The world of Windows Media Center is a quirky one: With an estimated 8 million active users, WMC not only competes favorably with AppleTV’s 13 million (active & non-active) users, but it simultaneously is considered by its creator and steward Microsoft to be nothing more than an annoying pimple of a user base that just won’t go away.
This is all just an overly dramatic way of saying that with WMC, there’s a sizable platform, with precious little development and innovation occurring because Microsoft has sent strong signals to everyone who cares that we are a legacy community.
So when Google announced their latest little gadget, the Chromecast, I was pretty stoked. I use Windows and Android in my home, and Google just launched a drop-dead simple way to beam all kinds of cool content to my TV with no fuss. Perhaps, I thought, with more app adoption, the future of my Home Theater would be not much more than Windows Media Center combined with a beam & stream option for the newer video and audio services. What a great companion this would be to my WMC setup, I thought.
But before I hit the “buy” button on Google Play, I considered one very real reality for an HTPC owner: The Chromecast requires its own HDMI input on my TV. Yet, isn’t the whole idea of an HTPC is to have everything on one input, and ideally in a single, unified user interface? Even though changing TV inputs is fairly straight-forward on a universal remote, it’s just not elegant. After much deliberation, I ended up deciding that changing inputs is HTPC heresy.
So, imagine my shock and glee when I wandered over to 1geek1tool.com and read this teaser for a new WMC plug-in:
Enjoy the ChromeCast benefits… without changing your TV inputs!
Well, halleluiah! If someone didn’t just read my mind. I immediately downloaded the plug-in and installed it.
Before I go on with my preview, some fast facts on Media Center Cast:
- It’s still in beta, but in a Google-beta kind of way (in other words, it works)
- It can be downloaded for free, but is limited to a 14-day trial
- Between now and September 1, the prices has been “slashed” by 50% to $4.99
- At the time of this writing, it is limited to YouTube and Google Play Music casting (and it’s not clear how much further this plug-in can go)
The lack of native YouTube integration has always been an unsightly bald spot for WMC; one that I’ve personally covered up by using Macrotube or XBMC. Yet text entry and searching in these apps is just not that elegant unless you have a full QWERTY keyboard at the ready (which isn’t very home-theater-y and certainly not family-friendly).
But after adding the Media Center Cast plugin, I was able to start “casting” YouTube videos almost immediately from both my Chrome browser on my laptop as well as the YouTube app on my Nexus 4. And because this plug-in solution uses YouTube’s Leanback interface to playback the video, you actually get remote control access to the video from your WMC remote — something that I don’t think is achievable if you use the actual Chromecast dongle. Also, I must say that I was pleasantly surprised by the on-screen GUI when I beamed & streamed Google Play Music from my Nexus 4 — very slick!
Here’s the really good news: it works. At least for YouTube and Play Music beaming & streaming. Unfortunately, the FAQ states that it does not support Netflix and Play Movies due to DRM restrictions. It also doesn’t support Chrome Tab casting. It’s not clear at this point whether this means these will never be supported or not, but be aware that there is no indication that this plug-in will or can fully replicate the support of the actual Chromcast dongle.
Yes, there are limitations, but these limitations are not really an issue because WMC already has a native Netflix app and plenty of ways to play back movies. Then there is the future potential for smartphone and tablet apps like Spotify and Pandora to begin incorporating Google Cast technology, which would enable WMC users to easily beam & stream these subscription music services to our home theaters without having to leave WMC. Wouldn’t that be lovely?
Yes, it would.