Google Chromecast (2015) review: Phone-centric puck still a great value, but not as your main streamer
Without Chromecast, I never would have seen The Crazy Nastyass Honey Badger.
It was the summer of 2013. I had installed the original Chromecast, a finger-sized video player that looks like a USB stick, behind the TV at the house our family rents every year in Virginia Beach. Myself and a few high-school and early college-age relations were gathered in the living room one evening, bored by Shark Week. I pulled out my laptop and within moments a YouTube video, I think it was "Double Rainbow" (I was trying to relate) appeared on the screen.
"Cool. Can I try?" asked a cousin. I passed her the laptop. "This is hilarious," she said as she typed in a keyword. On the screen appeared the indelible images of a honey badger doing its thing romping through the desert, eating a snake, accompanied by mournful violin music and the increasingly disgusted exclamations of the narrator. "The honey badger has been referred to by the Guinness Book of World Records as the most fearless animal of all. It really doesn't give a $%!*."
For the next hour or so as the kids one-upped each other playing "Have you seen this?" with various videos; we were all cracking up. I showed them how to connect their phones to the screen and their enthusiasm peaked, taking over one another when the fodder wasn't entertaining enough. It was a blast.
I've owned the original Chromecast (left) since it debuted two-and-a-half years ago, and while that YouTube fest was arguably worth the price I paid by itself, it's also one of the few times I've used it. At home, and even on vacation, I usually stream Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and other apps via a Roku box, because I really want the convenience of a dedicated remote control (among other advantages). Chromecast doesn't have a remote, so you need a phone, tablet or PC to use it. And I don't watch much YouTube, so I don't need to find a new video every two minutes.
But plenty of people, especially kids like my cousins, live their lives on their phones and watch a large portion of their video via YouTube and other short clips. For them, the cheap, phone-centric Chromecast is a natural fit -- and might even be the streamer of choice. At $35 in the US, £30 in the UK and AU$59 in Australia, it's basically an impulse purchase, and its versatility -- including the ability to wirelessly project your computer screen to the TV -- is a major draw.
If you already own the original Chromecast and are thinking about getting the new one, belay that impulse for a moment. In my testing, they were very similar as long as I was in a place with decent Wi-Fi. The main advantage of the new Chromecast comes in places where the signal is weaker or crowded with other Wi-Fi signals.
In classic Google fashion, the biggest upgrade to Chromecast comes via new software, which is free, and works equally well with both the old and new versions of the device. The software, with its cross-app search, browsing options and easier app discovery, brings Chromecast closer to competing with Roku and other streamers. I still don't recommend Google's little puck as the primary source for streaming to your main TVs at home, but for parties, travel and temporary connections, it's worth having a Chromecast in your arsenal.
And if you're interested in being able to wirelessly stream music to your AV system, using an app on your phone and without having to turn on the TV, check out Chromecast Audio .
What the puck is that?
If you're unfamiliar with Chromecast, it can take some getting used to.
In short, it's one of the cheapest ways to watch apps like Netflix and YouTube, and listen to music from services like Spotify and Pandora, as well as view photos, Web pages and other stuff, on your TV. Instead of using a remote control to select items from a menu on your TV screen, you control everything through the apps on your phone or tablet, and the video and sounds appear on your TV and audio system.
To use Chromecast, you'll need a TV with HDMI that's in range of decent Wi-Fi network with a broadband Internet connection, and a smartphone or tablet running Android or iOS (iPhones or iPad) or a computer with the Chrome browser, complete with the Google Cast extension, installed. In case you're in a place without access to Wi-Fi, the Google sells a $15 Ethernet adapter for Chromecast.
The device itself is just a bunch of antennas and electronics crammed into a circular puck exactly two inches in diameter, colored your choice of hideous pastel-yellow ("Lime"), disgusting reddish-orange ("Coral"), or black. From one side protrudes a nondetachable, flat gray cable exactly 4 inches long, terminating in the most common type of audio/video connector: HDMI.
Chromecast will spend most of its life connected to an HDMI port hidden behind your TV. A clever magnet lets the puck fold up against the flat cable when plugged in, and also makes a neater package when you take it on the road.
The integrated cable is one of the main design differences between the old and new Chromecast. The old version looked more like a standard USB thumbdrive, and it was often impossible to fit into the cramped confines of many flat-panel TV backsides. Google included a separate HDMI extender for just such circumstances, an elegant solution (until you lost it). The new version is definitely more practical, if kinda awkward-looking in comparison.
Opposite that cable is a port into which you'll plug the included gray power cable. Just like any device, Chromecast needs power (and it won't work with powered HDMI ports, known as MHL, found on some TVs). That power can come either from a USB port on your TV, or from the included gray power adapter. The advantage plugging the Chromecast into the wall, as opposed to your TV's USB port, is that you don't have to wait the 20-odd seconds after you turn on the TV for it to be ready. Performance is the same no matter how you power the device.
