With a real menu system and remote control, Google’s $50 streamer can finally take on the kings of streaming.
Google’s TV ambitions have long been cloudy. In 2013, the company’s first Chromecast helped usher in an era of streaming televisions, but did so by relying on your phone, tablet or computer to supply the apps and video. Android TV, which arrived in 2014, added an interface and TV-specific apps, but never reached the same popularity level of rival streamers from Amazon, Roku and Apple. The all-new $50 Chromecast with Google TV is the search giant’s best TV effort yet and one of the best streamers you can buy, period.
The new Chromecast is a complete overhaul of the $35 original, and every major change — aside from the higher price — is for the best. It adds a long-overdue remote control and includes high-end streaming like 4K resolution, Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos. The revamped Android TV interface, now known as Google TV, is also a major upgrade, with a single unified home page that gathers stuff to watch from across numerous different apps and integrates Google Assistant better than ever.
At $50, the new Chromecast is priced to compete with two of CNET’s favorite 4K streamers, Roku’s Streaming Stick Plus and Amazon’s Fire TV Stick 4K, and after a few days testing I can report it does so handily. It’s not as simple or rock-solid as Roku, which we still like better overall, but it’s certainly more capable, especially for voice. If you’re into the Google ecosystem, subscribe to HBO Max (which remains absent from Roku and Fire TV) or YouTube TV or simply want to try a new way to discover TV shows and movies, the Chromecast with Google TV is an excellent choice.
The Chromecast with Google TV takes a lot of design cues from recent Chromecast models, just with more of an oval shape. The dongle plugs into your TV via HDMI, with power provided by an included USB-C cable and wall adapter (more on that later).
While the Chromecast comes in three colors — “snow” white, “sunrise” pink and “sky” blue — I’d recommend going with either the white or pink models than the blue I used. The pink, and especially the white, have more identifiable Google Assistant buttons. The dongle itself tucks away behind your television, so its color doesn’t matter.
The remote is really good. Roughly the same thickness as the Roku Streaming Stick Plus remote, albeit a bit shorter in length, it felt comfortable in my hands and that thickness should make it less easy to lose than Apple’s superthin Apple TV remote. Google’s clicker features a four-way directional pad in a circular shape at the top with a select key in the middle. Below are two rows of buttons.
A dedicated button for Google Assistant sits at the top of the right row — in a slightly different hue to distinguish it from the other buttons — as well as buttons for back, home, mute, power and switching your TV’s input to and from the Chromecast. Netflix gets a dedicated button, as does YouTube. (By default it goes to the regular service, though holding it down will allow you to set it to YouTube TV, YouTube Kids or YouTube Music, if you have those apps installed.) Volume buttons are on the right side of the device.
You can configure the input button to switch to other devices on your TV. While it was slow for my LG C7 OLED TV (there is no way to “select” the input directly, so I had to hover on the choice until the TV switched), it does work and should add value to those bouncing between the Chromecast and a cable box or game console. Setting up the remote, which has IR and Bluetooth for better control of your TV and any accessories like speakers, was quick and easy for my LG.
You need to use the included power brick with the Chromecast. When I connected the Chromecast to my TV via USB power, an error message appeared, instructing me to connect to the wall adapter instead. Other Chromecasts were able to at least partially power the device using a TV’s USB port, even if it meant certain, more power-hungry features were disabled. The Chromecast Ultra, for instance, could still stream in HD when powered over USB, though 4K streaming required power from a proper wall adapter.
The requirement of wall power, something the Roku Streaming Stick Plus and Fire TV Stick 4K don’t need, wasn’t an issue for me since my TV was near an empty outlet, but could be for those who have less open setups or want something more minimalist. Google says this will vary based on your TV, with the company saying that “at least 5 watts” is the minimum requirement. Google’s included power brick is 7.5 watts. It is possible that many TV USB ports, even those on sets that are just a couple of years old, won’t be compatible.
By incorporating Google TV (formerly Android TV), Google is finally embracing the Chromecast as a stand-alone streamer. While the Chromecast functionality remains and works fine, the ability to not have to rely on your phone, tablet or computer for control is a huge improvement.
Setting up the Chromecast was easy with the Google Home app on iOS or Android. There was no hunting or pecking with the remote and an onscreen keyboard to enter my usernames and passwords, which greatly speeded up the process. Most apps I tried, including Netflix, HBO Max, Spotify and Disney Plus, either recognized my login information from my Google account or gave me codes to activate on a web browser. Some apps, like Sling TV, did require entering information from the onscreen keyboard, so your mileage may vary.
Google TV has over 6,500 apps and nearly all the major streaming services including Peacock and HBO Max, the latter of which rivals Amazon and Roku still lack. Google is still missing Apple TV Plus, so fans of The Morning Show or films like Greyhound will need to look elsewhere.
In addition to the new name, Google has given Android TV an interface overhaul. At first glance, it’s more like the menus on Amazon’s Fire TV, with prominent rows of shows and movies, rather than the app-centric home pages of Roku and Apple TV. A bar at the top features tabs for search, a personalized For You section, live TV (currently available if you subscribe to YouTube TV), as well as tabs for movies, TV shows and apps. Below are tiles filled with content that changes depending on which tab you’re in.
