Chromecast for the Road Warrior Cord Cutter

Google Chromecast (2015 model)I'm a cord cutter at home. No reason I shouldn't be while travelling too.

I used to travel with an Android tablet that had an HDMI output. All I had to do was carry an extra cable and connect my tablet to a hotel TV to watch streaming services such as Hulu or Netflix.

When I retired that tablet, I needed a new solution. I chose the Google Chromecast. Here's my first road report, using the Chromecast.

TLDR: it works, but hotel WiFi is a problem.

If you haven't seen it, the Chromecast is an inexpensive ($35) and awesome device that hangs (literally) off the HDMI port of your TV. Many Android apps have a "cast" option that will send the video from your Android device to the Chromecast. Even some web-embedded video players have this feature (which works with varying results, more in a sec).

The Chromecast needs to pair to your Android device, connecting across a WiFi network. The way it does so is extremely clever. Normally, WiFi devices operate in infrastructure mode, where devices connect through a wireless access point. WiFi also supports a little-used ad-hoc mode, where devices talk directly without an access point. During the initial pairing, the Android device and the Chromecast operate in ad-hoc mode to discover each other. Once connected, the app helps you select the WiFi network that should be used. If a secure network is selected, the app will prompt you for the password.

Pairing to a Chromecast across a secure network works great. That's what I do at home.

Doing so in a hotel, however, presents two problems.

First, the Chromecast offers no way to register with a captive portal. Hotel WiFi typically has a login page that you must complete before you can connect to the WiFi. The Chromecast can't do that. I verified this on my home network, which has a separate public WiFi network with a captive portal screen. The Chromecast has no facility to bring up that screen.

The second problem with the Chromecast is that some public WiFi access points enable a feature called AP Isolation, which prevents devices on the wireless network from communicating with each other. That's a terrible thing in an office environment (you wouldn't be able to reach the printer), but a pretty good thing in a public access environment. It prevents somebody from sniffing or spoofing your WiFi connection. Unfortunately, it also prevents the Android device from talking to the Chromecast.

TP-Link TL-WR802N Travel RouterThere are two ways to solve this problem. One is to use a travel router and setup your own WiFi network in your hotel room. This actually isn't a bad idea. Between my wife and myself, we were travelling with five WiFi devices. With a travel router we could have authorized once to the hotel network, and then all devices would have access. (This may require a wired connection in your hotel room, which is decreasingly common.)

Another way -- and this is the way I used -- is to tether. I enabled tethering on my phone to create a WiFi network that the Andoid tablet and Chromecast could connect to. The drawbacks to this setup are: 1) the video streaming may eat into your mobile data plan, and 2) the 4G performance is often worse -- sometimes much worse -- than the hotel WiFi.

This setup worked, but the bandwidth limitations resulted in some less-than pleasing experiences. The Hulu video was blocky, probably due to poor 4G performance. The MSNBC video (both via their website and Android app) was completely unusable.

So, the Chromecast setup worked on the road, but not nearly as well as the HDMI tablet. The experience was acceptable for well designed video delivery (Hulu and Netfix), horrible for bad video delivery (network web sites and apps such as MSNBC). Next time I travel, I'd like to try this setup with a travel router instead of tethering. I'm hopeful it will provide better results. Or, maybe Google can do a firmware update that would allow you to login to a public WiFi via the Chromecast app.