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  • CheapCast: The Free Alternative to Chromecast

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    When Chromecast launched in July, it was all the Internet could talk about. The small, HDMI-enabled device allowed users to easily stream video content straight to their TVs. Gone were the days of hooking up your laptop or transferring films to a USB stick. Well, that is, if you were lucky enough to get a Chromecast. BestBuy sold out in a day with orders from Amazon severely backlogged. It hasn’t even launched in Europe and already there’s insatiable demand on eBay for second hand devices.

    But you don’t have to wait for a Chromecast unit to try out the experience because an indie developer has made CheapCast available. It’s an Android app that turns any Android tablet or phone into a make-do Chromecast. But does it actually work?

    How Does CheapCast Work?

    The CheapCast app simulates the software pre-loaded on an official Google Chromecast. So if you have an old tablet or phone lying around, you should simply download the app to it, then connect said phone via an HDMI cable to your TV. This may require using an adapter — I used a HDMI adapter from my Samsung Galaxy Tab 2. And because the tablet will essentially be playing video files, it’ll chew through battery life so I suggest also hooking it up to a power supply to ensure constant usability.

    Cheapcast is quick and easy to set up

    CheapCast is quick and easy to set up

    Next, install the official Chromecast app on your main device. This acts as a remote control enabling you to stream YouTube videos or music to your tablet, and hence the TV. It will detect CheapCast on your receiver device and assume it is in fact a Chromecast. All you have to do is press the ‘Play’ symbol in the top right hand corner of the CheapCast app to turn it into the receiver device.

    Stop or resume the service from the Cheapcast app or the notifications dropdown menu

    The video isn’t streaming direct from your phone to the receiver device (tablet/old phone). It’s streaming from the Internet. This means you can exit YouTube on your phone and do other things such as check email, browse the web or play games while your CheapCast device continues playing the video. You can reopen Chromecast on your phone to pause or switch videos at any point.

    Quick Setup

    I had assumed setting up this service would take all weekend, lead to dozens of troubleshooting expeditions and ultimately end in a dismal emulation of Chromecast. I was quite wrong. Once you follow all the instructions there’s no reason you can’t have everything up and running within an hour.

    Tablets make for the best receivers as they have HDMI out and better video quality

    Tablets make for the best receivers as they have HDMI out and better video quality

    Neither Android device even needs to be rooted for this to work. So you don’t need to be a highly skilled hacker to use this trick. Pretty much anyone with a little patience can work through the kinks and get CheapCast set up.

    Limitations

    Being an unofficial app with no affiliation to Google, CheapCast doesn’t have the luxury of huge corporate partnerships. The most obvious downfall of CheapCast in this department is the lack of support for Netflix streaming. The extremely popular TV and movie service is installed on millions of Android devices. I think it’s a shame you can’t stream it to your TV using CheapCast like on the official Chromecast. I guess beggars can’t be choosers.

    You’re also restricted in terms of video quality by whatever device you’re using. Unless your tablet or phone can play videos at 1080p, you’ll remain at the 720p mark (or worse). Most new tablets can handle full HD but for those recycling older devices as make-do Chromecasts, this might cause some disappointment.

    Potential for Expansion

    With the rise of expensive Smart TVs, many people could emulate one via this method as a cheaper alternative. CheapCast provides an excellent proof of concept for controlling an external Android device wirelessly with another device.

    Of course, an old tablet or phone won’t cut it as a true Smart TV replacement, but what about the new wave of mini Android PCs, many of which rival laptop specs, have WiFi receivers, standard HDMI output and the full power of Android 4 and up?  You could, in theory, effectively turn your TV into a giant Android device with a simple set up. And it could be controlled by your mobile phone. Interesting times lie ahead.

    CheapCast Usability

    In reality, CheapCast isn’t a viable solution to not owning a Chromecast. In order for the set-up to work long term you need a dedicated Android device capable of HDMI output which would be way more expensive than the $35 price tag for an official Chromecast.

    Phone, to tablet, to TV

    Phone, to tablet, to TV

    The lack of compatibility with Netflix and Play Movies only throws up more barriers for day-to-day usage. This added complexity begs the question as to why you don’t just connect a laptop which would have faster download times, a better display and fewer issues. Programs such as VLC on a computer can be easily controlled by apps available on the Play Store.

    Final Thoughts

    All in all, I really liked CheapCast. It’s an excellent innovation in a very short amount of time by an indie developer and I had great fun setting mine up and using it.

    Unfortunately, for a permanent setup, the numbers don’t add up. While CheapCast is free, expenses can add up for some people due to the need to buy an HDMI adapter for older devices. But until Chromecast is available for sale again, this is the next best thing.