Chromecast review

Chromecast is a colorful, reliable streaming dongle even after all these years

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In terms of both content and performance, the new Chromecast is better than its predecessor ever was. Plus, with new apps arriving every other month, the new-and-improved Chromecast app that helps with content discovery and the 802.11ac Wi-Fi antenna, Chromecast is smarter, faster and better than it's ever been.

And while much has changed since the original (HBO Now, Sling TV and Showtime Anytime didn't even exist three years ago) release, one thing hasn't: the Cast button.

The Cast button is the rectangle with broadcasting bars (it looks like the Wi-Fi symbol) in the corner of most apps. Anytime you want to take content from your phone or tablet and send it to the big screen, press the button and select your Chromecast from the dropdown list.

You can mirror browser tabs from Chrome on a PC and Mac

There are thousands of apps that come with the Cast button built in, from Netflix, HBO Now, Spotify, NFL Sunday Ticket, Tidal and Twitch here in the US to Sainsbury's Movies and TV, Blinkbox, BT Sport, NowTV, Napster and, of course, BBC iPlayer and BBC Sport in the UK. But this is just the tip of the ever-expanding iceberg.

Content

The biggest point that needs to be made about content is that every app that works with the original Chromecast will work with the new Chromecast and vice versa. The Chromecast 2 can't really do anything the first one can't – it just does it faster.

However, that might not matter, as that means Chromecast inherits the vast wealth of apps that Google and third-party apps have built for the original. We've listed the main apps above, but there are plenty of lesser-known apps worthy of attention, too.

In particular, I like Plex, Artkick, Big Web Quiz, Deezer and AllCast, and I find more every week that scratch an itch that I didn't even know I had. This will get even better once Google releases the new-and-improved Chromecast app for iOS and Android. (We were unable to test the app out for the full review. We will promptly update this space once the app goes live.)

The new app promises a universal search function that, like Roku or Android TV, allows you to either type in or say the name of a movie and TV show and Chromecast will pull up a list of every source for that content. This can ultimately save you money by showing you content on the services you already pay for in one fell swoop, instead of individually going into every app or accidentally dropping money on something you already paid for on another platform.

Chromecast

Also interesting is "fast play," a sort of prediction algorithm in the Chromecast app that determines what you might watch next based on your previous choices. The feature then starts to pre-buffer the video before you start it, eliminating the loading time before each video.

Finally, guest mode is the other new, notable feature that will allow friends of friends and distant family connect to your device without being on your Wi-Fi network. They'll need to be on Android and in the same room as the Chromecast, but fulfilling those two requirements will allow anyone to stream a funny video or great new song to your Chromecast without having to pester you for a password (and potentially compromise your super secure connection).

The only app sorely missing from Chromecast's arsenal is Amazon Prime Instant Video, which the company has reserved for their own line of streaming products, the Fire TV and Fire TV Stick. You'll be able to stream it from a PC or Mac (which I'll touch on shortly), but the absence of Amazon means that the Chromecast is incomplete on its own.

Chromecast 2

Google's Big Web Quiz is one of the few great games on Chromecast.

The other potential problem with Chromecast is that it hasn't yet fully embraced gaming in the same way its competition has. Games are few and far between, and generally feel like shovelware put out by third-party developers.

Google announced at its annual I/O conference that it was going to take steps to change that with a more accessible API, pointing to games like Angry Birds Go!, Driver Speedboat Paradise and Just Dance Now as three games to look forward to on the Google Play store.

If you're looking for a casual gaming experience like the one you'd find on your phone, Amazon Fire TV, Nexus Player and the new Apple TV offer that in spades. Heavy gaming fans should consider the Nvidia Shield console for its on-demand game-streaming service, GeForce Now.

Nvidia Shield vs Chromecast 2

The Nvidia Shield may not have mastered the cheap price tag, but man can it play games.

These are sore points, but ones we're ultimately able to forgive, thanks to Google doing so much else right on the product.

For those inclined to wonder about video and audio codecs, the new Chromecast supports H.264 1080p, H.264 720 x 480, MPEG-4, VP8 video and AAC-LC, AC3, eAC3 (Dolby Digital Plus), FLAC, MP3, PCM/WAV, Vorbis audio files.

But the true beauty of the device is that it's not limited strictly to your phone or tablet. Install Google Chrome on any PC or Mac, and you'll be able to send any web page to the streaming dongle. Video quality using the Chrome browser on Netflix is better than average, and for the most part looks quite good minus the one or two times it needs to stop and buffer.

So how does the Chromecast perform in the living room? I'm glad you asked.

Performance

By and large, the performance is much better on the new Chromecast. Videos load faster and crash less while using apps like Netflix and YouTube, while songs switch with less dead air while using Deezer, Pandora, Tidal and Spotify.

"So," you might ask, "is Chromecast loading the video (or song) off my phone? Is my phone basically stuck serving as a music or movie player while using the new Chromecast?"

The answer's actually quite interesting. Chromecast essentially works as a proxy device. It understands where the stream is coming from and then uses its own internal antenna to take over streaming duties, freeing up your phone or tablet's bandwidth to browse the web, serve up the next song or do some social networking without causing the stream to putter out.

Chromecast 2

But, despite some major improvements to the area, streaming still isn't absolutely pristine. You'll occasionally have to disconnect and reconnect to the device to jump start a laggy video and sometimes video can feel a bit behind the audio. Finally, there's still a two- to three-second pause before videos while Chromecast works its magic to take the heavy lifting off your phone and onto the device.

Overall, the new Chromecast's performance is notably snappier and, once connected, powers through videos with minimal buffering.