We just bought a ChromeCast 4K with Google TV and it does what it says on the package, adequately well. I’m posting this TV-setup piece because (to my surprise) every time I write about TV, I get a lot of reaction; apparently others care. Also because I figured out a couple of non-obvious things about the ChromeCast that should be online so others can find them.
System snapshot · We have an LG 4K TV connected to a receiver that drives two small stereo speakers and a subwoofer. The sound and picture can be very good, especially when the input signal is good enough to take advantage of the gear. Which, unfortunately, is not that often; more on that later.
Also plugged into the receiver are a Roku box, a PlayStation, a dorky old BluRay/DVD player, and the ChromeCast 4K. There’s an HDMI connecting the TV and the receiver and it can run both ways: Signals from all those devices drive the screen, and the screen runs WebOS so it has streaming apps and can drive itself; also it’s happy to send its audio (and some commands like volume adjustment) the other way to the receiver. The protocol for doing this is called eArc. I had to try a couple of times to get it to work, but eventually it did.
We currently pilot all this stuff with old-school Logitech Harmony universal remotes. Notice the plural in “remotes”? That’s because, since I like the setup and they don’t make them any more, I bought a couple extras off eBay, so we should be good for a while as long as we don’t add new devices.
The problem · At the moment we subscribe to four streaming services (two of them for sports), plus watch a lot of live-music video on YouTube. Ideally, you’d like to have all of these streaming from one device to simplify the remote-control problem. And if you’re watching ultra-mainstream stuff like NetFlix and YouTube and Prime Video, you’re pretty well good to go, because they have apps for everything imaginable. But Canadian sports-streamers aren’t as ubiquitous. For one of them (SportsNet) the only app I could find was for PlayStation. So no problemo, right? Wrong. The PlayStation turns out to be a really lousy platform for this kind of thing, plus the app was klunky, plus it doesn’t do 4K, plus you have to go find that controller.
I noticed that when I was watching SportsNet on my computer or phone, there was a ChromeCast glyph. And we had a little-used ancient ChromeCast, and casting sort of worked, but it kept buffering and stuttering. Thus the new ChromeCast. Which unexpectedly came with a SportsNet app, yay.
What a modern ChromeCast is · Turns out, it’s now a Media Hub, aiming straight at the Roku/WebOS/Apple TV market. I guess you can still cast your browser tab or Android app to it but I haven’t needed to yet because the stuff I’d cast is built-in. Plus, it has a remote control, and then you can get the Google TV app on any Android device (iOS too? Dunno) to be your remote control.
I have to say the remote (physical or virtual) is very snappy. When you’re doing something like painfully entering a quality password or searching for something, the cursor jumps around instantly when you hit the arrows, unlike every other freaking video-remote in the universe that has horrible lag and I often overshoot the letter I’m looking for.
The branding is wonky; some parts of the experience are “Google TV” and Google Home is involved, and then other parts are about casting. But, it’s pretty cheap and gives a good experience, once you’ve got it set up.
So, there you go. But there are problems.
Problems I could fix · The ChromeCast setup experience is lousy. It tells you to fire up the Google Home app on your phone and just follow instructions. Wrong. You have to go to the app’s settings and find “Add new device”. There were other glitches too but eventually I fumbled my way through.
Here’s some SEO-optimized text: “ChromeCast 4K LG OLED bad picture”. As in, I was watching a baseball game and the white uniforms had a eyeball-rupturing glare with hideous splashes of dark grey around every fold. Puzzling. The TV normally has a million picture modes, but when the ChromeCast was playing there were only three, labeled “Dolby this” and “Dolby that”. None of them helped at all.
Eventually I figured out that if you go into the ChromeCast settings, there’s a “Picture” menu that offers Dolby-when-possible, HDR-when-possible, or plain-vanilla. Dolby was selected by default but HDR made the problem go away, so we were back in the LG’s (highly recommended) “Filmmaker” picture mode.
