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How to turn a Chromebox into a video-streaming workhorse

Jared Newman | Dec. 2, 2014
A Chrome OS desktop computer can be a powerful tool in a cord cutter's arsenal, serving up the full Web for under US$200. But it does take some finagling, and won't be for everyone.

The only solution was a compromise: I went into the display settings menu, and reduced the screen resolution to 720p. This increased the size of icons and the address bar, and allowed me to keep page zoom at 100 percent at the expense of video quality. I also increased font size to "Very Large" and enabled "Show large mouse cursor" in the accessibility settings.

Apps? We don't need no stinkin' apps!

Once everything was set up, the first thing I did was visit Hulu.com. While most set-top boxes require an $8 per month Hulu Plus subscription to watch full episodes, Hulu's desktop website includes full episodes of many recent TV shows for free. For Hulu subscribers, this alone could justify the price of a Chromebox. You could ditch your subscription and have the hardware pay for itself after a couple of years.

My payoff came last weekend, when I had family in town who wanted to watch the Michigan-Maryland football game. I don't have cable, but my parents had their Verizon FiOS login credentials handy for watching through the Big Ten Network's website.

This would have been a problem with a set-top box. Big Ten has apps for iOS and Android, but it doesn't support TV boxes such as Roku, or game consoles such as the Xbox One. Chromecast screen mirroring or Apple TV AirPlay are options, but they're not ideal as they require a phone, tablet, or computer dedicated to the task.

In cases like this, the Chromebox's web browser serves as a great equalizer. While the list of supported apps can vary with any given set-top box, virtually every streaming-video service that has an app also exists on the web. (Another favorite example of mine: Food Network only has an Android TV app right now, but offers dozens of full episodes on its Website.) The main exception is iTunes, but you can easily buy or rent videos from Amazon or Google Play instead. A Chromebox is the cheapest, simplest way to access those streaming sites and services.

Limitations and frustrations

A Chromebox may seem like a streaming video utopia once it's all set up, but it's not perfect. The Chrome OS operating system has some limitations, and using a system that's not optimized for televisions can be vexing.

The biggest problem is that Chrome OS is a mouse and keyboard interface, which isn't conducive to lounging on the couch. Acompact keyboard/trackpad combo or a full keyboard with a built-in trackpad are decent workarounds but expect to spend anywhere from $30 to $100 on these options. While Windows offers several free programs that let you use a smartphone or tablet as remote control, that's not an option with Chrome OS.

 

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