Have a spare 30-odd bucks to spend on a media streamer? The world is your oyster, friend. The budget streaming market is packed with great choices that offer simple on-screen TV menus, hassle-free access to Netflix, Amazon Video and YouTube and dedicated remote controls with voice. And then there's the Google Chromecast.
The newest Chromecast is such a minor update to the existing 2015 streamer it barely qualifies as "new." The only upgrade is a claimed 15 per cent increase in hardware speed and slightly different cosmetics. It's definitely not enough to get current Chromecast owners to replace their streamers.
At its recent hardware event, Google announced a number of different products, including the Pixel 3 phone and the Google Home Hub, but the company didn't mention Chromecast at all. Maybe that's because the 2018 Chromecast isn't as good as the competition.
The Amazon Fire TV Stick and Roku Express both cost $5 less than the Chromecast and are better streamers overall. A big reason is because they include actual remotes and onscreen menus, while the Chromecast relies on your phone to control everything. Google Cast might have seemed futuristic when the first Chromecast was introduced six years ago, but even then it was less convenient than a dedicated remote.
The Chromecast attaches to your TV via a flexible 2-inch HDMI connector. It hides there, typically out of sight. Video output is standard 1080p HD only; to get 4K HDR, you'll need to go with the $70 Chromecast Ultra or the (better and cheaper) Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K or Roku Streaming Stick Plus.
The dongle receives power via a micro USB port -- which connects to either a USB slot on your TV or, even better, the included power adapter. The cosmetics are the biggest change from the previous version, as the grooved "7-inch record and adapter" appearance is now gone. Now there's a smooth white or black finish. Also gone is the magnetic clasp that held the connector to the body of the device when not in use.
To use the Chromecast you need a compatible iOS or Android device, typically a phone or tablet, or a computer with the Chrome browser. Just about every major mobile app is compatible, including Netflix, YouTube, HBO Now, CBS, YouTube Kids and Starz. To stream content to the Chromecast you press the "Cast" button within the supported app on your phone, choose the Chromecast, and a few seconds later your video starts playing. You control everything using the app.
Unfortunately, the Amazon Prime Video app doesn't support Chromecast, so you can't stream those videos to your TV using the device. Every other streaming platform includes Amazon, and since it's an exceedingly popular video service, its omission from Chromecast is a major knock.
Setup involves installing the Google Home app -- originally called Chromecast. The new app makes setting up the Chromecast easier than before. Assuming your phone and the Chromecast are on the same Wi-Fi network, just press the Add button on the front page once your Chromecast is connected and follow the prompts.
The handshake between your phone and the Chromecast itself, which is the most time-consuming part, still takes about the same amount of time.
Compared to a Roku, Chromecast isn't the fastest way to watch video on your TV: you'll need to unlock your phone, open the app, then press the Chromecast button and then wait a few seconds for it to appear on the TV. With a remote in hand and onscreen menus, in comparison, the same process is much faster on a Roku or Fire TV.
In my testing, serving media from an app consistently took between 7 and 8 seconds to appear on the TV. I loaded YouTube and Netflix on an iPhone and Hulu on a Nexus 9 and the result was the same. I didn't really notice the 15 percent speed boost; the 2018 Chromecast was roughly as fast as the 2015 model. We have reached out to Google for more clarification on where users will see improvement between the two models.
The pace of change in TV streaming hardware isn't as drastic as in other areas of tech, but living room voice control has evolved a lot. Amazon incorporates a mic with Alexa into Fire TV Stick remote, but you need a separate device to get voice control to work with the Chromecast -- either a Google Home or phone.
Using a Google Home, I asked Chromecast to play Netflix and it sometimes worked really well. Other times it didn't always understand what I wanted to do, and occasionally muddled video requests with web results. For example, I asked to play Orange is the New Black with the TV turned off and the dongle plugged into the ARC port -- and Google turned on the TV and played fine. However, when we requested it to "play Pokemon", instead of playing the Netflix show we expected, the assistant gave us a description of the "Play Pokemon' tournaments.
Aside from the "streaming content" thing, two of the most useful features of the Chromecast are voice-control compatibility and HDMI CEC (power and playback control), and using them together holds the greatest appeal for this device. You can theoretically ask Google Assistant to play music and HDMI CEC will turn the TV on and play. Of course, this will work fine if you have just one Chromecast plugged into your TV and nothing else. However, once you start to add other HDMI devices or a sound bar/receiver, you'll need to make sure everything is set to the right input first, spoiling the magic a little.
As we saw with the addition of voice control the Chromecast itself is still in flux, and there are changes on the horizon. By the end of 2018 users will be able to create a multiroom audio group incorporating a Chromecast, and this is something users have been breathlessly anticipating since the Chromecast Audio was released. However, you can still serve music to it alone right now using apps like Spotify.
The short answer is no, because Chromecast hasn't done enough to stave off the competition. If anything it still feels like an ancillary gadget -- it shouldn't be your main streamer, unless by necessity. Asking Google to play video doesn't work as smoothly as when requesting music, so this isn't the product we'd recommend to people buying their first streamer specifically for voice control. Fire TV wins the voice race, and the basic $30 Roku Express is still our favorite budget streamer overall.