So how exactly does it work?
Wi-Fi, apps and your phone, dude.
Once Chromecast is plugged in and powered up, you'll turn to its TV input and be prompted to install the Chromecast app from either the Google Play Store (for Android phones and tablets) or Apple's App Store (for iPhones and iPads). If you don't have one of these devices, you can't set up Chromecast.
Setup using the app is commendably pain-free. Aside from giving your Chromecast a name, like "Living Room" or "Cletus," the main work involves selecting a Wi-Fi network for Chromecast to use for streaming.
The biggest advantage of the new Chromecast compared to the old one is compatibility with 5GHz Wi-Fi networks, which generally suffer from less interference than their 2.4GHz counterparts. Less interference means more reliable streaming, especially in crowded areas or near devices that emit 2.4GHz interference, like microwave ovens or Bluetooth devices. If you have a 5GHz home network available, you should use it for Chromecast (and for every other Wi-Fi device).
One it's connected to the network (and perhaps fetches a software update), Chromecast will be ready to stream. Said status is indicated on your TV screen and by its appearance, complete with a pretty screen-saver picture, under the "Devices" tab. (For now the updated Chromecast app is still "coming soon" to iOS devices, so Chromecasts will appear under "Home" on iPhones and iPads until the update rolls out.)
To stream an app, such as Netflix, using Chromecast, you have two options. The traditional method is to open up the Netflix app on your phone or tablet and tap the little 'cast icon -- it looks like a TV with a Wi-Fi signal on the lower right. Up pops a menu listing the various devices available to 'cast to, which should include the name of the Chromecast you just set up. Tap it and the image on the TV changes from a pretty picture to the last episode of "The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt," or whatever. You pause, resume and skip playback, search for and select new episodes, or choose different apps to cast, all using your phone as the controller.
The other option is to find TV shows and movies, and launch the required apps, using the updated Chromecast app. More on that below.
For all of this to work properly you not only need a decent Wi-Fi connection, but also the app itself installed on your phone and an active subscription, if required. The app also needs to support Chromecast, meaning that its developer needs to make it compatible with Google's streamer. Most major apps are compatible, but a handful -- most notably Amazon Instant Video -- are not.
Chief among the new additions is Spotify, support for which has been a much-wanted feature ever since the original Chromecast debuted more than two years ago. For now it only works with the new Chromecast, although Spotify says the app will get an update soon that allows it to work with the old Chomecast, too. Both the free and premium versions of Spoify work with Chromecast.
Other services new 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 will also support Chromecast as well.
You mentioned the new Chromecast app?
You bet I did. The most exciting thing about the new Chromecast isn't its shape or color, but the fact that Google also launched a new version of the app that brings the device closer to competing against rivals like Roku, Apple and Amazon Fire TV. And yes, that app works perfectly well with the old Chromecast, too.
A growing, welcome trend in streaming devices is cross-app integration, where a Search or Browse option scours multiple apps and surfaces results in one place. It's a big reason why I like Roku so much, and search in Chromecast's new app is remarkably like Roku's. It's not as content-agnostic or transparent, but it's better than nothing (which is what Chromecast used to have) and integrates apps much better than Amazon Fire TV or even Google's own Android TV. In case you're wondering, the current Apple TV doesn't offer any kind of cross-app search or browse.
Search for a movie or TV show using the Chromecast app and you'll get a results page that shows which of your installed apps offer the content. Ideally, at least. The search currently hits Netflix, Hulu, FXNow, Crackle, HBO Go, and of course YouTube and Google Play Movies and TV. Google Play has pretty much everything, but it's available (like with Amazon and iTunes on other platforms) on a pay basis. I also noticed that Hulu's movies didn't appear in search, although its TV shows did.
Results from apps like HBO Now, M-Go, Vudu, Sling TV, Showtime (including Showtime Anytime), CBS and Watch ESPN, among many others, are not surfaced. Google says it will add more apps to the search catalog in the future. Likewise, the Chromecast app doesn't search audio apps, just movies and TV shows. It did return results for actors ("Jessica Alba" surfaced a bunch of her movies, for example), as well as genre and specialty searches ("science fiction," "rom com" and "cute kittens" all gave pleasingly relevant results).
You can type in search terms or search via voice, and as usual, Google was very good at recognizing the words I spoke into my phone. Executed properly, as it is here, voice search is a lot easier to use than a keyboard, especially since you'll need your phone in your hand anyway.
