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

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

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