For years, when friends or family asked me “what streaming gadget should I buy,” my answer was “get a Roku.” Assuming your TV’s built-in smart interface isn’t to your liking, it’s the best option in terms of price and compatibility. Or at least it was: Google’s redesigned oddly-branded “Chromecast with Google TV” is a serious contender for the best streaming stick, dongle, box, thingy in its price range.
It isn’t perfect: Google’s new interface might not be to your liking if you primarily use only one or two services. And even though it’s based on Android TV (Google TV interface, formerly Android TV, which replaced Google TV?—whatever they’re calling it now), its utility for games and other expansive tools is limited. This thing won’t be dethroning the NVIDIA SHIELD as our pick for the best full-featured streaming device.
But at $50, it doesn’t need to. The new Chromecast sacrifices a little ease of use for a lot of extra capability over the older model, with some software touches smartly designed for today’s cord-cutting user who’s spread out across more streaming subscriptions than they can remember.
First, the Chromecast looked like an oversized USB drive, then a hockey puck. Now it looks like one of those plastic squeezy coin purses, albeit in a choice of flat white or soothing pastel blue or pink. It never really mattered what the gadget looks like as it spends all its time hiding behind your TV, and that remains the case.
The biggest user-facing change is the new interface borrowed from Android TV, and the resultant remote control (matched to the color of the dongle) to control it all. Chromecast now works, well, pretty much exactly like every other streaming set-top box—control and content management from your phone no longer required. But if you happen to be on your phone, you can still cast video and music content to the gadget.
The new Chromecast includes the technical capabilities of the Chromecast Ultra: 4K resolution, 60 frames per second video, and HDR support. In addition, its more flexible powers mean that it works with Bluetooth accessories (like game controllers!) and includes a bit of local storage. Four gigabytes, to be exact, which is a little disappointing if you expected to actually play any games.
Oh, and one more consideration: That extra figurative power means that the Chromecast needs a little extra literal power. It can no longer run on just 7.5 watts coming from the diagnostic USB port on your TV—now you’ll have to plug it in with a standard wall-wart USB charger. That’s a downer if the surge protector behind your TV is feeling a little full.
With More Options
But can it handle all the same stuff as the last Chromecast? All that and more. Thanks to Android TV under the hood, pretty much every major streaming video service is supported, with the notable exception of Apple TV+. For those services that don’t offer an Android TV app—and again, they’re pretty rare, as even CollegeHumor’s Dropout TV premium service offers one—you can rely on ye olde Chromecast functionality from your phone.
During the setup process, Google will guess which services you already use as you log in with your Google account. This may be more or less accurate, depending on how big of a Chrome/Android user you are. Unfortunately, there’s no automatic login, so I found myself using the remote’s D-pad to log into Netflix—never a fun experience. That’s one point against it in ease of use versus the old Chromecast setup. It’s worth noting that the Android TV remote app doesn’t work with the new model, which makes password input much more cumbersome.
Once you get to the Home screen, you might be surprised at the layout. The new Google TV interface looks more like a video service unto itself than a traditional streaming gadget: It serves up algorithmically predicted shows and movies based on what you’ve watched and what’s popular. Select a show or movie, and it will take you directly into the video—you basically never see the app it’s running on. Searching is a little more contextual, showing you which movie or TV show is on which service, and how much you’ll have to pay for it if it’s a rental.
You can find the apps themselves, with their familiar TV interfaces and menus, if you poke around a bit. But it’s clear that the Chromecast would prefer you to spend most of your non-watching time on its Home screens, divided into the main catch-all section, movies, shows, apps (which includes games), and Library. On that last one, you’ll find a collection of stuff that you own on Google/YouTube/Play Movies/whatever they’re calling it this week, plus your personal watchlist.
The Watchlist is my favorite feature of the new Chromecast. It really lets the cross-service unified listing of movies and TV shows shine because you can add whatever you want to your watchlist and it’s all in one place. No need to remember which show or movie is available on which service, just head to your list to pick up where you left off.
The interface doesn’t try very hard to tell you what service you’re actually using at the moment, and that might be understandably annoying to some people. But I found it refreshing to focus almost entirely on content rather than content delivery. The interface is also a lot faster than I’m used to: I don’t know what hardware the little dongle is using, but it makes my Roku-powered TV look like it’s covered in molasses.
I wish there was an option to hide content from services that I’m not using or not interested in. I understand that lots of people are searching for Lovecraft Country, but as I’m not paying for HBO Max it’s not an option for me at the moment, and won’t be for quite some time at least. There’s no need to add it to my home screen.
