow in the upper-right corner, and you will see three to four other options.
Let’s go through and explain each one so you have a firm grasp on what they all do.
Casting Tabs Optimized for Audio
A lot of TVs come with pretty sweet speakers, or you might have added a sound bar recently and use it listen to Pandora, Spotify, or other streaming services. The problem with normal tab casting is that audio is played on the source and output device, which means you can get some really poor results. Furthermore, you might get an echo effect, such as if you have the same program playing on two TVs in separate rooms.
If you click “cast this tab (optimize for audio)” however, audio output will be completely routed to your output device. Not only will you not have to mute your source device, but audio quality should be fairly solid.
You can mute your audio from your device by clicking the little mute button as shown in the following image.
When you cast with optimized audio, you control volume using the app/webpage and/or your TV. Using your computer’s volume controls will have no effect.
Casting Your Desktop
If you want to cast more than one tab, such as another app, or simply your entire desktop, then you need to click “Cast entire screen”. Casting your desktop is labeled “experimental.” That said, in our experience, it works very well for something that is still under development.
Casting your entire screen means that you can move your computer anywhere, as long as it can send and receive data to your router.
When you cast your screen to your TV or similar device, you’ll be asked what part of your screen you want to share.
Once your screen appears on the output device, your computer will show a small control bar at the bottom of your display.
In our experience, casting the screen is an ideal enough feature that you might bust out for presentations or just showing off a web page, but it may not be tolerable for video playback. That’s not to say it doesn’t work. In our tests, we tried playing a 650 MB .MP4 video on VLC on an aging but still capable desktop computer, and an even older and less capable laptop.
The weaker laptop cast the video with a great deal of ghosting. The desktop fared somewhat better, with no ghosting, but lag and dropped frames made for a less-than-pleasant viewing experience. Changing the resolution on the source computer had no noticeable effect on output quality.
We assume the more powerful the computer, the better your screen-casting experience may be, but it’s definitely not going to offer the type of results that connecting computer directly to the TV will yield.
Casting High-Quality Video for Optimal Results
You may have noticed in an earlier screenshot, that there is a special option to cast websites such as YouTube, directly to your Chromecast.
You can do this on an increasing number of services such as YouTube and Netflix, just as if you were casting from your mobile device.
Thus, you won’t experience quality problems because the video is being streamed directly from your router to your Chromecast, instead of from your computer, to the router, and then to the Chromecast.
Not all streaming websites support this capability but for those that do, it means Chromecast users don’t have to use a mobile device with a dedicated app to watch Netflix on their TVs.
What’s in Those Options?
Let’s wrap up with the options that you keep seeing when you click on the Cast button.
The Options are simple, you can choose the quality of your casting tabs.
If you’re experiencing far too many performance issues, then you can set the quality for a lower bitrate. This will obviously have a noticeable effect on how things appear on your output display, but it’s a great way to adjust for better playback when you’re casting a movie or video from a Chrome tab.
You can also set up a new Cast device, as well as manage existing ones, such as being able to reboot or factory reset right from Chrome. You can also rename your device and change the time options (time zone and time format), as well as change the language.
The Google Chromecast is a very versatile streaming device with lots of potential, and this is just what you can do with using a simple browser tab. On top of that, you can also customize your Chromecast with custom wallpapers, so we’re definitely looking forward to seeing what else this little $35 gadget can do in future updates.
Meanwhile, keep checking back as we continue to explore and demonstrate its value and please remember to leave feedback in the discussion forum and tell us what you think.