SK Babu

@babulous

Streaming in a land of limited downloads

Cutting the cord isn’t practical in India

In India, many have theoretically cut the cord with cable TV, but casting is yet to take off. Instead most transition to D2h (direct-to-home satellite dish connection) as it gives better quality video at marginally higher prices.

So why aren’t they switching to WiFi/Internet-enabled streaming devices like Apple TV? The answer is India’s slow internet speeds and low download limits. This is true of both landline and mobile networks. ACT, my current ISP, claims to offer unlimited downloads for ₹1250 a month ($20). The reality is I’m limited to 100GB@60Mbps. After 100GB is used, my speed is throttled to a miserable 512kbps. Though 100GB seems a lot, it disappears surprisingly fast if you watch videos or live TV online.

FUP (fair usage policy) means after 100GB, my speed will be cut to 512Kbps

Compared to that, my D2h TV connection from Videocon, costs less than ₹250/month ($4) for an a-la-carte pack of ten channels. This includes a USB video recording option, which lets me record whatever I like, depending on the size of my USB pen drive. The recording is encrypted though, and only can be played back on my TV. I do have an option for a lot more channels by taking a standard pack at double the cost. But I dislike wading through dozens of channels that I will never watch, to find the channel I want.

In that scenario, buying a TV streaming device was just not on. So the nerd in me sadly sat by the sidelines and watched as Apple TV, Roku, Chromecast, FireStick all waltzed into the market, one after the other.

But good things come to those who wait. As the world swiftly changes, so do our TV viewing habits. The problem with TV is you are stuck with what’s being broadcast. For instance, my kid needs educational videos when she gets stuck with something. My wife is interested in certain classical styles of Indian music. Our parents would like to see the photos on our phone on a TV’s big screen. I watch tennis training videos repeatedly to iron out my many kinks. None of this is possible with the current TV setup.

On the positive side, my six year old Philips TV does have two HDMI ports and a USB port, though it can’t play home videos. Also internet download limits are increasing in India. Two years ago, I was getting just 30GB@3Mbps every month for ₹1750 ($27). Things have looked up since, with my current ISP upping my limit from 75GB to 100GB last month at the same ₹1250. Another ISP, Jio, is also expected to shortly enter the market with plans that offer 500GB@25Mbps for just ₹1000/month ($16). Besides my mobile network, Jio, supplements this with an additional 1Gb/day at ₹303 for 28 days ($5).

Considering all this, I decided to cautiously dip my foot into the sea of internet streaming. I would initially have to limit my online data usage to playing offline youtube videos where possible. Once ISPs increase download limits, I could think of streaming videos directly.

Once that decision was taken, all I had to do was decide on a TV streaming device. After a little digging around, I figured out that a dedicated streamer like Roku offers the most functions and content. But it makes sense only if you spend a lot of time on TV, which I don’t. I just need to stream the occasional video that pops up on my phone. So I prefer something that plays well with my existing devices. I ended up considered only four devices: my TV service provider’s smart set top box, Apple TV, Google’s Chromecast 2, and Amazon’s Firestick.

Videocon D2h, my TV service provider, has launched a smart set top box that’s supposed to make dumb TVs smart. The cost of upgrading is ₹2490 ($39). The price is good but the package is inflexible and limited to what services they offer, while typing stuff on a TV screen with a remote is painful. Also if the software of existing setup box is anything to go by, it may be rudimentary and rarely updated. That’s always a problem with proprietary software as the audience is too small to justify having a large software team.

Apple TV was next as I’m an Apple user, albeit a bit of an outdated one. My iMac is a 2011 model, my iPad is 2012, and my iPhone is circa 2015. But the sticker shock of the ₹13500 ($210) price for the latest 32GB Apple TV sent me reeling. I can justify spending around ₹3000–4000 ($45–60), but adding another ₹10000 ($155) was too much of a stretch. Apple TV was out.

The next on my list was Google’s Chromecast 2. It was going for ₹3399 ($53) at Google Playstore but could be picked up for less at Flipkart. Being a Google product means you can expect seamless connectivity with YouTube. Unlike Apple TV and Amazon’s Firestick, Chromecast has no interface since the phone is the remote with the Google Home app being the control centre.

Amazon Fire Stick also came within my budget at ₹3999 ($62). Amazon did offer ₹500 cashback as Amazon Pay balance when it was launched. Since I have Amazon Prime Video, this was seriously tempting. There are other pros. As it’s based on Android, you can run Netflix, Hotstar, YouTube. It uses wifi directly so my mobile is free. And it has bluetooth support so you can connect a headset and even a keyboard. The cons are the absence of an inbuilt screencast or browser if you want to use your mobile on the big screen, though there are apps that can workaround this issue.

It was hard choosing between the Chromecast and Fire Stick. I think I finally went for Chromecast because of its flexibility. For instance, Amazon Prime Videos won’t play directly from the Prime app through Chromecast. But if you play the videos in a browser, you can cast it. Also I like the nerdy aspect of being able to cast and control videos directly from my phone. Besides, once the cast is linked up, it will keep running automatically without engaging the phone too much (the cast stops if the phone goes out of wifi range). That’s how I was able to use the same phone to click the shot below of the cast playing on my TV.

Video playing on phone, same video being cast from the phone, and the cast on TV

This intrigued me so I tried playing music on the phone (while it was casting) using a different app, Jio Music. It worked flawlessly. Surprised, I tried playing another video on another app, Flipboard, and that too played seamlessly. This kind of unexpected surprises is what thrills the nerd in me, and I guess that’s why I chose Chromecast over Firestick.

You can play music or videos on the phone while it is casting

Setting up Chromecast is generally easy. You just connect the device to an HDMI input on your TV, and plug the other end into a power source. Then download the Google Home App on your mobile, install it, and follow the instructions (I named my device as ‘Cast’). To cast a video to your TV, click the Cast icon in whatever app you are using. The icon is a joint symbol of a screen and the wifi sign… Youtube has it on the top right. To stop the cast, click ‘stop casting’. To cast your entire mobile screen (which is only possible on an Android), go back to the Google Home app, and click cast screen from the menu on the top left.

However setting up Chromecast can be a pain if you have a split internet connection, which it seems to have an issue with. I need that second network because my 14 year old kid is quite capable of spending all her waking hours scrolling through Instagram. My Netgear router allows me to restrict her to a guest network, which I can threaten to turn off if she goofs around without finishing her homework.

Anyway, I couldn’t find any solutions online except for the ‘turn off your guest connection’ which was unacceptable. So I fiddled around with different settings and combinations till I figured out what was going on. There’s a hidden ‘guest’ setting in the Google Home app that’s switched off by default. Once it’s turned on, it’s supposed to allows devices to connect to Chromecast, even if there are not on the same wifi network, by using a pin code generated by Chromecast. From what I understand, Chromecast connects automatically if the device is in the same location, and I haven’t needed the pin code so far.

Guest mode has to be switched on

Anyway, I created a second guest network which was ‘always on’ for Chromecast. Casting seems to work with my Android phone irrespective of whether my child network was switched on or off. But for some unknown reason, my iPhone sometimes could not find the Chromecast device if the child network was on. I guess Chromecast works better on Android as both are Google products.

Google being Google, things do get weird. I started casting a video on my iPhone, and was able to pause the same video on my Android, though they were both on different networks (the android was on the ‘radio’ network). I’m not sure if it had anything to do with it actually being a split network.

Now I’m getting nerdy about it, so I guess it’s time to hit publish.

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