The smart TV is here, and it is damn stupid. Smart TV features are just a mess, and rarely get upgraded beyond what ships with your set. A few years ago, Google went a long-way towards solving this problem with its super-cheap Chromecast dongle, which allows you to stream from any device to your TV with just a click or a tap. Now, the Chromecast Ultra allows you to take advantage of the easy-to-use interface with higher quality streaming that works with even the fanciest TVs. Whereas the old model topped out at 1080p video, the new model will do 4K and also supports the emerging HDR standard.
4K has been common on TVs for years, and these days, HDR, which gives viewers more details in areas of extreme brightness and darkness, is becoming a must-have feature. At just $70, the Chromecast Ultra is an affordable smart TV upgrade, if you don’t mind always having a mobile device or a laptop around to cast from.
The Chromecast Ultra is controlled exclusively via Android, iOS, or Chrome, and that means you have to have your phone or tablet on you, or your laptop open nearby, at all times. It will be a challenge for people who like to disconnect when watching TV.
This requirement isn’t new, the original Chromecast demanded the same of users, but it will continue to be a barrier for some people—like this writer who just wanted to evaluate the picture quality of a set-top box and not have to see all the election night panic texts from friends and family while she did it. (The quality was exceptional, by the way).
The Chromecast Ultra looks an awful lot like the $35 Chromecast—though it only comes in black, instead of black, orange, or yellow. The HDMI cable hangs off one side of the tiny puck and snaps onto the back of the device via magnet when the Ultra is not in use.
There’s a button on the side that lets you completely reset the Ultra, which is useful if you decide to switch routers or locations between viewing sections.
The Ultra gets its power from an accompanying USB brick with a very nice, very long cord. Technically, you can use a MicroUSB cable with the Ultra and power it through the USB ports on your TV, but HDR and 4K functions are only available if you use the brick, which must be plugged into a power socket.
This inconvenience is a minor thing, particularly because all of the Chromecast Ultra’s competitors require power power bricks as well, but the Chromecast brand has always been about ease and portability. Having to root around in the nest of cords on the floor for a free power socket is the opposite of that. Once you’ve plugged in your Chromecast Ultra, however, you just open the excellent Google Home app on your phone to pair it to your Google account and to the local wi-fi. I’ve had to use the Home app a lot lately, and no onboard process was as easy as this one.
Yet if you really prefer watching TV the old fashioned way, with a remote in hand, than you should consider spending $100 on the Roku Premiere+. It’s larger and $30 more expensive, and you don’t have to worry about the battery level on your phone either.
But if you’re looking to save money and don’t mind the natural limitations of Chromecasting, then the Chromecast Ultra is a perfect purchase. At $70, it’s the cheapest available smart TV device that streams 4K and HDR content. It’s also the tiniest, which makes it perfect for travel. This is the first set top box that isn’t just super small and cheap. It’s super high quality, too.
- Like the old Chromecast, but better
- Still requires a smartphone, tablet, or laptop to use
- $30 cheaper than the Roku Premiere+, it’s closest competitor when it comes to cost and capability
- Streams in 4K and HDR (specifically HDR10), but you’ll need a TV that can handle it
- Needs its fancy powerbrick to stream in 4K and HDR, because powering off a TV’s USB port means poorer performance