Review: Updated: Chromecast

Introduction and overview

Update: Chromecast might not seem like the perfect bedfellow for a Sony product but, starting today, you can stream PlayStation Vue (a paid cable streaming service) to your Chromecast from any compatible iOS device.

Original review below…

There wasn’t much the original Chromecast could improve upon – it was versatile, reliable, easy to setup and dirt cheap. Despite not having much room for improvement, somehow, Google found a way.

Had you asked me two months ago what the original was missing, I would’ve said that it needed a few more compatible apps to round out the catalog and maybe a better app. But, considering its highly affordable sticker price, there wasn’t much to complain about.

But the first Chromecast’s successful design and sales meant two very important points for the new Chromecast.

First, because the original already worked so wonderfully, there’s little in the way of truly new features on Google’s latest streaming disc; by and large the biggest change is a cosmetic one. Chromecast has traded its stick format for something a little more pragmatic: a circular disc attached to an HDMI cable.

Secondly, expanding on the first point, because the original was so expertly crafted and priced below the competition, that means the market, at this point, is relatively well-saturated with these little gizmos.

Chromecast

It all raises the question: “why then, if the change is mostly cosmetic, should you buy a Chromecast 2?” The short and potentially not-so-sweet answer is that maybe you shouldn’t, unless you really don’t have anything better to spend $35 (£30, AU$49) on.

Now, that said, for anyone who doesn’t already own one of these near-flawless, original streaming devices or can’t stand the buffering issues of the previous generation, I’m glad to report that the new Chromecast is easily the best streaming device at its price point.

But before we get into the nitty gritty details, let’s rehash the story of how the original stole our hearts.

Chromecast

Chromecast: what is it?

The idea behind the Chromecast was to bring smart functionality to the series of “dumb” TVs that hit the market before smart TVs rose to popularity near the end of the last decade.

Like the original, the new Chromecast plugs directly into your TV’s HDMI port (make sure it has one of those before you buy it) and streams video from your mobile phone, tablet or PC.

Here’s the odd part: it doesn’t have a remote or a user-interface per se. Google’s little streamer will sit there like an electronic canine waiting for your other devices to tell it what to do.

It’s different in that way from its main competition – the Amazon Fire TV Stick and Roku Streaming Stick – the two devices that only came about after Chromecast’s debut. All of these devices can take streaming content from apps like Netflix, Sling TV, HBO Now and, in Amazon Fire TV’s case, Amazon Prime Video, and toss it onto your TV.

But more impressive than any individual external detail or snippet of code is its price. The new Chromecast only costs $35 (£30, AU$49), around $10 or £5 less than its closest competitor. At roughly the cost of two Blu-rays, it’s tough to turn down.

Chromecast vs. the competition

The Chromecast’s calling card is the ability to sync with your mobile phone, tablet and PC. Few devices work as seamlessly with your electronics as Chromecast does, and any that do require you to be bought into a particular family of products.

Chromecast 2 vs Amazon Fire TV Stick

Chromecast vs. Amazon Fire TV and Fire TV Stick: Chromecast is by far the cheaper streaming stick and can outperform Amazon’s streaming device, thanks to its new-and-improved 802.11ac Wi-Fi antenna. Both Amazon products – $99 (£79, about AU$140) for the box and $39 (£35, about AU$56) for the stick – come with a remote, but also rely heavily on a subscription to Amazon Prime to function at their fullest potential.

That said, if you are an Amazon Prime subscriber you won’t be able to watch the service on Google’s streaming stick – Amazon’s mobile app doesn’t support Google Cast functionality.

Chromecast 2 vs Roku Streaming Stick

Chromecast vs. Roku 3 and Roku Streaming Stick: Here’s a story of David and the Goliath. The circular Chromecast does much of what the $99 (£79, about AU$140) Roku 3 does, though it depends more on your phone, tablet and PC to keep pace. Roku is known for having thousands of channels of content and universal search functionality that allows you to search multiple sources at once.