Later that evening I watched a few minutes of a hockey game (not really a hockey guy except at playoffs, a bit) and I have to say it was the best live-sports picture I’ve seen in years. Possibly related: The TV always reports 4K when being driven by the ChromeCast, I wonder if something is up-sampling or otherwise enhancing the signal? Because those everyday game broadcasts are definitely not in 4K.
Except that SportsNet occasionally does broadcast in 4K, and I’m looking forward to seeing Apple’s Friday-night baseball, which tends to have noticeably better production values. I wonder how Google got Apple to ship Apple+ for ChromeCast?
Problems I haven’t fixed · I can’t make the Harmony control the ChromeCast. Seriously irritating, but your phone can be your remote, so tolerable.
Google Home is buggy, you’re supposed to be able to invite other people to be able to control the TV but it usually doesn’t work; the forums are full of people saying “why doesn’t this work?” Tl;dr: If you avoid having any “Google Workspace” accounts (formerly “G Suite”, formerly “Google Apps For Your Domain”, internally at Google “Dasher”) on the device, things seem to be better.
The fancy modern hubs — WebOS and ChromeCast — devote most of their screen space to selling me subscriptions or other things, with the apps I actually use in little squares across the bottom of the screen. Neither of them seem customizable. It offends me when devices I paid for, showing video I pay for, in my own home, stuff ads in front of me. To its credit, Roku is way more restrained.
I’ve poked through the menus and found a bunch of places where I can say “don’t track me”, but I suspect they’re lying liars and some of them are tracking furiously at least some of the time. Grrrr. Both the TV (Alexa) and ChromeCast (G Assistant) want to be voice-controlled but I turned those damn microphones off (I think).
Signal quality and 4K · While the setup has minor irritants, when it’s good it’s very good. The best experience is on the big new shows from Netflix and Prime and so on and wow, the picture and sound get way out into awesome territory.
But anything live, be it sports or music, struggles to even be good 1080p. Because doing that is expensive. Here is a decent write-up on why. Apparently, what people like me should be asking for isn’t actually 4K, it’s quality uncompressed 1080p with HDR. I’d take it.
The geeky thing would be to do a comparison run of something from Netflix or equivalent, the same show being played back by the ChromeCast, the Roku, and the LG, and see if there’s a winner or loser. Must investigate if someone’s already done that.
4K · I think there’s a lesson in all this: 4K is good enough. You can make a decent case that it’s superfluous; see Is 4K BS? and More Things About TV. In any case, the ability of our TV screens to display a great picture, for the moment, often exceeds our ability to provide them a good signal, and may well exceed the ability of our eyes to distinguish the finer points. Which is to say, the next few years of advancing the quality of the experience need investment from the upstream programmers and carriers, not from us TV spuds.
At the end of the day it’s not a show-stopper. At the moment, my wife and I are watching Babylon 5 because somehow both of us missed it back in the Nineties and it’s pretty good.
We’re watching on DVDs from the public library. DVD resolution is 720x480, i.e. less than 5% of the number of pixels the 4K screen can display. When you’ve been watching modern stuff then you spin up the silver disk, the fuzziness is initially shocking. But if it’s a good show you stop noticing fast. Thus endeth the lesson.
Comment feed for ongoing:
From: hawkse (Apr 22 2023, at 13:08)
Nope. Still not buying a TV. It's just getting messier every year. Choice is great, of course, but this read like a nightmare. It should be a dumb screen, a smart player device and click-and-play. Whatever I want to watch. Period.
From: Oli Norwell (Apr 28 2023, at 01:54)
I really think Google made a mistake by branding these newer devices as “Chromecast”. That name was synonymous with cheap (30 dollars or so) straightforward devices for “casting” a stream to from another device. When they came out people mentally registered this new type of device “dongle that you control from another device” as a Chromecast.
Fast forward a few years and these new devices come out that have a remote and a user interface you navigate and apps, and which want to be an all in one solution, they’re also at typically twice the price.
So now when I tell a family member to “buy a Chromecast” they end up with one of these. I tell them it’ll be cheap (and it isn’t), I tell them all you need to do is “cast” and you don’t do that. They are then frustrated and confused, as am I.
No longer do I recommended Chromecasts to people.
All they had to do was give them a name like Chromeview.