Like Google's Android TV system, the app also shows a selection of TV shows, videos and movies to browse across apps, categorized under the "What's On" tab. YouTube gets the first position, followed by Netflix. You'll have to scroll down to get to Hulu, Google Play, Watch ESPN, Crackle and CBS. No other app is included on the What's On screen; the remainder of your 'cast-compatible installed apps appear below as a bunch of icons. The suggestions under "What's On" also doesn't appear to learn your preferences; no matter how many times I selected "Narcos," for example, the first show promoted under Netflix was "Orange is the New Black."
In every case, actually selecting a TV show, movie or app from the Chromecast app launches the required third-party app to actually start playback. Once that happens, you'll again have to hit the 'cast icon from within the app to get the video to appear on your TV.
The final tab, "Get Apps," serves as a hub to discover more 'cast-compatible apps. It's the best way yet to discover more stuff you can stream to the TV, and the Chromecast app is smart enough to only suggest apps you don't already have installed. At the bottom a link to "Browse all apps" takes you to the firehose of 'cast apps at the Google Play Store.
So what's it like to use?
Chromecast works very well, but as I mentioned above, I still prefer Roku or another device that uses an actual remote control as my daily streamer. Physical remotes with tactile buttons are simply better and easier to use than screens for most common control tasks.
In a living room environment, I like to keep my phone in my pocket, or charging in the bedroom. Even if I had it within reach all the time, I find it much less convenient to grab it, unlock it and start up the app to get to what I want to watch. If I want to stop watching for a break, or rewind to catch something I missed, it's easier to hit the button on a remote than to root around for the command on my phone.
I also like the fact that I can use a remote without having to look at it, simply by feel. I prefer not to have to divide my attention among two screens when watching TV. And since I consider a nice universal remote essential for any decent AV system, I'd like to be able to use it, as opposed to my phone, to control streaming.
For more reasons why I prefer dedicated remote over my phone, check out Forget smartphone remotes: Here's why real buttons win.
It's worth noting that Chromecast does support HDMI-CEC, which is a protocol for passing remote commands via HDMI. Using it, some TVs can also switch inputs to Chromecast automatically once it fires up, and some TV remotes can control some Chomecast commands directly in some apps. Watching Netflix on my Samsung TV, for example, I was able to pause and resume playback using the TV remote. On the other hand, rewind and fast-forward didn't work. Your mileage may vary.
You can usually get to what you want to watch faster on devices like the Roku, Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV than you can on Chromecast. With the Netflix app open on my phone and the show I wanted queued up, it still took 10 seconds from issuing the 'cast command until something appeared on-screen. The older Chromecast took even longer, and different apps took more or less time (see below for more; in case you're wondering, I have yet to notice a big improvement as a result of Google's so-called Fast Play feature). Today's streaming boxes, meanwhile, take just a couple of seconds to launch apps, and a couple more before you're watching your stories.
Otherwise, streaming with a Chromecast is very similar to a more traditional device. And depending on how comfortable and proficient you are at tapping away on your phone, using it might just seem more natural then using a regular device with a physical remote.
Perhaps you always have your phone with you, and often have it unlocked, when watching TV. Maybe you don't use a universal remote, and you find it annoying to keep track of another clicker for your streaming device. And maybe you just like the idea of controlling your TV via your phone. If that's the case, maybe Chromecast's lack of a remote is a plus for you.
Any other cool stuff it can do?
Hells yeah. One of the most popular is the ability to 'cast a tab from a Chrome browser using the Google Cast extension. You can use this feature to display Web pages on the TV screen, anything from Facebook to Instagram to Google Docs to, yes, Amazon Instant Video.
Aside from Apple's iTunes, Amazon's is the only major streaming video service to lack official Chromecast support, making it a prime candidate (pun not intended) for so-called tabcasting. When I did so, using a robust computer and an excellent Web connection, the results were still disappointing. The video looked quite soft -- much worse on the TV than on my computer -- and suffered from minor but noticeable stutter during fast motion. Sure you could watch it in a pinch, but if you watch a lot of Amazon content, you should choose a different streamer.
The Chromecast app also has a "Cast Screen / Audio" option that allows you to project whatever's on your phone or tablet screen, and/or playing via your phone's speaker, directly onto the TV. Just like tabcasting from a browser, it's useful for handling apps or web sites that don't support Chromecast. Or for quickly showing off photos or playing "infinite mirror" with your phone's camera. The function worked well in my testing; images were relatively sharp, and I liked that when I rotated my phone from a portrait (vertical) to landscape (horizontal) orientation, the image filled my widescreen TV nicely.
Chromecast also supports quite a few casual phone games. Google has recently talked up a new feature that allows developers to design games that use the phone as a controller and the TV as a separate display. One example Google demo'd is Angry Birds Go, where the phone's accelerometer was used to help steer the action on-screen, 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. I didn't test gaming for this review.
