Google Chromecast (2015) review: Phone-centric puck still a great value, but not as your main streamer

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The Good The Google Chromecast is a dirt-cheap wireless video dongle that streams Netflix, YouTube, Spotify, Pandora, HBO Now and thousands of other apps and games to your TV using an Android or Apple phone or tablet, or a PC, as the controller. Its small size hides neatly behind your TV and makes it easy to take with you when traveling, and the new version adds compatibility with 5GHz Wi-Fi networks.

The Bad The lack of a dedicated remote means you always need a smartphone, tablet or PC nearby to use it. Slightly more expensive boxes and sticks, with their physical remotes, tactile buttons and onscreen displays, are more convenient to use. The only way to watch Amazon videos is by streaming from a PC.

The Bottom Line The innovative Chromecast might be the ultimate living-room accessory for your phone or tablet, but more traditional streaming devices deliver a better streaming experience.

7.9 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Ecosystem 7
  • Features 6
  • Performance 8
  • Value 9

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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 .

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.)

Screenshot by David Katzmaier / CNET

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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).

Sarah Tew/CNET

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."

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