In the middle of 2016, we can firmly say that you should not buy a smart TV. No matter which TV you have, you will need an external device with it that adds the smarts. For most people, the first choice is Google’s Chromecast, a much-loved device costing just $35. But maybe, just maybe, it’s not right for you…
The Chromecast is a fantastic device, there is no doubt about that. But if you thought it would turn your TV into a full-fledged smart TV, you’re mistaken. In fact, even as just a media device for your television, it has major limitations that you should know about. That $35 price tag, though, is hard to resist.
Intel launched the Compute Stick for $149 in January 2015. Granted, there’s a big difference between $35 and $149, but then Intel updated the Compute Stick in 2016. As a result the original first-gen Compute Stick is now available for $69 on Amazon. And that changes the game.
Just like that, the limitations of the Chromecast, compared to a full-fledged stick PC, become more prominent. We know that media streamers, media players, and HTPCs have different uses.
What’s right for you might not be right for your grandpa who just wants to watch YouTube videos of his favorite shows on TV. But for true geeks, the Chromecast has a few problems which could make a stick PC a better option.
Limited Apps, Limited Support
The Chromecast is limited by which apps support it. No, you can’t just run any video app on your phone or laptop and expect to see it played on your big-screen TV.
Take Amazon Video, for example. It has some great shows that make Amazon Prime worth the subscription, but the app doesn’t support Chromecast. And just like that, you can’t get Amazon Prime on your TV.
Similarly, let’s say you were to download the Star Wars digital movie collection on iTunes. Unfortunately, you can’t cast an iTunes movie to Chromecast. To do that, you’ll first need to remove its DRM through M4VGear, and then cast local media from your Mac to Chromecast. It’s a long process, and not the simple “just play it” experience your grandpa is looking for.
Sure, there is the workaround process of casting your entire screen to the TV, but that’s fraught with problems too, from audio-video sync issues to not being able to use your phone for anything else.
Unless the apps you want are on Chromecast, it’s basically useless. Here’s a full list of Cast-supported apps. Because the disappointment of finding that out on the day you want to watch the big game on the big screen? Immeasurable.
Active Internet Connection Needed
When you are using the Chromecast, your WiFi router needs to have an active internet connection. Yes, even if you are casting a video from your phone to your Chromecast, and it’s all local content, the internet connection needs to be active.
It’s a crazy requirement, since it makes the Chromecast useless without an active WiFi connection. If my internet connection isn’t working for whatever reason, that shouldn’t stop my local files from being detected and played, but for some reason, that’s the limitation Chromecast imposes.
Reddit has discovered a possible workaround where you set up a mobile hotspot on your phone, pair it with your Chromecast, star the video, and then turn off mobile data. But that’s ridiculous.
That would mean not getting any email updates, social media notifications, or messages from friends as long as I’m watching the video. Without an active WiFi connection available, the phone’s mobile data is my gateway to the internet, so disabling that to watch a video is idiotic.
The bottom line is that the Chromecast is useless without an active internet connection. You’re better off trying to fix your wireless internet connection than try anything with your Chromecast.
Doesn’t Support VPN or Proxies
Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) protect you by masking your identity online. They’re also a brilliant way to watch everything on Netflix no matter where you live. Unfortunately, you can’t do that with a Chromecast.
If you are using a VPN, the Chromecast won’t support it. The only way to do it is if you use a router-level VPN and not a device-level VPN, which is a complex procedure. Just check this long and complicated article on how difficult it is to use Chromecast with a VPN.
Plus, VPNs are more common than you think. Several offices use VPNs as a privacy and security measure. In fact, you should be using a VPN in many instances that you aren’t, like when you are downloading a torrent. And even though Netflix has cracked down on proxies, there are VPNs that still work with Netflix.
No Browser, No Flash
The Chromecast’s biggest undoing is its lack of a simple web browser. It is so heavily dependent on apps that you can’t just fire up Chrome and go to a website. It is a media streamer, yes, but it chooses which media you can stream by restricting your options on the open internet.
And even now, you will come across certain streams that are available only on Flash-based sites. Yup, Flash needs to die, but it’s not going away any time soon. That’s mainly because high-res HTML5 streams for events like live sports require powerful hardware. This is why live sports in web browsers often use Flash, which is lighter on resources.
An illustrative example of this is how the BBC iPlayer, available for Chromecast, cannot cast live sports. But you can watch them through a browser on a computer that supports Flash; but not with HTML5.
No Bluetooth Audio
It’s one of the most perplexing things about the Chromecast. Here’s a smart device, built for the 21st century, intended to be used for media streaming; and yet, it does not support Bluetooth audio. No, you can’t just cast your video to your TV and put on a pair of your favorite Bluetooth headphones for the audio. The audio is compulsorily on your TV too.
So even if you want to watch your shows without disturbing others in the house, you can’t use a simple pair of wireless headphones. It has become such a joke that a Netflix engineer quickly put together the “Quiet Cast” demo above, which topped our list of Netflix hacks you’ll wish were real.
Why a Stick PC Is Better
Apart from the famous Intel Compute Stick (UK), there are lots of other stick PCs. The RKM MK802IV LE is one of the cheapest Linux computers you can buy, and the Quantum Access Mini PC [UK] (read our review) is a cheaper version of Intel’s stick.
The bottom line is that while these may look like the Chromecast, they are proper PCs with a desktop operating system (OS) like Windows or Linux. Most of them support Windows 10, in fact, and that alleviates all the above problems.
- Apps and File Formats: It’s a Windows 10 PC. You will have every single app you want for media services, and anything that isn’t an app, will be available through the browser. As for file support, is there anything VLC can’t play or do?
- Offline Playback: As long as you’re connected to the same WiFi router, you can share files and folders on Windows and Mac or anything else. It doesn’t matter whether your internet connection is active or not.
- VPNs and Proxies: Pick anything from our list of the best VPN services out there. You will find a Windows app for it, or at least an extension for a browser that works on Windows. Proper desktop OSes are the best platforms for VPN support.
- Browsers and Flash: A proper, full-fledged desktop operating system gives you all the plugins you might need, and you have full access to the open internet to watch anything you want online.
- Bluetooth Audio: The Intel Compute Stick and almost every other stick PC has Bluetooth built in. Sure, there were some problems with Bluetooth and WiFi running simultaneously, but that has been fixed in the new version of the Compute Stick.
One quick note, before we finish. These stick PCs need a keyboard and a mouse, which seems like a lot of trouble compared to Chromecast’s “phone-only” utility. Well, don’t worry. Intel has released the Intel Remote Keyboard to turn your Android phone or tablet into a keyboard+mouse, and there are similar apps for iOS devices and Linux too.
Your Vote: Chromecast vs. Stick PC
I should point out that I came to this conclusion after being a happy Chromecast user for a long time. There was always something or the other which I couldn’t watch on my Chromecast, and that was a frustrating experience.
Today, I have both a stick PC and a Chromecast connected to my TV, and I couldn’t be happier. But with a gun to my head, if you told me there was only one device I could have, I would pick the stick PC.
What about you? Which would you buy between a Chromecast and a stick PC—or heck, a proper HTPC—to make your TV into a true smart TV? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments below.