Google has adopted the latter into the latest version of its Chromecast app, but doesn’t have near the amount of channels Roku has. If you’re looking for full-size streaming device with access to any and every streaming service, Roku can’t be beat. If you’re looking for a simplistic solution to putting audio and video on your TV, however, Chromecast is the way to go.

Chromecast 2 vs new Apple TV

Chromecast vs. the new Apple TV: While the new Apple TV isn’t quite out yet – it hits shelves later this month on October 28 – we already know quite a bit about Apple’s new set-top box. We know that, for the first time, Apple will open up its app store to every developer. We know that it will include a new remote and an 802.11ac antenna, identical to the one found in the new Chromecast.

We also know that the Apple TV will cost a whopping $149 (about £96, AU$200), over $100 more than the new Chromecast. The pros are that it has a robust remote, a faster processor and a great new interface – the con is its sticker price.

Design and interface

The new Chromecast is a relatively impressive feat of engineering. Antennas are wrapped along the exterior to maximize reception, while the inside packs enough basic circuitry to get things set up and running smoothly.

The shell is a big departure from the USB stick-style original, and it’s one that you might either love or hate, depending on where the Chromecast comes to rest in your media center.

Design

I expected the 2015 Chromecast iteration to be as accessible as its predecessor, an inconspicuous addition to our home entertainment setup that doesn’t require any additional hardware or lengthy installation process.

I was right about most of it, but “inconspicuous” might not be the best way to describe the new Chromecast’s color variations of Coral (Red) and Lemonade (Yellow). These colors highlight the top side of the disc that will hang from the HDMI port on the back of your TV. You’ll find the Chrome logo proudly emblazoned on top, and only one port along the bottom edge that connects to a micro-USB cable used for power.

Chromecast

Let’s talk about the disc itself. It’s on the smaller side – at 2.04 x 2.04 x 0.53 inches (51.9 x 51.9 x 13.49mm), it definitely fits in the palm of your hand – and the switch from a plastic stick to a hanging disc is a practical one, essentially performing the same function as the extender Google sold with the first Chromecast.

But that means the Chromecast now dangles from the back of your TV instead of resting firmly in its port. It doesn’t impact performance, nor has it ever come loose during testing, however, I could see it being a bit distracting for TVs with HDMI ports located on the side.

The last two important details on the design is the small reset button along the outer rim that corresponds to a status LED, and the magnetic back that allows the HDMI cable to stick for easy transportation. It’s a minor detail and you might not ever use it, but these are appreciated subtle nuances that won’t go unnoticed when you get one for yourself.

Chromecast

That said, I find the overall design itself to be polarizing. You’ll either appreciate the pragmatic change from a rigid stick to a hanging disc, or you’ll find it gaudy, odd and at least a little irritating. There’s no middle ground here.

Interface

Once you run the included five-foot power cable into your TV or wall outlet with the included adapter, it’ll be time to run through the new Chromecast’s quick and easy setup process.

The process takes all of five minutes, most of which are spent actually downloading the Chromecast app from either the Google Play Store or iOS App Store. (Though, you can also use a PC or Mac by going to Google’s “Getting Started” homepage.)

You’ll be asked to connect the Chromecast to your home wireless network (unless you have the Ethernet Adapter for Chromecast that came out in July 2015. Finally, you’ll be met with a settings screen that will let you to choose to enable Guest Mode and wallpapers.

When you’re not actively streaming something to the Chromecast, it will enter a screensaver mode that can display images from Google Photos, Facebook, Flickr, curated artwork, the weather and even headlines from top news sources.

If you're tired of Google's curated photo library, check out ArtKick.

Unlike the Amazon Fire TV Stick or Roku Streaming Stick, there’s no central hub for apps. Chromecast is either taking content from your phone, tablet or PC, or simply displays pretty pictures until it’s told to do otherwise.

That said, the Google Chromecast app – discussed at length on the next page – serves as the main spot for checking out what content is available to stream and which apps you already have installed that work with your new streaming dongle.