Chromecast's screen saver -- the image that appears on your TV when the device is idle -- is quite well thought-out. The default settings draw from a bunch of beautiful images from art galleries and other sources, and you can click "more about this" in the app for additional info on the art. You can also customize the screen saver six ways from Sunday using the Backdrop menu, adding photo albums from Google Photos, Facebook (which draws from Instagram, too, if you have the two accounts linked), Flickr, Google Newsstand, satellite images and more.
Guest mode is a cool feature that enables others people in the room to 'cast to Chromecast even if they're not on the same Wi-Fi network. It worked well in my tests, and you can toggle it on or off in the app.
I mentioned travel just now, and it would seem like the tiny puck is the perfect hotel streaming companion. Not so fast. Chromecast works fine on standard Wi-Fi networks that just require a password, but many hotel, dorm and other public or pay-for-access Wi-Fi networks require you sign in via a special Web page, a procedure known as "captive portal." Just like the old Chromecast (and most other streaming devices), the new one cannot negotiate such networks; when I tried using the setup app, all I got were error messages. The only current streamers compatible with captive portal are the Amazon Fire TV box and stick.
What else did you test?
A bunch of stuff. Here's what I found.
Video: Video quality was generally very good, and every bit what I expect from a streaming device. The image quality didn't improve when I moved from a 2.4GHz to a 5GHz network, and wasn't any better on the new Chromecast versus the old one.
The issue I experienced came during Narcos on Netflix, and it happened twice: the video stuttered, looking very choppy to the point of being nearly unwatchable, and didn't recover quickly. Stopping and restarting playback didn't fix the issue, but disconnecting and reconnecting Chromecast from within the app did.
Of course, Chromecast won't do 4K like some newer streamers and Smart TVs, but given the rarity of 4K content, and the fact that non-4K stuff on services like Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now and others looks good enough for most viewers, that's not a major knock (especially at this price).
Audio: Just like the old Chromecast, the new one will pass Dolby Digital and Dolby Digital Plus surround sound when directly connected to an HDMI receiver, provided the app supports it. In my tests of a few apps for Android, Netflix worked fine for Dolby Digital Plus and Plex and Vudu output Dolby Digital, but HBO Now, Showtime and Hulu did not. Of course, the content (TV show or movie) also has to have a surround soundtrack option.
I also tried connecting Chromecast to the HDMI input of a TV, the 2015 Vizio M series, that's capable of passing surround sound from other sources (like a Blu-ray player) out to an AV receiver via the TV's optical output. I only got stereo. It seems the Chromecast automatically downconverted to stereo because it sensed it was connected to a TV, and not a receiver.
Wi-Fi reception: I didn't find any big improvement in Wi-Fi stability--maintaining the same quality stream in weaker signal areas -- using the new Chromecast compared to the old one with 2.4 GHz networks. At the edges of such networks, both struggled the same amount to connect (as did my phone). In other words, if you don't have a 5GHz network at home, you won't get much connectivity boost from the new Chromecast.
As I mentioned above, however, the new device's ability to connect to the generally more stable 5GHz frequencies used by newer Wi-Fi routers and access points should improve stability if your old Chromecast is acting balky.
Loading speeds: As I mentioned above, Google's Fast Play feature doesn't seem to be active yet, or if it is, it doesn't make the massive improvement Google claimed.
I checked out a bunch of apps and conditions and arrived at a couple of takeaways. First off, the new Chromecast is slightly faster than the old one if both are on 2.4 GHz Networks, loading video -- from the time I tapped on the device on my phone to a video appearing on-screen -- anywhere from 2 to 5 seconds faster (Netflix and others) to 15 seconds faster (HBO Now). Second, the new Chromecast is faster on a 5GHz network, beating the new Chromecast on a 2.4 GHz network by an average of 2 seconds. As expected, connecting the new Chromecast to a 5GHz network provides the fastest speeds.
It's also worth remembering that you'll have to load the app and the video itself on your phone, so your network speed, and the speed of your phone's hardware, significantly affects the Chromecast experience.
So what do you really think?
If you're reading this review at work, you probably earned enough to buy a Chromecast in the time it took you to get to this conclusion. It's just that cheap, and for most people, especially the tech-inclined, it's an impulse purchase.
But if you're in the market for a primary streaming device, its lack of a remote and "real" onscreen display is a detriment. The excellent Amazon Fire TV Stick and Roku Stick cost just a few bucks more and offer those basic features, and both are better for everyday streaming use. But if you have a phone and a TV and a bit of disposable income, it's still worth owning a Chromecast, even if you don't use it all the time.
Updated October 7 with additional details on physical remotes, and mention of the app's "Cast Screen / Audio" feature.