Two years ago the Google god in the sky gave unto us a $35 dollar media-streaming dongle, and lo, it was good. Pretty good anyway, and it got better with software updates, but it still has lagging tendencies. Well, it’s 2015 baby, so what’s the new Chromecast got? Less lag! And... that’s pretty much it. But honestly, that might be enough.
What Is It?
It’s an HDMI dongle that plugs into your TV and lets you stream video and audio from hundreds of sources including Netflix, HBO Go, Hulu Plus, Pandora, and many others, including some games. It’s also only $35. You control it via your phone, tablet, or computer, and yes it works with both Android and iOS.
Why Does It Matter?
Because the original Chromecast was great and has a big user base. The new version adds dual-band (2.4 GHz and 5 GHz), which cuts down on lag and buffering. Basically, it’s faster.
It’s a cute, little, 2-inch diameter plastic disc with a built-in HDMI cable. The original version looked like a large USB drive and had a rigid male HDMI connection at one end. That utilitarian approach made it so it didn’t fit too nicely in some TVs. Google included a short adapter cord with it, but this integrated design is way better. The back of the disc is magnetized, so the end of the HDMI cable will stick to it should you be...walking around? Waiving it in the air? I don’t really know why you need it, but it’s kind of cool.
On the blunt end of the disc (opposite the HDMI cable) is a micro USB port, which you’ll need to have plugged in to power the device. The puck comes in three colors: Black, “Lemonade,” and “Coral” which, fine. Sure. Whatever. But these things are going to be hidden behind 99 percent of the TVs they’re attached to so...
It’s basically exactly like using the original Chromecast, except faster. You first connect it to your home wifi network (which you accomplish via the Chromecast app on your phone), and it only takes a couple minutes. From there, any of the apps/services you have that are Chromecast-enabled will have a little icon show up. You just tap it, and the video is beamed over to your TV. On your laptop, once you install the Chromecast extension in your browser, that same icon appears when you’re watching YouTube, Hulu, Netflix, etc. It’s simple enough that some of my less tech-savvy relatives got the hang of it within 20 minutes, which honestly really says a lot.
One thing that’s new is the Chromecast app. Originally it was just for pairing devices but now it acts as a hub of sorts. It also leverages all of Google’s search-smarts and becomes a fully functional and thoughtfully laid-out content hub.
Not only does it show you recommended content available to cast in the apps you have on your phone, but if you search for, say, Minority Report, it’ll let you choose whether you want the movie or the TV show. Pick which one you want, and then it will show you all of your options for watching. It will show you if it’s free on Netflix, two bucks on Google Play, or available on an app you haven’t yet installed. It’s fast and very convenient.
At the launch event I got to try gaming on the new Chromecast with the Mario Kart-esque Angry Birds Drive. We enabled multiplayer mode, created a game, joined, and then the TV became a split-screen race with our phones acting as a remote steering wheel (think Nintendo Wii’s wheel). We were on a super congested network, and so framerates weren’t as smooth as you’d hope, but the latency was low enough that I could steer through turns and around obstacles without a problem.
So while the new app is a big deal, it also works with the original version of Chromecast, so really, there’s only one reason to consider upgrading: Speed. While it was impossible to do any standardized benchmarking because of network fluctuations, I can report anecdotally. After several days of testing on different wifi networks and using different services I can confidently state that the new Chromecast is quicker than the original. I wouldn’t say it’s like night and day, but I would say that it’s definitely noticeable. You select a video, and it starts playing faster, plain and simple. Sometimes I’d say it was twice as quick, sometimes it was just a 20 percent speed bump. But the main thing is it was definitely never slower.
It’s quicker than the old version and the new app is great. The built-in HDMI cable is a nice touch. Really, though, it just works really well, it’s easy to use, and it’s only $35.
Google still doesn’t have a remote control for Chromecast, which makes it the only streamer I can think of that doesn’t have one. You have to use your phone, tablet, or computer, which can be a pain in the arse, especially if you have to enter a password first. Amazon Instant Video doesn’t work with Chromecast, and while that’s Amazon’s fault not Google’s, you still lose. Ditto iTunes, but I don’t think anyone expected that, right?
The app still trips up here and there, especially when it passes you over to a third-party app like HBO Go (though that may be HBO’s buggy Android app), and screen-casting websites from your PC can be hit or miss.
Should You Buy It?
If you don’t already have a Chromecast, then yeah, you should. $35 is so cheap for a device as capable and simple to use as this. But if you already have the original Chromecast, is it worth upgrading? I’d say that depends on how your current system is performing. If you’re finding the lag and buffering annoying, then yes, the $35 is worth it. If your system seems to run pretty smoothly, then you probably don’t need to bother.
Personally, I’m buying the new one and giving my old one to a friend. Win-win.