Smartphones and tablets have finally made the jump from the lap to the living room thanks to new technologies that cut the HDMI cord and wirelessly integrate mobile and television. It’s all possible thanks in large part to Miracast, the wireless video-sharing standard that was first introduced in 2012 and began showing up in products in mid-2013.
On the provider side, 2013 saw Miracast gain widespread availability thanks to big-name backers like Belkin, NetGear, and Asus, each of which released its own Miracast-enabled devices. Miracast also made its way into Android’s source code as of version 4.2 Jelly Bean, and so is now available on most new Android devices through the Wireless Display settings.
But Miracast isn’t without competition—2013 also saw the release of Chromecast, Google’s own $35 video-sharing device that can be controlled from both Android and iOS devices.
All video-sharing technologies aren’t created equal, and they vary in terms of both function and price. This all begs the question: Which video-sharing device fits your needs?
Working with Miracast
Miracast isn’t a brand, manufacturer, or a specific product—by definition, it’s the wireless video-sharing standard developed by the Wi-Fi Alliance that extends the Wi-Fi Direct networking protocol for video streaming. The Wi-Fi Alliance is the group that made the 802.11 protocols interoperable under the Wi-Fi name, and with Miracast it now aims to make video-sharing interoperable across devices.
Miracast works by directly linking two supported devices, such as a television dongle and an Android device, using a dedicated peer-to-peer Wi-Fi connection (aka Wi-Fi Direct). The devices need to have a recent Wi-Fi radio, plus they need to implement the Miracast protocol in their operating systems. Both Android and Windows 8 support the standard, though not all manufacturers have enabled it. Some require only a driver update to enable Miracast; check with your manufacturer if you don’t see the Wireless Display option in your devices’ Settings app.
To test Miracast, I used the Netgear Push2TV because it’s the only currently approved Miracast device for use with the Amazon Kindle Fire HDX. (Sadly, manufacturers haven’t quite met the Wi-Fi Alliance’s interoperability goals for Miracast.) The Push2TV looks very much like an Apple TV: a small box that connects to your TV or receiver via an HDMI cable and directly to your mobile device using Wi-Fi Direct (not via the wireless LAN). Miracast devices can also be found in the form of dongles that plug directly into a TV’s HDMI port.
To enable Miracast on your compatible Android smartphone or tablet, go to the Settings app’s Display settings or to the Media Output settings, depending on your device model, and select the Miracast device in range. Just as with Wi-Fi access points, any in-range devices should simply appear in the list. Once connected, your Android device will mirror its screen directly onto the television, provided your TV or receiver is set to the same HDMI input as the Miracast device.
Push2TV and other Miracast devices can transmit data at 1080p resolution with 5.1-channel digital audio, which makes them ideal for sharing videos and music on your television. And because Miracast uses the industry-standard H.264 codec, nearly every video format is supported, even copyright-protected media.
Miracast isn’t limited to just entertainment—it’s great for playing mobile games on the big screen in your living room, as well as sharing presentations and files on the big screen in the conference room. And because there’s little to no user setup required, almost anyone in a meeting can take share their content.
When you stream via Miracast, you have to ensure your screen remains on the content you are sharing: Miracast is mirroring (hence the pun in its name) your device’s screen display, not sending an independent video stream regardless of what is on screen, as iOS devices do. As a result, video-sharing via Miracast can deplete your battery quickly, so be sure to keep your device plugged into a power source.
Working with Chromecast
Chromecast is a simple dongle that plugs into your TV’s or receiver’s HDMI port, that plugs into a power outlet, and that uses Wi-Fi to access the Internet. Chromecast is a specific device, wheras Miracast is a protocol that many devices may support.
At first glance, Chromecast may seem to be like Miracast, but the two technologies are quite different. First, Chromecast is focused on multimedia streaming rather than the screen mirroring of Miracast. Chromecast doesn’t mirror content from your Android device directly to Chromecast dongle—instead, it pulls the content from the Internet and uses your mobile device simply as a remote control.
To use a Chromecast, you need to install the Chromecast setup app onto your Android or iOS device, or onto your computer; you can get the app from Google’s Chromecast page, or through Google Play and the App Store. You’ll use that app to set up Chromecast, including its connection to your Wi-Fi network so it can access the Internet to pull down content. Chromecast is operated by receiving remote-control commands from your Android or iOS device.
Once Chromecast is up and running, any smartphone, tablet, or laptop connected to the shared Wi-Fi network will be able to wirelessly stream supported content to your television. There are currently a handful of services compatible with Chromecast, including big names like Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, YouTube, Google Music, and Pandora. And more are on the way.
If you open any of these services’ apps on your mobile device, you’ll notice a small TV icon in the app’s menu bar. Tap it to have Chromecast automatically pick up the same stream from the Web for playback. Use your mobile device then as a remote control, such as to pause or fast-forward.
Unlike Miracast, you can use your mobile device to do other things while the media is playing on your Chromecast. That’s because you’re not mirroring your device’s display via Chromecast, just using it as a remote control. This makes Chromecast a great tool for media streaming.
But Chromecast can’t wirelessly mirror your mobile device’s screen, nor does it let you share Android device content like games, files, and apps on your TV. The good news is that Google is slowly bridging the gap between Chromecast’s streaming-control approach and Miracast’s mirroring approach by adding mirroring capabilities to its Chrome browser, so you can send the browser’s tabs to your TV via Chromecast.