A new Chromecast is here, and it's still dirt cheap.
The latest version of Google's popular streaming dongle offers a host of improvements, to better allow users to "cast" video, audio, games and other apps from their phones, tablets and computers to their TVs.
It's available today in 17 countries for the same price as the old Chromecast: $35 in the US, £30 in the UK and AU$49 in Australia.
Instead of an integrated "stick," the new Chromecast is a round puck with an integrated HDMI cable attached. This design keeps it very compact, but attachment to the cramped rear panels of many TVs should be easier. One downside is that it seems destined to hang awkwardly while connected: a dangling dongle. The new Chromecast also comes in a choice of colors: red, yellow or black.
One of the chief complaints about the old Chromecast was balky Wi-Fi connectivity, but Google says the new version is much better. It works with the latest 802.11ac standard via both 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks. Google touts the new adaptive antenna system, complete with three antennas, said to drastically improve streaming stability over a range of conditions.
Chromecast still requires your phone, tablet or computer running the Chrome browser -- unlike with other streamers such as the Roku Stick or the Amazon Fire TV Stick, there's no physical remote -- but Google is aiming to better compete against those devices with an all-new Chromecast app for Android and Apple's iOS devices, available now (of course, the new app also works with the old Chromecast).
The app serves as a hub for your Chromecast streaming experience. It shows all of the 'cast-compatible apps you have installed in one central location, so you no longer need to hunt them down on your phone individually. It provides access to all 'cast devices on your network, which also allows other users and their phones to more easily "take over" and cast to the TV.
The app also eases discovery by showing the most popular TV shows, movies and other video content across apps, and can search across them too. Google's demo showed a voice search of "X-Files" hitting results from Netflix and Hulu, for example.
Google also showed off Fast Play, a new feature that allows certain apps such as Netflix to cache content for faster loading times. It also anticipates when you're bingeing and want to watch the next episode, pre-loading a few minutes. Google says load speeds have been improved by up to 80 percent for apps that support it.
Speaking of app support, Google also announced a bunch of new apps that offer 'cast functionality (for an app to work with Chomecast, its developers need to specifically enable support). Chief among them is Spotify, support for which has been a much-wanted feature ever since the original Chromecast debuted more than two years ago.
Other apps coming to Chromecast include Showtime (the new cord-cutter-friendly one; the original Showtime Anytime app has supported Chromecast for awhile), Sling TV (Chromecast support has been promised since launch), and numerous sports apps including the official streaming video apps of the NBA, NHL and NFL Sunday Ticket. The Google Photos app now supports Chromecast as well.
Google also showed a new twist on Chromecast gaming under the remote display system. It allows developers to design games that use the phone as a controller and the TV as a separate display, for a much more integrated experience. The company demoed Angry Birds Go with the new functionality: the phone's accelerometer was used to help steer, and split-screen play with dual phones/controllers is possible. A new version of Monopoly allows up to four phones to play on the same TV simultaneously.
Separately, Google announced the all-new, a music streamer that's the same price as its video-focused sibling.
Hands on with the new Google Chromecast
We spent some time putting the new and improved Chromecast through its paces and, on the surface, things haven't changed all that much. The new puck-shaped form sits at the end of an HDMI dongle. It seems a bit unwieldy at first, but the extended cable makes it easy to tuck the new Chromecast behind your television. If you plan on toting the Chromecast around, the HDMI dongle also has a magnet built in, and folds up neatly.
Set up works the same as it always has: fire up the Chromecast app on your phone -- you'll need to update to the latest version -- and walk through the prompts. The new Chromecast feels decidedly faster than its predecessor -- provided, of course, that you're connected to a 5GHz wireless network. Videos loaded far faster, and while we'll need some time to compare performance with the new Fast Play feature, a simple side-by-side comparison of the new Chromecast and the original plainly shows the improved performance.
But the real story here lies in the updated Chromecast app. It's now a sort of discovery hub, trawling your device for Chromecast-friendly apps and showing you a quick selection of things you might be interested in watching. There's also a new "Get Apps" section, that'll show you a selection of apps and games that support the Chromecast. This could be prove very helpful for users who're unfamiliar with the Chromecast and need help getting started, or just curious about what's around. Stay tuned for the full review.