Seven years ago, Google launched the original Chromecast -- a $35 HDMI dongle that you could plug into any TV to get your streaming apps on a big screen. Since then, smart TVs, gaming consoles, set top boxes and other streaming gadgets have made watching Netflix or YouTube on your television a lot easier. But Google believes there is still a place for the little streaming player and it’s announcing the new Chromecast with Google TV today. The device is now available for $49.99, and it comes with a remote control with a mic built in for Assistant access. I’ve spent two days with the new Chromecast and Google TV and so far, it seems like a serious improvement on an already excellent device.
Google is calling this the “best Chromecast yet.” and it looks more like the Chromecast Ultra from 2016 than the original stick. It feels like a credit card holder with the smooth finish and oval shape of a pebble, except with a small cable sticking out of it. It’s also much thinner than the Ultra and I love the fun colors available. The new snow (white), sunrise (coral) and sky (blue) hues are are in line with Google’s recent pastel-toned devices. Google also minimized the power adapter that comes in the box so it takes up less room on your strip of sockets.
The new Chromecast has a beefed-up processor that helps it run the new interface and support 4K HDR at up to 60 frames per second. It’ll also work with Dolby Vision content for better colors, contrast and brightness, as well as offer surround sound for more immersive experiences. While Roku’s new $100 streaming box only just added support for Dolby Vision, Amazon’s $50 Fire TV Stick 4K and the Apple TV 4K have both had the codec for years.
New remote control
A highlight this year is the new remote control, which Google said was “our most requested feature.” It’s slightly longer than my palm with a curved shape that makes it comfortable to hold. There’s a little dent on the bottom to help it sit level on a table instead of rocking side to side. The remote feels smooth and light, and Google was kinda enough to include the two triple A batteries required to power it.
The controls here feature a circular four-way navigation pad near the top and eight buttons below that, as well as volume controls along the right edge. The eight buttons are: Back, Assistant, Home, Mute, Power, Input, as well as dedicated options for YouTube and Netflix. Google said it picked these two streaming services because they’re the most popular among users.
To talk to the Assistant, you’ll have to press and hold down the dedicated button and speak into the remote control. You won’t have to say “Hey Google” when you do this, and you can let go of the key when you’re done.
The power, input and volume controls are programmable to your TV via an infrared sensor, which gives you more control than using your phone with an older Chromecast. I could control my TV’s native volume with this, which is a nice expansion from the limited options via my phone before. I still can’t switch my TV off completely with this remote though.
Hello again, Google TV
The new Chromecast also launches with the new Google TV interface and it’s a mix of the existing Android TV system and Play Movies and TV app. If the name “Google TV” sounds familiar, it’s because the company already used that name for an ill-fated smart TV platform 10 years ago. Android TV took over that system, and the new Google TV runs as a layer on top of Android TV. It’s a bit confusing, but this is basically a new look for the operating system, and you’ll still use the same apps already available for Android TV.
For those who already have a smart TV or set-top box, the addition of the Google TV interface doesn’t mean much. If you’ve been relying on a Chromecast to stream your shows, though, you’ll appreciate the new OS. Instead of having to whip out your phone to find something you want to watch and then cast it to your TV, you’ll be able to just look for it on the bigger screen. Or just ask the Assistant with the new remote control’s dedicated button. You’ll still be able to cast things like Chrome tabs or your pictures to the TV, too.
On the home screen, you’ll see a carousel that takes up almost the whole screen featuring highlighted shows from services like HBO Max, Hulu and Prime Video. Then, you’re presented with rows of tiles, starting with Google’s top picks for you. You’ll also see rows for “Your apps,” “Continue watching,” “Trending on Google,” “From your watchlist” and a series of genres like Action, Comedies and Horror movies, for example. These pull from all your integrated services, and even from those you’re not subscribed to -- much like the existing Play Movies and TV app already does on Android.
I liked that Play Movies and TV made it easy to find free shows from things like Crackle, Tubi TV or the TBS app, even though I didn’t have them installed. If I decided I wanted to watch something from these apps, I just had to install them. On Google TV, the process is similar -- I looked at the row of “Free ad-supported movies” and selected Guardians, which was on Tubi TV. Tapping it brought me to a page with more details about the show and options to add it to my watchlist or install the app.
Since this is a Google product after all, there are also dedicated spaces for YouTube content. In addition to a row specifically for recommended videos from the video network, you’ll also find a tab at the top of the home page for Live content. That tab currently only draws from YouTube Live, though Google said in future that it will be bringing in other partners for this section. The other sections available, by the way, are Movies, Shows, Apps, Library and For You, which is the default home page. You can also find a search option up top to look for a show you want, as well as a Google TV logo on the top left in case you ever forgot you were using the new interface and not Android TV.
The new Chromecast also features Assistant integration, so you can tell the digital helper to play your favorite songs on Spotify, show your Nest camera stream, change up the color of your lighting or play specific shows. I held down the button and said “Play Utopia on Amazon Prime Video” and the Chromecast launched the right streaming service and took me directly to the page for the show. Later, when I asked Assistant again simply to “Play Utopia,” it replied “Alright, taking you to Prime Video” and said if I wanted to use a different app I could ask again and specify which service I preferred.
I could also still cast Netflix to my TV from my Pixel, and instead of showing a slideshow of available shows like before, the new Chromecast pulled up the Google TV interface of Netflix that I could navigate with the remote control. I was also able to ask Assistant on my Google Home to play The Good Place on my TV and the system brought up the show on Netflix.
It was easy to use Assistant to find shows I already knew, and the system responded quickly in the day or so I’ve had the new Chromecast. There was some delay in loading the main page when I hit the Home button on the remote midway through a show, though. I also wish voice control offered more functions, -- I couldn’t restart an episode by telling the Assistant “start this episode over” in apps like Netflix and HBO Max.
Google said it updated its search knowledge graph to better understand what you’re looking for. In addition to still being able to cast things like your Chrome browser tab to your TV, you’ll also still have Ambient mode, which displays your selected art and images on your screen when the system is idle. Stadia support will also be available in the first half of 2021 and a small selection of games are already in Google TV’s app store.
Speaking of, it appears that part of the reason Google is keeping the Android TV OS around is because of the 6,500 apps available for the system. Not only can Google TV serve up your streaming apps, but it also has a vast library of options across categories like education, fitness, business, communication, productivity and sports. I downloaded a Karaoke app from the entertainment category and was impressed by the song catalog and overall functionality, and may have spent a few too many hours singing to myself. Sure, this isn’t necessarily a Google TV feature, but the plethora of apps on Android TV OS makes the platform potentially more fun.
By offering a new OS and remote control, Google is making the Chromecast a better competitor against the Rokus and Fire TVs of the world. You can already order one from Google’s website or major retailers, and the company thoughtfully includes two triple A batteries (in the same color as your Chromecast) for the remote so you don’t have to go to the trouble of buying some. Those of us still using older TVs that aren’t quite so smart will find the new Chromecast a powerful, effective way to join the modern streaming ecosystem.