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Upcoming Events, Next Meeting January 7, 2015
Wednesday JANUARY 7, 2015 Meeting
Google Chromecast - Inexpensive Competitor to Cable and Satellite Entertainment
by Ira Wilsker
You may have seen the recent TV commercials for a new device from Amazon called Fire Stick, which is so new that it is just starting to be shipped. Another device which recently came on the market with great fanfare is the Roku Streaming Stick. Several other comparable devices are in development, or recently came on the market creating a crowded field of competitive products. One that has been on the market since the summer of 2013, is Google's Chromecast, which has become well established with "millions" sold, according to a July, 2014 statement from Google. One may wonder what all of the buzz is about, and why so many companies are developing or producing these items. How did Google manage to sell "millions" of Chromecast devices (their words) in the first 12 months that it was available? The answer is simple - these relatively inexpensive items have become an entertainment tool that for many users, can somewhat compete with satellite or cable TV at a fraction of the price.
One of my daughters recently "cut the cable", even though she was on a very good fiber optic system with hundreds of TV channels, dozens of movie channels, and other features, because in her eyes the monthly cost was becoming prohibitive. She also has a separate very high speed internet service which she believed could be better utilized for entertainment purposes, as well as providing a reliable connection for her chosen digital telephone service. She and her husband like streaming movies, sports, music, features, and other entertainment; living in the Dallas area, all of the local TV stations, both local and network, are available over the air for free, using an inexpensive digital antenna hooked up to the TVs around her house. By connecting her TVs to the internet, using some of the readily available and inexpensive devices, she has found that there is nothing that she is really missing from her former expensive cable service, other than a large monthly bill. By her calculations, she believes that she is saving about $150 per month using these alternative devices to connect her TV to the internet in her home. Some of the newer "smart TVs" that recently came onto the market do not need external devices to connect to the internet, as they are already capable of receiving alternative internet based entertainment through an Ethernet or Wi-Fi connection. Since she does not (yet) have a new smart TV, one of the devices that she uses is the Chromecast device from Google.
A Chromecast device, which Google refers to as a digital media player, looks very similar to a common USB flash drive, and is about the same size and weight, but has an industry standard HDMI plug, rather than the USB plug found on a typical flash drive. Specifically a Chromecast device is 2.38" long, 1.38 inches wide, and 0.47 of an inch thick, and weighs 1.2 ounces. Inside, where the magic takes place, is a Nexus Q microprocessor (CPU), with 512 MB of fast DDR3L RAM, and 2 GB of storage. Power is supplied through a standard micro USB plug and power source (included), similar to the chargers and plugs used on most of today's smart phones. The standard HDMI plug on the end of the Chromecast plugs directly into an available HDMI port on the TV (most newer TVs have multiple HDMI inputs), and Chromecast receives the digital media through Wi-Fi utilizing the common 802.11 b/g/n protocols at 2.4GHZ. Obviously, the user needs to have a decent home Wi-Fi system in order to utilize the Chromecast. The device itself is readily available in the big box stores, discount stores, online retailers, and direct from Google, and carries a suggested retail price of $35. Bargain shoppers can currently find the Chromecast on sale online for as little as $22 including a bundle of digital media streaming services.
Installation of the Chromecast is a simple and fast three step process; Google says, "Plug in and Play" which consists of plugging the Chromecast into an available HDMI port on the TV and powering the device through the included micro USB plug, connecting the device to the home Wi-Fi, and then "Enjoy - Cast apps from your mobile device to the TV." Casting apps is the process of selecting entertainment channels using any compatible smart device attached to the home Wi-Fi, such as a phone or tablet, including Android tablets and smart phones, iPhones and iPads, Chrome for Windows, Chrome for Mac and Chromebooks. In effect, the hand held smart device becomes the remote control, and the apps are the selected streaming media sources.
The list of streaming media apps that are available for the Chromecast is extensive, and includes a large selection of both free and paid subscription services. Google has an updated app directory at http://www.google.com/chrome/devices/chromecast/apps.html and as to be expected from Google, is totally searchable, or content can be displayed by genre'. Among the category headings are Featured, New, TV & Movies, Music & Audio, Games, Sports, Photos & Video, and "More". Selecting a media source from these app directories connects directly to the appropriate download; if it is a paid or subscription app, such as Netflix, that information is clearly displayed prior to any purchase. Among the more popular casting apps are HBO GO, Netflix, Watch ESPN, Just Dance Now, Showtime Anytime, YouTube, and the large assortment of digital media available from Google Play.
