Chromecast recently received an upgrade with a new feature called Backdrop. It is really just a fancy screen saver for your Chromecast that you can configure to show different information, or more importantly to me, my photos. I decided to finally get a Chromecast and kick the tires of Backdrop in hopes that it might be a better always-on slideshow of my photos.
In some respects the setup was easy, but I did hit a variety of what turned out to be transient failures along the way. A couple reboots of the Chromecast iOS app and my Chromecast and it was working. Best case scenario, the setup is straightforward and fast.
Always On Slideshow
Finding a good solution to turn my TV into an always on slideshow was my primary objective for getting a Chromecast. I’ve tried Apple TV and Roku so far, and blogged about my unimpressed experience with them.
What Chromecast backdrop allows you to do is show one or more of your Google+ photo albums in a slideshow when your Chromecast goes into backdrop mode (screen saver.) While the options for the slideshow are not as plentiful as those on Apple TV, it is a solid basic slideshow of the photos.
Backdrop meets two of the key requirements of an always on slideshow on my tv. I don’t need my phone, computer, tablet, or any other device for backdrop to work. Once I have it set up, it will show the photos I’ve selected. I also don’t have to turn it on or off. If we aren’t using the TV for something else, I get to see my photos. As soon as we need the TV, the photos stop showing and I do whatever else it is I need to use the TV for.
My main gripe with backdrop is that I have to choose which albums to show. I can’t just say, “show all my Google+ albums, current and future.” There is now yet another task for me to manage which content (photos) to show on my Chromecast. I really do not want, and simply can’t afford the time to have another publishing destination to my photo workflow. I want to be able to say I like a photo once, and have it show up on my Chromecast as part of the slideshow.
This shortcoming of Backdrop led me to find Pictacast. Pictacast is a Chrome extension for your desktop/laptop that allows you to cast photos to your Chromecast. The setup is very basic. I can choose a folder (with nested folders) of photos to show. So this lets me choose the folder that has all the photos I like. This happens to coincide with all the photos I put online in albums. If they are good enough to share online, aren’t they good enough to show on my TV slide show? So without having to manage another publishing destination, Pictacast can show me all my past and future photos on my TV via Chromecast. The quality of the slideshow is not quite as good as backdrop. Sometimes heads are chopped off as photos are cropped to fit the TV. Given the lack of options for my scenario, I’d call the experience acceptable but not ideal.
The shortcoming of Pictacast is that I have to turn it on when I want my slideshow to run. It won’t automatically start when I’m done using my Chromecast for something else. I’ve heard some chatter online that Google may be opening up backdrop to developers in the near future, which would be a huge win and hopefully enable developers to build more robust photo slideshow experiences.
One Off Slideshows
I found quite a few more solutions for this scenario than the always on slideshow. I have an iPhone, so I explored apps for my iPhone to show photos and videos on my TV.
Photowall, by Google is a cumbersome and overly complex solution for quick casting of photos and videos. It requires you to create albums to cast. It is like mini photo management app, that then lets you cast the created albums. Needless to say, I do not need or want another photo management app, so I didn’t find this app useful at all.
Then I tried Photo Cast. It has a relatively simple user experience for choosing a photo or video to cast. Really the primary requirement for this scenario is that it is super simple to choose one or more photos, and show them on the TV reliably and fast. For photos it worked as expected. Videos on the other hand was quite a failure. Around 50% or more of the videos I tried to cast resulted in an error in the app. When you touch a video to cast, it does an optimization step for casting. This is what is failing on many of the videos. I wasn’t able to determine any rhyme or reason for the failures vs the ones that worked. I suspect it might have to do with the slow motion videos I took on my iPhone 6 Plus. Some slow motion videos work, others don’t. So it isn’t a clear cut line that all slo-mo videos don’t work. Either way, it was a frustrating and unreliable experience. I’m back on the hunt for an iOS app to cast videos to my TV.
The Chromecast isn’t quite there to meet my bare minimum requirements for an always on slideshow or even for one off viewing. Backdrop is a big step forward, putting Chromecast on par with Apple TV in terms of screen saver slideshows, assuming in each case you have your photos stored in their respective photo services. Right now I’m betting on Google to be the first to have a device that can make the TV the best picture frame ever. Chromecast already has open developer support, unlike Apple TV. In addition, Google has shown a strong interest in helping people share and enjoy their photos more with all the photo related features they’ve added to Google+ over the past couple years. Maybe we’ll be surprised by some other company trying to join the party. I’ve got an Amazon Fire TV stick on the way this week. I’ll let you know my take on Amazon’s chances of capturing our TV for photos.