Chromecast In Da House

Chromecast-Sharp-Aquos-42inchIn the first day or two of its release I ordered a Google Chromecast HDMI Streaming Media Player via Amazon, and was lucky enough to actually get one delivered. We’ve been living with it for a few weeks now, and have some thoughts to share.

At the outset let me say that we’re reasonably well-serviced when it comes to TV & movies. We have two HDTVs, each paired to a second generation TivoHD. We do not partake of any kind of surround sound playback. It simply wasn’t desired.

As TivoHD users we have Comcast Cable TV with a generous, if costly, package of channels. We also watch Netflix streams and use Amazon Unbox downloads.

It has been a minor sore point that we have an Amazon Prime membership, so we’re able to see a lot of Amazon’s content for free on Android devices and PCs. That content is not freely available to the TivoHD devices. Some of it may be available, but at a cost. Some of it is simply not available to such devices.

Our experience with Tivo and later TivoHD has been outstanding. So much so that we’re seriously considering spending the $500 necessary to move to one of the newly released TiVo Roamio Plus boxes with a TiVo Mini to service the second HDTV.

Tivo-Roamio-Plus-Frontal

None of this has anything to do with Chromecast, except that, in truth, it does. It establishes the environment where the device landed, and to a degree, what role it could play in enhancing that environment.

My personal goal in installing Chromecast was very simple; I wanted to have a convenient way to put the display from my wife’s PC onto our HDTV. Her desk backs the couch in our family room. She’s constantly looking at things online then asking me to “come see” whatever has caught her imagination. That forces me to stop whatever I may be doing and walk around to the back of the room.

If she could click a button in her browser and expose her desktop to the TV it would be a much better experience for both of us. I would not feel so inconvenienced by her desire to share whatever-it-is-at-that-moment.

So it was that I installed the Chromecast to our family room HDTV, a six-year-old 42” Sharp Aquos model. Unfortunately, the HDMI implementation on the old Aquos doesn’t support input switching by the Chromecast. Thus we have to manually switch between the inputs, which was somewhat to be expected.

That fact makes the Chromecast experience cumbersome. We typically use only the Tivo remote control, which is a marvel of design. I had to dig out the remote for the Aquos in order to use the Chromecast.

Trying Chromecast on the other HDTV, a newer Samsung model, I found that Chromecast is able to perform power and input switching. Unfortunately, we really don’t have much use of the Chromecast at that location.

Chromecast is a great way to enjoy Netflix, which is what we’ve used the most. Using any of our Android devices as remote controls is very handy.

It would be even better of there was some way to more quickly return to the remote control if you leave it for any reason. Perhaps there are some Chromecast-specific Android widgets? I haven’t looked as yet.

Where our experience with Chromecast falls apart is the audio behavior of the services. As I mentioned earlier, we don’t have a dedicated surround system. Our 42” Aquos was at the time the largest model offered with built-in speakers. That’s all we have used these many years.

Tervl-VR1-Audio-level-controllerWe’ve long been bothered by the same variation in audio level that caused congress to pass the CALM Act. It was so bothersome that years ago we connected the TivoHD to the TV using analog cabling. We did this specifically so that we could insert a Terk VR1 Automatic TV Volume Controller into the audio path.

This inexpensive little device has eliminated a lot of aggravation. Hidden away behind a cabinet, it works so well that I often forget that it was there.

When we started to use Chromecast the audio path was very simple. Audio stream from Chromecast to the Aquos via HDMI. The result is a largely unsatisfactory audio experience.

The problem is that audio is largely ignored, and often badly handled. The major irritation is that the dialogue channel in the surround stream is not correctly down-mixed into the dedicated stereo stream. The result is that dialogue is too low to be heard. If you turn up the volume to hear the dialogue the music and sounds effects are far, far too loud.

Not using the Terk device has proven intolerable, rendering the Chromecast experience rather disappointing.

I could not find anything about matter this online so I engaged Netflix support via online chat. “Bill” was as helpful as he could be, but there was not solution to be had. Bill confirmed that they should be sending a 5.1 surround mix and a stereo down-mix, although that could vary with each title in the library.

Had the Aquos been surround sound capable there could be a software setting to choose which audio stream to leverage. Since it lacks any surround capability it just uses whatever the Chromecast sends by default. For it’s part, Chromecast offers no control of such things. Perhaps it should.

If I had a traditional A/V receiver with surround capability I’d try connecting the Chromecast to that, passing the video on to the HDTV. That would theoretically give us some control of what stream to use. But then, if we had a surround capable A/V receiver we’d likely want to use the surround stream!

All of this points to the Roamio as something that we would likely appreciate. At least for us, the user experience of Netflix on TivoHD is actually better than Chromecast. Oh, the menus are slow and cumbersome, but once the program streams starts the experience is much better overall.

Of course, it’s not at all fair to compare a Chromecast to a Tivo Roamio. Chromecast costs just one-tenth the cost of the Roamio box. Is it fair to compare Chromecast to the six year old TivoHD?

I know that some day we’ll want to replace the aged Aquos HDTV. Whatever we choose to replace the old beast will likely be more capable in most regards. It may completely lack audio capability as that’s quite common above a certain size. Stella has already determined that we really don’t want anything over 55”. That could drive us into a limited surround installation, even though we don’t truly feel the need.

Chromecast is a neat gadget,  but it hasn’t had much impact in our home. At least not yet. It might, especially as it comes to support new services, or if third party developers can start to leverage its capabilities.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013 – Update: After some further searching online I’ve found a forum thread that seems to say that Netflix viewed on a PC does have a setting to allow a user to select stereo vs Dolby Digital 5.1. I’ll give that a try this evening and see if it solves the problem with dialogue level.