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© Rakhesh Sasidharan

Chromecast etc

Bought a Google Chromecast yesterday. I am travelling a bit recently and while I am independent of in-flight entertainment (thanks to me Nexus 7) I am still dependent on what the hotel TV for when in the hotel. Yes, I could connect my laptop to the TV with an HDMI cable (or connect the Cain to TV with a mini-HDMI to HDMI cable) but feels inelegant. I would prefer using the Nexus 7 if possible – much easier to carry around, charge, navigate etc.

I’ll need to use a SlimPort cable to connect the Nexus 7 to HDMI. I can’t get hold of that at short notice, moreover I am not keen on leaving the Nexus 7 hooked to the TV as there’ll be no way to navigate it then. A Chromecast seemed to be a convenient way of streaming wirelessly from the Nexus 7 to the TV.

The experience hasn’t been entirely pleasant though. For starters, Chromecast in hotel rooms are tricky. This is because (1) hotel WiFi usually requires a hotspot login for Internet access, and the Chromecast has no way of displaying this login page, resulting in it having no Internet access; and (2) hotel WiFi access points usually enable “AP isolation”, a useful security feature wherein devices connected to the access point can’t talk to each other (a good idea coz you wouldn’t want your neighbours laptop snooping onto yours). Since the Chromcast requires Internet access (at least for the initial setup, not sure about after that) and requires communication with your laptop, phone, or tablet to control it, you can’t use the Chromecast on most hotel WiFi.

Didn’t know this before I bought the Chromecast so day 1 of the purchase was spent trying to get it working, Googling, and thinking of solutions. Nothing helped. (Example solutions I tried include spoofing the Chromecast MAC address with the access point. Tried this from my laptop and Nexus 7 but it didn’t work. I could spoof the MAC address but I still couldn’t get the Chromecast to connect to the Internet).

So day 2 – today – involved purchasing a portable WiFi access point. Yeah, that’s a bit far-fetched I know! Getting an access point means you can connect that to the LAN point and hook create your own WiFi network. Connect the Chromecast and other devices to this WiFi network and they can all talk to each other. Moreover, the first device that authenticates with the hotspot is enough to get the access point’s MAC address whitelisted with the access point and thus let through all other devices connected to it without any authentication prompt. Did that today, and now I have a working Chromecast.

(This too wasn’t all straightforward. Initially the Chromecast said it wanted to update and got stuck at 29% update. Then I rebooted it and it wen’t up to 100% and got stuck. Rebooted again and this time it started from scratch and updated itself. Wasn’t sure whether unplugging it while updating will cause any issues. This seems to be a common problem according to the Internet. Many forum posts where the Chromecast is stuck on a reboot-update-reboot loop. Sometimes the update happens. Other times using the laptop app instead of a tablet/ phone app to setup the Chromecast helps. Yet other times casting to it while updating seems to give it a knock on the head and subsequently updates work. Weird, yes!)

Anyways, did all this and the next step is casting movies from the tab to the Chromecast. Isn’t as easy as it sounds. Sure you can cast YouTube and Netflix easily. And there are many apps that support casting, but your mileage might wary. My favorite media player – MX Player – doesn’t have cast support yet. My second favorite player – Dice Player – seems to support, but I can’t find a way of enabling it. My favorite file manager – Solid Explorer – has a plugin that allows casting. That works well and it’s what I am using now, but the problem is that (a) I don’t know if my usual MX Player gestures will work here, and (b) not all audio-video formats are supported by the Chromecast so it’s quite possible you’ll have files that simply don’t cast to the Chromecast. Yeah, bummer! I had a few such, and various casting apps I tried (such as LocalCast, AllCast) failed to cast these. Finally I gave up. It works for the most part, but it isn’t something I can’t blindly depend on. It’s pretty likely some movies on the Nexus 7 that I want to watch simply wont play on the Chromecast.

In this respect the iPad/ iPhone might fare better. Since you have to encode the video for these devices, maybe the format is better supported. Not sure, I don’t have an iPad to try.

Things are better from the laptop. You can cast any Chrome tab to the Chromecast, so all I need to do is drag and drop a video into Chrome and that’s it! Chrome should be able to play all formats thanks to plugins like VLC which are installed if you have VLC Media Player on your system (who hasn’t!). Even more coolly, you can cast the entire screen to the Chromecast, so I could clone my laptop screen and audio to the TV. Wirelessly! With no performance lag. Now that’s super cool!

So that’s it. Been a mixed bag so far, let’s see how much I’ll be able to actually use this device. Maybe there are some cool apps that I haven’t stumbled across yet and which will enrich my experience. This issues with formats seems to be why MX Player doesn’t have support for casting yet. The creator of that app wants to be able to play all MX Player supported formats on the Chromecast, so this means the app should be able to transcode from a format not supported by Chromecast to a format supported by Chromecast – in real time – and that’s why support isn’t available yet. It should be available at some point (that’s what I read somewhere anyways).