The For You section is the default home page, and I found it did a nice job quickly allowing me to see what’s on now from the channels I watch, resuming shows I was watching on a bunch of different services, and displaying movies and TV shows I might like.
The interface at times did hiccup when switching apps and returning to the main menu, sometimes displaying a blank bluish screen as it appeared to be refreshing content. In general, I found that the software wasn’t quite as snappy as Amazon’s platform, but it largely did its job fine.
I liked it a lot better than the old Android TV interface found on the Tivo Stream 4K, Nvidia Shield and Sony televisions, which grouped content by app provider and required a lot of vertical scrolling to get to the apps or shows you wanted.
One other thing to note: Not all Android TV apps are ready right now. Stadia, Google’s streaming gaming platform, won’t work with the Chromecast with Google TV until some point next year. (Some enterprising users have gotten it, and Microsoft’s xCloud, sideloaded and running on their own, but official support for Stadia is not present at launch.)
I also couldn’t get picture-in-picture to work, despite it being listed in settings as being available for Sling TV.
The best part of the Chromecast with Google TV isn’t the remote or interface, but the way it ties in Google’s Assistant. In my few days of using the new Chromecast, I really enjoyed having access to the Assistant, which can be summoned by holding down the button on the remote. Google’s digital helper was much more responsive than Alexa, Siri and the Roku remote’s still-unnamed assistant.
Saying “go the Yankees game” took me straight to ESPN on YouTube TV regardless of what app I was currently using, a feature Alexa couldn’t match despite integrating with Sling TV. I was able to get Alexa to go right to a channel if I said the station’s name, but Assistant could go to the game with me saying only the subject — a much simpler and easier viewing experience.
There were some quirks, however, which seemed to vary by what I asked to watch. Asking for Avengers Endgame took me right into Disney Plus, but asking for Infinity War didn’t link me to Disney Plus at all. Instead, Google TV took me right to YouTube TV and TBS (which has the cable rights to the blockbuster film). For a smart service, it should recognize that I subscribe to Disney Plus and offer that option, in part because Disney streams in 4K HDR — as opposed to the plain HD version from YouTube TV.
Asking to play Captain America: The First Avenger (yes, I’m a Marvel fan) brought up options to either play on Prime Video immediately or choose from five different sources — one of which was Disney Plus — or renting or buying from Google TV via the Google Play Store. Once again, I’d prefer to just watch the Disney Plus version (which is part of my subscription) and not see any of the others.
The Google Play listing was also confusing because it doesn’t show which option would play in 4K, and its pricing for renting and buying were off. It listed $3.99 to rent, but clicking through only gave an option for 4K at $4.25. Buying was listed as $19.99, but clicking through revealed it was also only available in 4K, for $21.31. That may have been the total price with tax (it did not say either way), but it’s odd the interface wouldn’t just display the total price upfront.
The Assistant also lagged at times when completing requests. Asking to watch the Yankees game took over 10 seconds before the game appeared on my TV. When watching live TV, that delay is too long. Asking questions of Assistant, like the weather or sports scores, also took up the bulk of the display which impedes what you’re watching.
Like the Fire TV Stick 4K, the Chromecast supports Dolby Vision and Atmos, but finding apps that support both features isn’t easy. Google did not provide a list when asked, though I can confirm both are present on Netflix. Disney Plus, which offers Vision and Atmos on Fire TV, is only available in 4K and HDR 10 at the moment on Google TV.
Similar to the Fire TV Stick 4K, all menus and content are viewed by the TV as in Dolby Vision mode but I did get prompts on my LG C7 OLED that Vision and Atmos were active when watching the proper content, like Netflix’s Extraction.
Picture quality was sharp and crisp when watching on my LG TV, and while I couldn’t fully test Atmos (my Sonos Beam lacks support for the platform), the audio sounded fine on both the Beam and when playing with Atmos through the TV. The remote also easily controlled volume in either scenario, when using the Beam for sound or the TV’s internal speakers, though it relied on IR for the latter.
As with many smart home devices in 2020, this answer depends on which ecosystem you live in.
If your home is more Amazon-based, the Alexa-integration of the Fire TV Stick and its snappier performance may make it a better option for your home. Roku’s forthcoming support for Apple’s AirPlay and HomeKit, may make it a better choice for Apple users who don’t want to pony up for an Apple TV 4K, so long as they don’t mind skipping Dolby Vision.
If you subscribe to YouTube TV or are a fan of Google Assistant, however, the Chromecast with Google TV is a great pick. It integrates really well with other Google services like Photos, and support for nearly all major streaming apps means it should be fine no matter what you want to watch. Having the Chromecast functionality, allowing you to cast apps from your phone, is a nice bonus, but if you’re like me, you’ll stick with the remote.
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Chromecast, Google Play Movies & TV, FireTV
World news – US – Chromecast with Google TV review: A worthy rival to Roku and Fire TV