The "Featured Apps" include the most popular apps, and includes in addition to the more popular apps listed above, Nickelodeon, Hulu Plus, Comedy Central, Sesame Street, Pandora, game shows, Disney, Starz, Encore, iHeart radio, Major League Baseball, Crackle, NPR, Vudu, and dozens of other apps. The "Music and Audio" lists hundreds of domestic and international streaming music sources, including some local and international radio stations. Personally I am not into digital games, but the "Games" section lists about 75 streaming games that can be played on the Chromecast.
I would expect that one of the major uses of Chromecast would be to watch sports, and the "Sports" selection may satisfy fans of most major sports. Included in the Sports apps are, WatchESPN, UFC.TV, MLB.TV Premium, MLS MatchDay, NFL Game Pass, MLS Live, Red Bull TV, a high school sports channel, and several foreign sports channels.
The "More" category includes dozens of casting apps including PBS for Kids, TED Chromecast, UDEMY (online classes), ABC News, Funny or Die, FM radio stations, a baby monitor, QVC, iFood TV and Recipes, religion channels, local and international TV news stations, and many other apps.
Often, we may see something online or on our smart phones that we would like to view on the big TV screen; Chromecast can handle that. According to Google, "Whatever you’re listening to or watching -- you can cast it straight from your Windows, Mac, or Chromebook directly to the TV. To cast from your laptop, just add the Google Cast extension to your Chrome browser." Owners of Android smart phones or tablets can broadcast directly from their screen to the TV using the appropriate app.
Chromecast devices are popular, with users receiving over 400 billion programs in the first year (source, Google). According to the news site Gigaom, in an article dated December 7, 2014, "Streaming on Chromecast passes Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV in US", the author Kevin C. Tofel explains, "What happens when you offer the combination of a simple user experience, a growing choice in streaming apps and a low cost? You sell a lot of that product and people use it. That’s what happened in 2014 to the Chromecast according to Parks Associates, who say that Google‘s $35 streaming stick now trails only Roku players in the U.S. when it comes to streaming content." While Roku released a competitive stick device during the summer of 2014, larger Roku streaming players have been on the market much longer than the Chromecast.
Amazon, who is no slouch when it comes to introducing and implementing new technologies, will be shipping by the time that you read this its new $39 Fire TV Stick, as a direct competitor to Chromecast and similar devices, but offers improved Wi-Fi connectivity, more internal memory, a more powerful dual-core processor, and other technical enhancements. Basically, the Fire TV Stick offers much the same content as Chromecast, but adds the hundreds of thousands of movies and TV shows currently available at no additional cost to Amazon Prime subscribers (currently $99 per year) which for many users is price and selection competitive to Netflix, plus offers a lot of benefits in addition to streaming media, such as free second day delivery of most items from Amazon. The Fire TV Stick also includes a separate remote control device, or the user can use a free smart device app as a remote control. In terms of disclosure, I pre-ordered an Amazon Fire TV Stick at a greatly discounted price, and will review it when it arrives. Since I already have an Amazon Prime account, I will be able to utilize Amazon's massive video and TV library when the Fire TV Stick arrives.
One suggestion that many readers might find helpful if considering using one of these Wi-Fi connected stick devices to provide digital content to a flat screen TV; if the TV is physically located in close proximity to the Wi-Fi router, such as in the same room, signal strength should be fine. An easy way to roughly figure Wi-Fi signal strength is to connect a smart device to the Wi-Fi, and note the signal strength (bars) precisely at the location where a stick device would be connected. In my house, our bedroom TV is a distance from the Wi-Fi router, with several walls in between, giving only a "3 bar" Wi-Fi strength where the Chromecast is currently connected to that TV. To improve the signal strength, I purchased a deeply discounted, factory refurbished, major name brand "Wireless-N Range Extender", and mounted it on the stand directly below the HDMI port on the bedroom TV; now my phone shows all 5 Wi-Fi signal strength bars, indicating a very strong signal, which has dramatically improved the performance of the stick device.
Either as a replacement for, or as a substitute to cable and satellite TV service, these stick devices may be a very cost effective way of "cutting the cable" as my daughter did. As inexpensive as these stick devices are, and with the entertainment capabilities that they provide, one of these new stick devices may be a worthwhile investment.
Easy Basic Backups
By Jim Cerny, 2nd Vice President, Sarasota PCUG, FL
August 2014 issue, Sarasota Technology Monitor www.spcug.org jimcerny123 (at) gmail.com
Unfortunately it is not a perfect world and, as you know, any mechanical device can fail. Because your computer and/or your hard drive can fail, everyone (this means you) needs to take the extra step on a regular basis to make sure that you have a good backup. I am always surprised at the number of people who just don’t do backups at all – they will have a real problem if something goes wrong. There have been many “backup” articles written and I would encourage you to read some of them. But the purpose of this article is just to give you the basics first and then you can decide what further steps you need to take and what more information you may need. Here is the “basic backup” information:
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