Over Black Friday I was thinking about getting a TV for my back room. I don’t really watch TV there, but I have the elliptical back there and I haven’t been doing it for a while. One reason may be that I used to have my TV (an old 27″ tube TV) hooked up to my Dish DVR and I could watch recorded shows while I was exercising to keep my mind off of the misery of running in place. When I switched to Xfinity, I didn’t get a 2-TV installation, partly because the TV was so old already. I figured I could hook up a DVD player and play shows that I have bought seasons of over the years: Seinfeld, The Simpsons, Arrested Development, Get Smart, and Everybody Loves Raymond. It would take me a long time to work through those and the nice thing is that each show, since it doesn’t have commercials, is only about 22 minutes, about the same length as my workout. The DVD kind of turned out to be a pain because it takes a while for it to boot and to get the show going. Not terrible, it just wasn’t that great.

Then I got the iPad and I thought maybe I could watch stuff on it, but that wasn’t that great either and there was no secure place to put it to keep it from falling off. And the sound from the iPad isn’t great over the noise of the elliptical. I have a bluetooth thing and hooked it up to a speaker so the iPad could broadcast to the speaker, but that was back to being a pain.

So then I thought I could get a new TV and watch stuff from my Vudu account or the recordings of all of my DVD’s from the PC. Really I only have movies on Vudu and I am not sure why I thought it would be easy for my TV to play files on my computer. My HiSense UHD TV is a smart TV and I don’t think it can do that, though I have a home theater receiver that might be able to. The smart TV only has apps and nobody makes money giving you an app to get free content from your own hard drive. Even with a wifi network and a shared hard drive on that network, it isn’t that easy.

I didn’t want to spend more than $200 for a TV and after looking at TV’s in the store I wanted it to be at least 43 inches. If it wasn’t a smart TV then it needed to be cheaper so I could also buy a Chromecast for it. There are Fire, Roku, and Apple TV devices too, but they seem more expensive. Now I have an Android phone so Chromecast seemed like it would be a good fit, even though I didn’t actually know what Chromecast did other than play stuff on your TV. Best Buy had a 50-inch UHD TV with Roku built in for $180 on Black Friday (now on Thursday), but without standing in line all day forget about getting that. Later on Cyber Monday (now on Sunday) they had a $200 43-inch TV with Chromecast built in, so I went ahead and got it. It is amazingly light for such a big TV (still significantly smaller than my 55-inch TV). I knew that UHD (2160p) on my 55-inch TV was barely noticeable over 1080p, so I figured it would be no problem that the new TV is 1080p.

Once I got the feet on it and plugged it in, I was able to download Google’s Google Home app on my phone to set up the Chromecast connection. Since the phone already knows the wifi password, the phone just told the TV all of that and named the TV “Den TV”.

So Chromecast doesn’t make it a smart TV. The reviews I read beforehand pointed this out, so I knew that going in, but still wasn’t sure of the difference. My smart TV has apps: I use its remote and click the Netflix button (Netflix is an app) and I get a web browser looking view of Netflix where I can search for movies and play them using the keys on the remote. For Chromecast to work, I needed to download Netflix to my phone, use my phone to choose the movie and then cast the movie to the TV. I’m still not sure if the movie is being transmitted from the internet to my phone to my TV or if I am just using the phone to connect the internet and the TV. I think the latter because otherwise my phone would be doing double duty receiving all of that data and then transmitting it to the TV. Not all apps on my phone can cast, so there is a way to tell the phone to cast whatever is showing on the phone to the TV, but that isn’t quite the same and in fact this puts a lot of demand on the phone to receive or play the movie and transmit all of that to the TV. I found some stuff on the internet saying my favorite media player, VLC, could do this, but it can only do that from a computer, not a phone. Then I found some articles about an app called ES File Explorer that lets you see files on your phone as well as your local network and play video files as well as cast them to the TV. I tried that app and it did not work. I just got a black screen on the TV that said ES File Explorer. I could use VLC and cast the screen as a movie played, but it would start and stop and looked really pixellated. The DVDs were only 480p to start with and the TV is 1080p, so the shows wouldn’t look that great, but they looked really bad. I downloaded some shows to the phone’s SD card and this helped, but it was still kind of fuzzy looking.

Looking for more recent solutions, I found an article that said ES File Explorer wasn’t so great anymore as they were seeking ways to make more money by pushing “notifications,” which are just ads, to your phone through the app. One app I tried inserted a commercial before showing me anything so I removed that app immediately. I don’t mind paying a few dollars for a useful app, but on Google Play they never tell you how much it will cost to get the full version. I really hate the ads, but I also don’t like paying a lot for an app and certainly no monthly or yearly fees.

Anyway the article I found said a good alternative to ES File Explorer is Solid Explorer which is free to try out for a couple of weeks and then you have to pay $2 to keep it. Perfect! I tried it out and the interface is really good plus they were running a Cyber Monday special for half price, so I bought it for $1 (before I even knew it would work). I couldn’t figure out how to see network files at first, but found some help online that said I had to add a new connection. Anyway, it works great at finding the files and casting them to the TV. So now I have no excuse not to exercise (except I need to write about all of this on my blog, so I can’t exercise just yet).

I think it could work better if I could turn my PC into a media server that would stream, like my own version of Netflix. Then I could use my phone to stream from the PC to the TV. That way my phone would just issue a few commands to the computer and point the TV to the right place, but honestly I’m still not sure that’s how Chromecast even works.

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