Chromecast finally gets a real menu system and remote control. Here's what I think so far.
Google's original Chromecast helped popularize streaming to TVs when it first came out in 2013. The $35 device allowed you to "cast" video from apps on your phone, like YouTube, Hulu and Netflix, to watch on a big TV. That's a common feature in TVs now, but subsequent iterations of the dongle have gained new capabilities like 4K streaming. On Wednesday Google gave the Chromecast its biggest upgrade yet. It's called Chromecast with Google TV, and I've had a few hours to play with it.
Available now for $50 (£60, AU$99), the new Chromecast is the first to include a physical remote, complete with Google Assistant for voice control. There's also an actual on-screen menu system, powered by Google TV, the company's new name for its Android TV operating system. Google TV is similar to its predecessor, with access to thousands of apps including Netflix, Disney Plus, Amazon Prime Video , HBO Max and Spotify (but not Apple TV Plus).
Chromecast with Google TV has all of the big features found on competing streamers. In addition to 4K HDR video, it also supports Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos on compatible TVs and sound systems. The remote can control volume and power on a TV or soundbar, allowing me to (mostly) ditch my TV remote. I can press and hold on a button and speak into the mic for Google Assistant, which allows the digital helper to control your smart home , search for content, open apps, display the weather and perform other tasks.
In my brief time with the new Chromecast, so far it has performed admirably. Setup of both the new Chromecast and the remote functions on an LG OLED TV was a breeze. The Google Home app on an iPhone did most of the leg work -- and saved me from having to hunt and peck to type in login information using an on-screen keyboard.
Video quality was as good as I expected: Dolby Vision worked well on the OLED and other shows, including the Yankees-Indians game on YouTube TV, played clearly. Volume control on my Sonos Beam soundbar worked as expected, but it doesn't support Atmos so I wasn't able to test that feature yet.
A few other quirks and observations:
The streamer comes in three colors -- snow white, sunrise pink and sky blue, the version I used -- and like prior models it's designed to tuck behind your television, out of sight. Power is also now delivered through USB-C as opposed to Micro-USB.
I wasn't able to test Google Stadia, the company's streaming video game platform, because it's not available on the Chromecast with Google TV at launch. Google says it will be adding support for Stadia "in the first half of 2021," and for now is recommending that those who want to play Stadia on a TV pick up the Chromecast Ultra , which remains on sale as part of Google's $100 Premiere Edition, bundled with a controller.
The regular Chromecast, which lacks a remote and the Google TV software and can only stream up to 1080p HD, remains available for $30 (£25, AU$59).
With the new Chromecast, Google seems to have reversed course on its original vision of the phone as the remote. You can still cast apps from your phone, tablet or computer with the new version, but the option to use a dedicated clicker makes the Chromecast with Google TV a potentially more appealing product. The upgrade comes at the perfect time: during a pandemic when everybody is streaming more than ever.
Priced at $50 with the remote, the new Chromecast with Google TV is poised to take on two of CNET's favorite 4K streaming devices, the Roku Streaming Stick Plus and the Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K. Roku and Amazon currently dominate the smart TV and streaming device landscape, with both platforms each having over 40 million users.
At first blush, the new Chromecast has everything it needs to usher some of those users into Google's camp -- including an advantage in app support. Google TV also offers one major new app, HBO Max, that's currently missing from rivals Roku and Fire TV. There's also an app for Peacock, another new streaming service that Fire TV lacks. On the other hand, both Roku and Fire TV have the Apple TV app and access to Apple TV Plus, while Google TV does not.
I'll be testing out the new Chromecast against the competition over the next couple of days. Look for a full review on CNET soon.