Chromecast Ultra review

Google’s micro streamer makes the jump from 1080p to 4K HDR

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The biggest point that needs to be made about content is that every app that works with the original Chromecast will work with the Chromecast Ultra and vice versa. The Chromecast Ultra can’t really do anything last year’s can’t – it just does it faster and in a higher resolution (sometimes).

But just because the Chromecast Ultra inherits its content library from its predecessor doesn’t mean that you won’t find anything to watch. Chromecast Ultra supports Netflix, HBO Now, Spotify, NFL Sunday Ticket and Twitch here in the US just to name a few, as well as 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.

The only app sorely missing from Chromecast’s arsenal is Amazon Prime 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 Amazon’s video service from a PC or Mac (which we’ll touch on shortly), but the absence of a native app means that some people who watch Amazon’s service exclusively might feel like they have no place using Google’s streamer. 

That said, it’s not like Chromecast doesn’t have exclusive, noteworthy apps of its own. We’ve rounded up our favorites elsewhere (here’s the 20 best Chromecast apps for Google's streaming stick) but a few others that we feel are worth checking out are Plex, Artkick, Big Web Quiz, Deezer and AllCast.

Find your inner art-lover with Artkick on Chromecast

While you won’t find one spot to find apps and content on the TV itself, you can always check the newly rebranded Google Home app (previously known as the Chromecast app) on iOS and Android to find fresh shows, movies and music apps to download and install.

Google’s 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 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. 

But how, exactly, do you take content from your mobile device and send it to your streaming dongle? You can always expect one vital feature to be a part of any and all Chromecasts from now until the end of time: the Cast button.

The Cast button

  • You'll need it to do almost everything
  • You can cast from PCs and Macs as well

The Cast button is the rectangle with broadcasting bars (it looks like the Wi-Fi symbol) in the corner of most mobile 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.

When the Cast button is pressed, the Chromecast takes the location of the video’s URL and plays it on your TV, leaving you mobile device free to browse the web, check emails and use data without affecting the on-screen content’s performance. 

But that’s not the only trick Google’s taught its pint-sized streamer. 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. If you’re browsing Netflix, for instance, it might pre-load the first few seconds of the show you’ve been binging all week.

All the talk of apps aside, 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. 

LFG? Don’t look to Chromecast

  • Chromecast really isn't great for gamers

However, while Google has certainly figured out how to make Chromecast a destination for video lovers, it hasn’t found out how to embrace gaming in the same way its competition has: Chromecast games are few and far between, and generally feel like shovelware put out by third-party developers. 

Last year, 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 ... but apparently other developers didn’t seem to get the memo – one year later and there aren't many more games than there were before.

Chromecast's specialty? Quiz games.

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

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

So how does the Chromecast Ultra perform in the living room? We’re glad you asked.

Performance 

  • Snappy performance loading content
  • Doesn't drop out, especially when wired to your router
  • Works well with Google Home

By and large, performance across the board is excellent here. 1080p videos load up in a snap and crash less while using apps like Netflix and YouTube, while songs switch with less dead air while using Deezer, Pandora and Spotify. Not to mention the fact that Chromecast Ultra is probably the cheapest – and arguably one of the best – ways to watch 4K content. 

Let’s start, though, with 1080p performance.

If you’re using an HD screen you can expect slightly faster load times and slightly less buffering than if you were to use last year’s Chromecast. Chromecast isn’t built to upscale content in any way, so there’s no real tangible benefit for buying an Ultra if you own a 1080p save for the slightly better internals. 

For testing, we watched shows like Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown on Netflix and a dozen YouTube videos, none of which suffered from buffering issues for more than a few seconds. There was a minor hiccup once where we couldn’t change the video on Chromecast despite closing and re-opening the YouTube app on our iPhone SE, but there’s no evidence to suggest that will be a common problem everyone will encounter.

Admittedly however, the biggest draws to Google’s latest Chromecast upgrade is 4K and HDR functionality, both of which you’ll be missing out on if you’re stuck with a 1080p set.

What makes Chromecast Ultra a better buy than, say, the Roku Premiere+ which also handles HDR and 4K, is that the Ultra does both versions of HDR – HDR10 and Dolby Vision. What that means is although there isn’t a ton of HDR content on the market at the moment, Chromecast’s additional support means that you’ll be covered down the road.

In terms of 4K HDR content, you can pick from a few different services including Netflix, Google Play Movies and TV, Vudu (which also supports Dolby Vision), YouTube, UltraFlix and FandangoNow. There are a few caveats that come with each service – Netflix subscribers will need to up their account to the highest paid tier to access 4K content, for example – but it’s nice to have so many options to choose from right out of the gate.

For those inclined to wonder about video and audio codecs, Chromecast Ultra 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. (A full list can be found on Google’s Chromecast support site.)

One last point worth mentioning here is that the Chromecast Ultra really plays nicely with Google’s Home smart speaker. Along those lines, there are few better indications that we’re living in the future than saying “OK Google, play the latest episode of Clueless Gamer on Chromecast” and having Conan O’Brien appear on your TV.

Google Home in many ways works as the remote control Chromecast Ultra so desperately needs, allowing you to play, pause and completely skip videos on demand. The only downside here is that Google Home currently only capable of sending YouTube videos to your Chromecast, which means no Netflix or Google Play TV and Movies. That said, there’s a good chance that functionality will expand to other streaming services sometime down the road.