This post has been updated for December 2014 with many more great radio and music apps for your Chromecast.
Like a lot of other folks, I’m guessing, I received a Google Chromecast in my stocking this past holiday season. It’s a neat little device the size of two thumb drives that plugs into your TV’s HDMI port letting you send all sorts of video content directly to your set. What’s impressive about it is, first, it only costs $35, and second, it greatly simplifies the process of getting internet content on your TV.
This being Radio Survivor, I’m concerned about playing internet radio with my Chromecast. Using a TV to play internet radio may seem like overkill compared to just hooking up your smartphone or tablet to speakers. But with the declining popularity of home stereos, in many homes the television is the main entertainment center, connected to sound bars or home theater systems to pump out higher fidelity audio. On top of that, most cable and satellite providers also offer dedicated music channels–like Music Choice, Sonic Tap or SiriusXM–often buried at the top end of the channel lists. So a lot of TVs are already acting like radios
Casting Radio from your Mobile
The Chromecast is controlled by using an iOS or Android device, or a computer running the Chrome browser. When using a mobile device you’re limited to using one of the 14 native apps available for it. Currently there are two native radio apps, Pandora and Songza. However, more native apps are on the way; both Rdio and Beats Music announced their intention to support Chromecast.
The advantage of using the Chromecast with one of these native apps is that once you start the music flowing it doesn’t continue to tie up your smartphone or tablet. What happens is that your device just tells the Pandora or Songza app which station to start playing, and then the Chromecast takes it from there, streaming music directly over the internet. In theory, at least, you can use other apps on your device, or even shut it down.With Pandora this functionality works just as advertised. Start the app, select a station, and if it detects a Chromecast on your network you’ll see a little icon that starts it streaming there. On my iPhone 5 I’ve successfully checked email, Facebook or even streamed a Netflix video while my Chromecast continues playing a Pandora without a hiccup. It’s slick and straightforward.
Songza, on the other hand, doesn’t untether from your mobile device quite so smoothly. In my experience the stream would cut out if my device went to sleep, indicating that the Songza app on the Chromecast isn’t working independently. This appears to be a known issue that one would assume Songza will address soon.
As one might expect, Chromecast has a native app for Google Play Music. So if you subscribe to All Access you can listen to the service’s entire library and your own playlists, controlling playback with your device. Google Play also offers a music locker service, in both free and paid versions, so that you can sync your music library in the cloud, accessible with your mobile device and Chromecast. Using Google’s Music Manager I sync my iTunes library automatically, which includes all my podcast subscriptions. That effectively turns my Chromecast into a simple way to listen to all my podcasts, in addition to my music library.
Computer + Chrome = Even More Radio
The Chromecast’s utility for internet radio goes way up using a computer with the Chrome browser and Google Cast extension. When you pull up a site that has a matching native Chromecast app it works just like with a mobile device, freeing you to do other tasks on your computer, or even turning it off, without interrupting the flow of music.
But the real bonus is that you can send the contents of any Chrome browser tab to your Chromecast. This works for audio and video content, as well as regular web pages. It means that just about any radio site that will play in your browser will also play on your Chromecast. From TuneIn to RadioSearchEngine, or a station’s own website, as long as the site has a player that works inside the browser, you can send it to Chromecast.
However, if the station needs to launch an external player app like iTunes, Windows Media Player or Winamp, then you’re out of luck. But that’s when a site like RadioSearchEngine or TuneIn Radio might assist. Search for your station there and if you find it there’s a very good chance either service will play it in your browser.
The downside of sending a browser tab to your Chromecast is that it does require the computer to remain on and awake, and for that tab to remain open. It’s an active, live connection, just as if you had a wired connection from the computer to the TV. Still, you can multitask, including surfing the web in other browser tabs, without interrupting the stream.
As many other reviews have noted, streaming video from a browser tab is mostly smooth, but can get a little stuttery at times. In contrast, I’ve found streaming audio only content to the Chromecast to be rock solid. Of course audio takes a lot less bandwidth along with less processing power from your computer.
Whether listening to audio from a native Chromecast app or via a Chrome tab, the sound quality has been true to the source. That is, Pandora audio on Chromecast sounds as good as it does listening directly on my smartphone or laptop. With internet stations streaming at lower bitrates (under 128kbps), the audio is just as compromised as it is anywhere else. The big difference for me is that the best amplifier and speakers in my house are connected to my home theater, and Chromecast.
Compared to Other Options
Now, there are plenty of other ways to stream internet radio to your TV or home theater. Set top streaming boxes like Apple TV and Roku both offer dedicated internet radio apps, while the AppleTV lets you stream audio (or video) directly from your iOS or MacOS device using AirPlay. However, this function is like Chromecast’s Google Cast support – your device is actively sending the audio stream, limiting your ability to shut it down or multitask. Also, most set tops cost 2 to 3 times what the Chromecast does.
I’ve also found that the set top box interfaces are less easy and intuitive to use than smartphone apps. Though, Roku, for example, has its own iOS and Android apps that let you control the box more smoothly than using the remote.
My TiVo DVR also has Pandora, Spotify and podcast apps, along with iOS and Android apps to control it. My experience, though, has been that it’s still pretty clunky to try and play music or podcasts with either the native interface or app. The Chromecast is utterly straightforward by comparison.
You could add any number of network audio devices or a modern internet-connected A/V receiver to get internet radio in your home theater. Again, my experience with their interfaces leaves much to be desired. And they’ll cost more than 5 to 10 times the cost of a Chromecast.
Probably the cheapest way get internet radio on your TV and home theater is just to run an audio cable from your smartphone, tablet or PC right in. Sure, that works, but you’ll need a long cable if you want to do it from your couch. And that alone might still run you half the price of a Chrome cast.
Do I sound like a fan of my Chromecast? Well, that’s because I am. It’s not a perfect device. The number of native apps is anemic, to the say the least. But Google recently opened up its software development kit to more app developers. So we should expect to see a flood of new native apps pretty soon. As I mentioned before, both Rdio and Beats Music promise Chromecast support, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see other ’net radio platforms jump on board.
As I argued at the beginning of the year, to grow as a medium podcasting needs to enter every room in the house, especially the living room. This is true for internet radio, too, even if it has a head start on podcasting. Chromecast holds some of the best potential for this to happen, simply because it’s cheap and just works.