The new Chromecast is Google’s latest shot at dominance in the streaming media hardware marketplace. Once again, the company has gone for minimalism and a low price, a strategy that worked well with version one of the Chromecast, which had clocked up 20 Million sales by September this year, according to Wikipedia.
I personally bought a new Chromecast on launch. It wasn’t provided to me free, so these opinions are all my own.
The New Chromecast – Unboxing and Setup
The packaging for the new Google Chromecast is almost identical to that for the Chromecast Audio. (We have a review of the Chromecast Audio here).
The small, compact box is pleasing to open up – a reflection of the fact that many manufacturers now take cues from Apple in making packaging aesthetically pleasing.
Once you get inside, there’s not that much there! There’s the Chromecast device itself, which like the Chromecast Audio looks like a round poker chip, and a USB mains adaptor. The device incorporates an HDMI cable for connection to your TV.
For some, the round design will be preferable to the “USB dongle” style of the older Chromecast, but in the vast majority of cases it will be hidden behind the back of your TV anyway, out of sight.
Setup is simple and streamlined, but immediately highlights the vast difference between the Chromecast and the set-top box style media players like the Apple TV, Amazon Fire and Roku. The Chromecast doesn’t come with a remote and requires a smartphone, tablet or PC to “cast” media to it.
This also means it doesn’t have its own installed apps – it is a device that works with the apps you already have on your other devices. It’s crucial to understand this difference, and not see the Chromecast as a budget-priced alternative to something like an Apple TV.
The first thing to do is install the Chromecast app on your smartphone or tablet. I already had the app from my use of the Chromecast Audio, so it was a simple case of connecting to the device, entering my WiFi details (as the Chromecast connection to your network) and waiting for a quick and hassle-free firmware update. I was ready to cast within just a few minutes of taking the device out of the box.
Once the app is linked to the Chromecast, it’s a question of using other apps that have the ability to “fire” media at the Chromecast. Thankfully, the Chromecast app is helpful in curating a list of any existing apps you have that are compatible, and suggesting more.
In my case, the most instantly useful apps were BBC iPlayer, Netflix and YouTube. What you have access to will depend on where you are in the world, so you may find Google’s Chromecast App List useful in determining whether the device supports your favourites.
As you may have noticed from the presence of BBC iPlayer, I reviewed my Chromecast in the UK. Some services are conspicuous by their absence, sadly, including All4 (formerly 4oD), and Sky Go in the UK. Neither of these mobile apps supports firing content at the new Chromecast at the time of writing, which is rather a shame. You will find similar omissions in the US, including A&E and HBO Now.
The New Chromecast – Usage
Using the new Google Chromecast is simplicity itself. You simply open a compatible app, start the content you want, tap the “cast” icon and select the Chromecast device.
It all works seamlessly, and in my experience content appeared on my TV within two or three seconds of casting it to the TV. This was reliable too across a wide range of apps, including Netflix, iPlayer and Spotify.
This is a good time to reemphasize the fact that the new Chromecast isn’t a standalone device. It simply plays and displays content from other devices. As such, it’s dependent on whichever device is actually playing the content.
While this makes it ideal for people who are permanently in close proximity to their phone or tablet, it’s not a replacement for something like an Apple TV or Roku, which can be used independently.
Another option available to you is “tab casting,” which uses a browser extension for the Google Chrome browser on your computer, to mirror the content of any specified tab to your TV. It’s a rather like Apple’s AirPlay mirroring but restricted to the contents of a tab.
It works very well if you just want to fire the contents of a Web page to your TV, or with supported sites like YouTube, however, those expecting tab casting to work as a way to trick non-supported streaming services to display on the Chromecast will be mostly disappointed. Sky Go has dropped Chrome support altogether, and All4 blocks the ability to cast in this way.
Tab casting is a useful feature, but it’s not a fix-all to get any streaming content you like onto your TV via Chromecast. Also, you may find that even with YouTube, you need to play around with the aspect ratios on your TV remote to completely fill the screen.
Gaming and Secondary Functions
The new Chromecast doesn’t do much by itself, dependent as it is on the device you connect to it, but there are some token gestures.
There’s a Backdrop function, accessed via the Chromecast app, which allows the Chromecast to display all sorts of content – from Facebook updates to Google photos and local satellite images – while nothing is being “cast” to the device. You can see below for more of the available options. However, I didn’t like the requirement to send my location to Google to facilitate all of this one bit in terms of privacy.
In addition to this, Google is making some token moves to give the new Chromecast some gaming abilities.
I didn’t spend much time on this – but did download a game called Simon Swipe, based on the popular primary-colored memory game that children of the 80s will no doubt remember.
Unfortunately, I was far from impressed. Despite casting functionality being perfect using my home network, the game didn’t work well, with sound effects and integration between my phone and TV being sufficiently out of sync to make the game practically unplayable, and certainly not enjoyable.
Games don’t get much simpler than Simon Swipe, so I didn’t feel in any way encouraged to delve further into the Chromecast’s other gaming options – especially not when the fact you need a phone, tablet or PC to use the Chromecast automatically means you have more compelling options at your fingertips. This may seem a little harsh, but it’s a reality. However, if you’re reading this and have come across a Chromecast game that you think is worthy of attention, please tell me in the comments and I will try it out and update my views!
The New Chromecast: Verdict
The new Chromecast is a good device, so long as you understand that what you’re buying is essentially a screen mirroring gadget and not a fully-featured set-top box.
It deserves credit for doing what it does very well indeed; Most importantly, it’s reliable and predictable in operation. Everything syncs well, and it didn’t behave in a flaky way at all during my testing.
However, the Chromecast does have inherent limitations. If it doesn’t support the apps and services you use the most, then it won’t be much use to you. Furthermore, the gaming and slideshow-style features are really nothing more than novelties that I feel inclined to say most people will ignore.
Perhaps the very best use of a new Chromecast is to make an old TV “smart,” and based on the existing sales figures for the Chromecast, this is reason enough to buy it for literally millions of people. However, if you own a relatively modern smart TV, the chances are it can already do much of what the Chromecast is capable of.
Before I conclude, I should add that I noticed an abundance of good offers highlighted in the Chromecast app. These included free movie rentals from Google, a free two-month Now TV subscription and a three-month trial of Google Play Music. Given the Chromecast’s existing low price, these really add value. Make use of them all, and the device could essentially pay for itself.
So, bear this in mind before dismissing the Chromecast. It does have serious competition, especially in the form of the Amazon Fire Stick, which does a lot more for not much more money. However it’s the cheapest streaming hardware on the market and does what it does do rather well.
Now I’ve finished my review, I will personally be plugging my Apple TV back in – but I have no doubt Google will sell tens of millions of these anyway.
- Low price.
- Refined setup procedure.
- Everything JUST WORKS.
- Good Chromecast app helps you make the most of the device.
- Excellent offers are available to help you access more content.
We weren’t so sure about:
- Lack of support for some services will limit appeal for certain users.
- Need to compromise privacy to access the Backdrop function is irritating.
- Game mirroring very uninspiring on the new Chromecast.