Update: Chromecast Ultra is going to receive yet another system update, this time allowing your Google Assistant to control the action on screen using your phone.
To clarify, Google Home has, since launch, been able to shoot videos to a connected Chromecast, but now that functionality is expanding to Google Assistant-equipped smart phones as well.
Original review continues below...
Google is chasing the 4K HDR crowd. It’s seen the writing on the wall that 2160p video is the future alongside high dynamic range content and has appropriately responded with the new 2016 Chromecast Ultra.
So what makes this iteration of Google’s pint-sized streaming device so special?
It’s ‘Ultra’ not only because it’s capable of 4K playback and HDR video, but because it has an attached ethernet port and improved internal components that make videos load faster and less prone to slowdown. Those features help Google’s latest iteration of the streamer feel more premium than its predecessor without necessarily offering a major departure in terms of form factor or available content.
For 1080p TV owners that means this year’s $69 (£69 or about AU$90) Chromecast is more of an expensive half-step upgrade rather than a massive leap up. But, for those who recently picked up a 4K TV and can’t stand its built-in smart software, making the jump to Chromecast Ultra is an easy decision.
Before we dive into what makes the Chromecast Ultra worthy of its superlative title (and trust us, it’s very well-deserving), let’s talk about its two major shortcomings: the lack of a remote and the Chromecast’s inability to pool content on your TV screen due to the lack of a standard user interface.
Not having a place on the TV to find fresh videos can be utterly annoying for some folks used to flipping through television stations, and downright confusing for anyone who can’t wrap their head around sending content from their phone, laptop or tablet the TV.
Chromecast Ultra, therefore, is perfect for tech-savvy people who can use their phone or tablet to send video to the big screen, and who don’t necessarily need a user interface to surface content for them to watch. But buying it as a gift for someone who might not know their Google Cast from their Bluetooth might not go over as well.
OK, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk dive into what makes this year’s Chromecast the best ever for 4K HDR owners.
- Similar puck shape to last year's Chromecast
- Adds an ethernet port to the power cable
- Only available in one color
Not much has changed in the design of the Chromecast Ultra – it’s more or less the same puck-shape that we saw from last year. And that’s a very good thing considering that the last one was definitely one the sleekest, most minimalistic streaming devices on the planet.
An HDMI cable still juts out of one end of the disc while the other hosts a microUSB port used for charging – that charging cable, by the way, now needs to be plugged into a wall outlet via the included adapter, and can no longer be charged by a USB port on your TV – but the layman would be hard-pressed to pick out one from the other.
That said, to the trained eye there are three major differences and one minor one in the design department. The first is that, circumference-wise, the Ultra is just a hair bigger than the 2015 Chromecast. It’s 2.29 inches now versus 2.04 on last year’s model. It’s not a big difference, though, and the Ultra still hides behind the TV with relative ease despite the gain.
The minor tweak is that the Ultra is currently only available in a single color, black, unlike last year’s version which came in fun, eye-popping colors like coral and lemonade. Few will likely mourn the passing of these color options, admittedly, but it seemed like a nice option for the few who took advantage of it. Regardless, your color options here are more limited and it’s something that might not change for some time.
Another major alteration Google’s design team made, and the only one that will actually impact performance, is the addition of an ethernet port to the charging cable that plugs into the wall. For anyone who has a router close enough to the Chromecast, this would allow faster, more consistent streams over a wired connection, though you won’t necessarily need to connect it via wires to get the speeds necessary for 4K.
Finally – and at this point we’re just splitting hairs – instead of an engraved Chrome logo on the top face, you’ll find a simple G. Why exactly that’s changed is anyone’s guess, however it seems to us that Google’s prerogative is to disassociate the device with the browser and instead focus on how it interacts with other Google products such as the Home, something we’ll discuss later on in the review.
Beyond those four noteworthy changes, though, everything else is exactly how you remember it. There’s the coiled 802.11ac (2.4 GHz/5 GHz) Wi-Fi antenna tucked inside the casing for high-performance streaming and reset button along the outer rim that you can use to restart the system should it start acting up.
- There isn't one really
- But setup is quick and dead-simple
- You'll need to use the Google Home app
Once you run the included five-foot power cable into a wall outlet with the included adapter and plug in the ethernet cable, it’ll be time to run through the new Chromecast’s quick and easy setup process.
The process takes all of five minutes, most of which are spent actually downloading the Chromecast app from either the Google Play Store or iOS App Store and giving the Ultra minute to download the latest firmware.
You’ll be asked to connect the Chromecast to your home wireless network (unless you’re using a wired connection, of course) and finally you’ll be met with a settings screen that will let you to choose to enable Guest Mode and wallpapers.
When you’re not actively streaming something to the Chromecast, it will enter a screensaver mode that can display images from Google Photos, Facebook, Flickr, curated artwork, the weather and even headlines from top news sources.
Unlike the Amazon Fire TV Stick or Roku Streaming Stick, there’s no central hub for apps that you can browse on the TV itself. Chromecast is either taking content from your phone, tablet or PC, or simply displays pretty pictures until it’s told to do otherwise.
That said, the Google Chromecast app – now rebranded as Google Home and discussed at length on the next page – serves as the main spot for checking out what content is available to stream and which apps you already have installed that work with your new streaming dongle.