Content and performance

In terms of both content and performance, the new Chromecast is better than its predecessor ever was. Plus, with new apps arriving every other month, the new-and-improved Chromecast app that helps with content discovery and the 802.11ac Wi-Fi antenna, Chromecast is smarter, faster and better than it’s ever been.

And while much has changed since the original (HBO Now, Sling TV and Showtime Anytime didn’t even exist three years ago) release, one thing hasn’t: the Cast button.

The Cast button is the rectangle with broadcasting bars (it looks like the Wi-Fi symbol) in the corner of most apps. Anytime you want to take content from your phone or tablet and send it to the big screen, press the button and select your Chromecast from the dropdown list.

You can mirror browser tabs from Chrome on a PC and Mac

There are thousands of apps that come with the Cast button built in, from Netflix, HBO Now, Spotify, NFL Sunday Ticket and Twitch here in the US to Sainsbury’s Movies and TV, Blinkbox, BT Sport, NowTV, Napster and, of course, BBC iPlayer and BBC Sport in the UK. But this is just the tip of the ever-expanding iceberg.

Content

The biggest point that needs to be made about content is that every app that works with the original Chromecast will work with the new Chromecast and vice versa. The Chromecast 2 can’t really do anything the first one can’t – it just does it faster.

However, that might not matter, as that means Chromecast inherits the vast wealth of apps that Google and third-party apps have built for the original. We’ve listed the main apps above, but there are plenty of lesser-known apps worthy of attention, too.

In particular, I like Plex, Artkick, Big Web Quiz, Deezer and AllCast, and I find more every week that scratch an itch that I didn’t even know I had. This will get even better once Google releases the new-and-improved Chromecast app for iOS and Android. (We were unable to test the app out for the full review. We will promptly update this space once the app goes live.)

The new app promises a universal search function that, like Roku or Android TV, allows you to either type in or say the name of a movie and TV show and Chromecast will pull up a list of every source for that content. This can ultimately save you money by showing you content on the services you already pay for in one fell swoop, instead of individually going into every app or accidentally dropping money on something you already paid for on another platform.

Chromecast

Also interesting is “fast play,” a sort of prediction algorithm in the Chromecast app that determines what you might watch next based on your previous choices. The feature then starts to pre-buffer the video before you start it, eliminating the loading time before each video.

Finally, guest mode is the other new, notable feature that will allow friends of friends and distant family connect to your device without being on your Wi-Fi network. They’ll need to be on Android and in the same room as the Chromecast, but fulfilling those two requirements will allow anyone to stream a funny video or great new song to your Chromecast without having to pester you for a password (and potentially compromise your super secure connection).

The only app sorely missing from Chromecast’s arsenal is Amazon Prime Instant Video, which the company has reserved for their own line of streaming products, the Fire TV and Fire TV Stick. You’ll be able to stream it from a PC or Mac (which I’ll touch on shortly), but the absence of Amazon means that the Chromecast is incomplete on its own.

Chromecast 2

The other potential problem with Chromecast is that it hasn’t yet fully embraced gaming in the same way its competition has. Games are few and far between, and generally feel like shovelware put out by third-party developers.

Google announced at its annual I/O conference that it was going to take steps to change that with a more accessible API, pointing to games like Angry Birds Go!, Driver Speedboat Paradise and Just Dance Now as three games to look forward to on the Google Play store.

If you’re looking for a casual gaming experience like the one you’d find on your phone, Amazon Fire TV, Nexus Player and the new Apple TV offer that in spades. Heavy gaming fans should consider the Nvidia Shield console for its on-demand game-streaming service, GeForce Now.

Nvidia Shield vs Chromecast 2

These are sore points, but ones we’re ultimately able to forgive, thanks to Google doing so much else right on the product.

For those inclined to wonder about video and audio codecs, the new Chromecast supports H.264 1080p, H.264 720 x 480, MPEG-4, VP8 video and AAC-LC, AC3, eAC3 (Dolby Digital Plus), FLAC, MP3, PCM/WAV, Vorbis audio files.