New backup phone: Moto E, G, X, Nexus 5, or Android One

Idle mind, shopping mind!

I need a backup phone. To use when am travelling and such. Previously that role was fulfilled by my iPhone 4S but that phone’s become too slow since iOS 7 and now iOS 8.

I want something not too pricey. It should be micro SIM or regular SIM as these are easy to get everywhere. Dual SIM would be a plus. A good (not necessarily great) camera would be useful for taking pics etc. Also expandable storage would be preferred so I don’t have to worry abt storage.

Am in India currently and the new Android One phones are available here. Initially I thought of buying these. They are quite cheap (about INR 6500 ~ US$ 100) and tempting since they get updates from Google. But… their cameras are lousy, the internal storage is meagre (only 4GB!), and apparently the front facing camera can’t be used for selfies? Three different providers are selling these but all devices have the same specs, just different design and branding.

A comparable alternative to the Android One phones is the Moto E. This has dual SIM support and microSD support for up to 32GB. The internal storage is only 4GB, like the Android One phones, but it has no front facing camera. The back camera is similar to the Android One phones – slightly better maybe. The price of Moto E is comparable to the Android One phones. Just US$ 10 more!

Double the price of these is the Moto G. The Indian version has dual SIM support, an 8MP camera (good but not great), and microSD support for up to 32GB. The screen isn’t that great (but is better than the Android One phones & Moto E). Of course the CPU and other bits are better too, and the phone comes with 8GB or 16GB internal storage. The price doubling is justified and overall this seems to be a great device.

Two other phones I have in mind are last year’s Nexus 5 and this year’s Moto X. The Moto Maker website is amazing – you can design your own device! Of course the price of the Moto X starts at US$ 500, more than double the Moto G and way more than the Moto E and/ or Android One phones. That’s a silly point to make really because the Moto X has way better specs and performance than these phones and a much better camera too, but price is a factor for me as I don’t want to spend too much on the phone. It’s a secondary phone after all.

Three other points against the Moto X for me are that it uses nano SIM, has no microSD support (and the internal storage is only 16GB or 32GB), and no dual SIM support. All these pretty much rule out the Moto X for me.

Last year’s Nexus 5 looks to be a good phone. This year’s Nexus 6 is rumoured to be a pricier device so I won’t probably like that. The Nexus 5 takes a micro SIM but has no dual SIM or microSD support. It’s camera is good and it comes in 16GB or 32GB internal storage capacities. Google has stopped selling it but you can get it from Amazon or Google India (as well as FlipKart etc). The Amazon price is about US$ 400 (nearly double the price of Moto G) while the Indian prices are even more. I could buy the Nexus 5 – and I am tempted because it’s a Google phone and bound to get updates too for a while – but I am feeling stingy and US$ 400 too is high. The price is way better than the Moto X of a similar configuration so the sensible decision would be to get the Nexus 5 but I’d rather get the Moto G for US$ 200 and get a Kindle Voyage with the US$ 200 I will be saving! Too many gadgets to buy, not all of them of regular use for me, so I must economise. :)

Google Authorship

Noticed that the JetPack 2.5 plugin for WordPress now adds Google Authorship to WordPress posts. Interesting, but what is Google Authorship?

Turns out Google Authorship is the cool stuff that highlights your post in Google search results like this:

authorship-example

That is neat, indeed. You need a Google+ profile for this to work, and must associate your blog with Google+ and vice versa. Pretty straightforward.

In the process I also discovered Google’s Structured Data Testing tool. Structured data is a way of marking up data in terms of what it is. For instance: while HTML will markup this post with heading and paragraph tags, there’s no way for Google to know what the post title is, what the body is, and so on. That’s where structured data comes in. Using a standard format I can markup this post specifying what each of its elements is, and that way Google has a better understanding of the post and can use it when showing excerpts etc (as in the screenshot above). You can read more about structured data and the supported markup languages here – the tl; dr version is that Google recommends a markup language called Microdata and that uses attributed in standard HTML tags to markup a post.

There are many WordPress plugins that do the marking up for you. I went with one called Itemprop WP – it seemed to be simple and no-frills. This plugin only adds markup to the single post views though, so on the home page view with all the posts together there is no markup. The Atahualpa theme lets me add additional HTML within a post block anyways, so for the main page I manually added the following code to the FOOTER: Homepage and FOOTER: Multi Post Pages sections:

I am using the <meta> tag as I don’t want my name visible to users. It’s just meta information for search engines.