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Google Chromecast (2018) review: Streaming strictly for phone-happy Google fans

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The Good The super-affordable Chromecast streams Netflix, YouTube, Spotify, Pandora, HBO Now and thousands of other apps and games to your TV using an smartphone, PC or even voice as the controller. It hides neatly behind your TV.

The Bad The lack of a dedicated remote means you always need a smartphone, tablet or PC nearby to use it. Competitors at the same price offer physical remotes and onscreen displays, which are easier to use. There still no app support for Amazon Prime Video.

The Bottom Line The newest version of Google Chromecast is basically identical to the old one and falls short of the budget competition from Amazon and Roku.

7.2 Overall
  • Design 6
  • Ecosystem 8
  • Features 6
  • Performance 6
  • Value 8

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. 

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The Chromecast from 2015 (left, red) next to the 2018 Chromecast.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

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Tapping the Chromecast icon plays your content on TV

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

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