Alfie is over the moon with his Chromecast

Following the launch of the Chromecast in the UK earlier this week, a bunch of big-name Android and iOS apps have rushed out to enable support for the media streaming device.

British broadcaster the BBC was among them, and launched an updated version of its iPlayer app on Android and iOS to enable its catch-up TV to be  ‘cast’ from a tablet or smartphone straight to a TV kitted out with the £30 HDMI dongle.

As the biggest VoD service in the UK, it was a bit of a coup for Google, and ace new for Brit early adopters.

Chris Yanda, executive product manager of POD Mobile Management at BBC Future Media, has taken to the BBC Technology blog to share more information on how the UK’s most popular VoD service works with the new technology. But, perhaps more interestingly, he also touches on why they chose to support it:

“One of the reasons we decided to support Chromecast was that Apple TV currently works only with Apple devices. Chromecast has SDKs available for a number of different platforms including iOS, Android, and the Chrome browser for laptop and desktop computers,’ he explains.

In the near future, Chris says, it will be possible to ‘cast’ iPlayer content from a desktop Chrome browser on Mac, Windows, Linux, and Chrome OS. This will be enabled through the “new” web version of iPlayer, currently available as an opt-in trial. 

How It Works

How does getting the latest episode of Eastenders, Top Gear or W1A work? A bit differently to how you might imagine, it turns out.

Rather than, as many apps do, streaming content to an app on your tablet or smartphone, and then mirroring this to Chromecast, iPlayer content is fed directly to the dongle itself:

“The BBC iPlayer app [sends] a message from your mobile to, for example, the Chromecast dongle to tell it to request a piece of content directly from a BBC server and play it on your TV. From this point on, the Chromecast dongle does all the heavy lifting of decoding and playing the video stream.”

By offloading the decoding to the Chromecast your phone or tablet is freed up, allowing it to act as a remote control for queuing or pausing a programme or viewing more information. In addition to saving on battery, the reduction of network duplication (one stream vs. two on other apps) means that more bandwidth is available, resulting in better quality streams.

Three quality modes are offered by iPlayer on Chromecast, all of which are better suited to television displays:

  • 796 kbps @ 640 x 360
  • 1500 kbps @ 832 x 468 (default)
  • 2800 kbps @ 1280 x 720

These profiles are automatically switched between depending on how well the network can handle the stream. This, the Beeb says, ‘…should be invisible to the user [and] mean the stream starts quickly, plays at the best quality possible, and buffers only when network conditions are truly dire.’

While iPlayer support is great to have, it’s not quite perfect yet. Streaming radio programmes is not yet supported, though is on the roadmap. Similarly, as mentioned above, it’s not yet possible to cast the service directly from Google Chrome on a traditional laptop or desktop PC.

But as a launch-day effort goes I have to commend the BBC for engaging with the Chromecast head-on; the implementation isn’t half-baked or treated like an afterthought, but truly takes advantage of the technology to deliver the best possible user experience.

Other apps take note: the bar has been raised. 

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