But the true beauty of the device is that it’s not limited strictly to your phone or tablet. Install Google Chrome on any PC or Mac, and you’ll be able to send any web page to the streaming dongle. Video quality using the Chrome browser on Netflix is better than average, and for the most part looks quite good minus the one or two times it needs to stop and buffer.

So how does the Chromecast perform in the living room? I’m glad you asked.

Performance

By and large, the performance is much better on the new Chromecast. Videos load faster and crash less while using apps like Netflix and YouTube, while songs switch with less dead air while using Deezer, Pandora and Spotify.

“So,” you might ask, “is Chromecast loading the video (or song) off my phone? Is my phone basically stuck serving as a music or movie player while using the new Chromecast?”

The answer’s actually quite interesting. Chromecast essentially works as a proxy device. It understands where the stream is coming from and then uses its own internal antenna to take over streaming duties, freeing up your phone or tablet’s bandwidth to browse the web, serve up the next song or do some social networking without causing the stream to putter out.

Chromecast 2

But, despite some major improvements to the area, streaming still isn’t absolutely pristine. You’ll occasionally have to disconnect and reconnect to the device to jump start a laggy video and sometimes video can feel a bit behind the audio. Finally, there’s still a two- to three-second pause before videos while Chromecast works its magic to take the heavy lifting off your phone and onto the device.

Overall, the new Chromecast’s performance is notably snappier and, once connected, powers through videos with minimal buffering.

Verdict

The new Chromecast isn’t perfect. But it’s as close as it might ever be.

Major improvements, like the new 802.11ac internal Wi-Fi antenna, and recent app additions, like HBO Now, Spotify and Showtime Anytime, feel like they add a new level of depth to a deceivingly deep product.

It’s still the best way to sharpen up “dumb” TVs and by far and away is the cheapest way to get Netflix in your living room. Which, speaking of, this is still one of the best tech deals in town.

The main offender here is that streaming still isn’t 100% pristine, and, despite the new internal antenna, there’s nothing this Chromecast can do that the previous generation could not. And while the design is more pragmatic for A/V enthusiasts with hard-to-access TV cabinets, some might find the colorful circle on a cable slightly polarizing.

We liked

I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it 100 more, but the new wireless antenna is nothing short of astounding. It creates a near seamless streaming environment with less lag and less buffering time than almost anything – even full size set-top boxes – on the market.

And at an insanely low price point, it’s tough to pass up. Google did a great job pricing and positioning the Chromecast as the easiest and cheapest way to get apps like Netflix, YouTube, Spotify and Pandora into your living room without breaking the bank.

Finally, the new Chromecast app promises to add tons of new functionality, like universal search and fast play, improving the way you’ll find content and cutting the time it takes to get the stream started.

We disliked

As a fellow editor pointed out in our early hands on review, we’re still looking for a native way to stream Amazon Instant Video from a phone or tablet to a Chromecast, or mirror iOS devices to the TV with it. It’s not wise to hold your breath for either, as Amazon and Apple obviously aren’t fans of the ultra-cheap Chromecast.

The other obvious downside is that the Chromecast doesn’t include a remote. It’s a tough fix, especially at this price point. But the option to use a good ol’ fashioned IR blaster would’ve been appreciated, even if it seems like overkill to the majority of tech-savvy streaming video fans. A few more apps, including more support for games, would be appreciated, too.

Final verdict

As much as I love the new Chromecast, it may not be worth replacing an existing old Chromecast if you already own one. That said, the new version is the most affordable choice for anyone who hasn’t bought into Google’s streaming platform yet.

Alternatively, you could also give yourself the excuse that you need to get a second one in the house, or have one in a bag for travel. After all, it packs up nicely in its new, smaller form factor. If you decide you can spare the small expense, you’ll not be disappointed for paying under 40 bucks for a streaming device of this quality.

 

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