There is an option deep in the settings menu to enable “App only mode.” This gives you just the home screen with links to your installed services and apps…but it disables everything else. And I mean everything. In App only mode, you can’t look at just TV shows or movies, you can’t view or edit your watch list, you can’t even make an Assistant voice search. It’s possible that Google could add some functionality here, but at the time of writing enabling app only mode disables so much functionality that it’s not worth using.
I was pleasantly surprised during the setup process for the new Chromecast when it asked me what kind of TV I was using. You see, in addition to the RF wireless connection between the remote and the dongle, as standard with most of these devices, the Chromecast remote has a semi-universal IR blaster. In a minute or two, the process had me controlling the power, volume, and input of my TCL TV.
Assuming that the Chromecast is the only thing you ever use your TV for, or even that you only swap off of it for a game console or Blu-ray player, this is perfect. It means you can shove your original TV remote in a drawer somewhere, and Bob’s your uncle. (Why your uncle has anything to do with this, I haven’t a clue.)
This is a major positive in usability over previous generations of both the Chromecast and stand-alone Android TV devices. Unfortunately, it’s not as powerful as a standard universal remote. There’s no way to navigate or select menus on the TV with the Chromecast remote, so when I switched to over-the-air TV to watch some football, I needed my standard TV remote to change channels. I suspect Google is hoping that you’re paying for YouTube TV, where this wouldn’t be true, but I ditched it after the last price increase. So a truly universal remote is, sadly, out of the question.
The remote also has a microphone and a dedicated Google Assistant button, helpfully contrasting with the rest of them. Press and hold it, and you can give the Chromecast voice commands. You can do the obvious thing and search for or start video content, but it’s also compatible with all of the Google Assistant stuff that you can do with your phone or a Nest smart speaker. This is nice, but I found that the main interface is intuitive enough that I didn’t need to use it.
There are a couple of odd choices on the remote’s layout. Mute is a button in the middle of the remote, nowhere near the volume buttons on the side, and there’s no dedicated play/pause. When watching videos, you’ll have to press the center of the D-pad twice to pause … or you can press and hold the “Assistant” button and say “Pause,” which takes about 10 times longer. But overall, the remote is still a much-improved experience.
By the way, it’s possible to remap the YouTube and Netflix buttons, but you’ll have to use a third-party app and get fiddly in the settings. This is really something that should be built in, but it makes sense that it’s not.
Don’t Count on Gaming
With the new dongle running Android TV underneath, I was intrigued at the possibility of running games on the new Chromecast. It’s possible, but not ideal. While you can pair Bluetooth game controllers easily enough in the settings menu, the Chromecast doesn’t have a lot of power—it was struggling to keep fairly simple 3D games like Hungry Shark Evolution up at a decent framerate. With just 4GB of storage (and no way to expand it), it won’t be holding many of them, either.
I did find an ideal use for the new Chromecast as a game streamer, though. Testing it out with NVIDIA’s GeForce Now was as pleasant as ever, though intense multiplayer games like Rocket League suffer from the lack of a wired connection option. (An Ethernet adapter is available for preorder for an extra $20.) Which makes it infuriating that Stadia, ostensibly Google’s flagship gaming option, is not supported on this new Chromecast at launch. That’s despite the fact that it works with the Chromecast Ultra, as yet the only way to play Stadia on an actual TV.
The Chromecast can run a bunch of Android TV apps, too, but beyond the usual video and audio services, I couldn’t find any reason to do so.
A New Contender
The new Chromecast is more capable than the old Chromecast Ultra, though not quite as amazingly powerful as the SHIELD. But it’s still got an impressive mix of utility and value, especially if you’re using multiple streaming services and/or lean heavily on YouTube for your content.
With Roku becoming less of a universal given for service support, and thus less of an automatic recommendation for a budget streamer, the Chromecast is making a serious case for it. If you find yourself wanting just a tiny bit more functionality than your current smart TV setup can provide—say, the ability to play a streamed game or to see your smarthome security camera with a voice command—it’s a solid pick.
Google could (and might) make the Chromecast even better, with more options for filtering content on homescreens and support for Stadia. But even in its slightly raw form, it’s enough of an upgrade over the older Chromecast that it’s easy to recommend.
Here’s What We Like
- Remote controls your TV
- Good home screen
- Solid performance
And What We Don't
- Hard to tell what service you're using
- No space for games or Stadia compatibility
- Remote layout could be better