Chromecast Ultra

Chromecast might be facing some increasingly stiff competition from the likes of Roku and Amazon, but that hasn’t stopped Google’s spectacular streaming puck from remaining one of the best (and cheapest) HD streaming devices in the world. 

With the Chromecast Ultra, Google has made a solid commitment to chase the 4K HDR crowd. It's a wafer-sized streaming device that can receive 4K HDR signal from any mobile device that’s on your network. 

It may be a small device with big promises, but what makes this version of Google’s tiny streaming device so special? 

First up, it’s ‘Ultra’ not only because it’s capable of 4K playback and HDR video. It also has an ethernet port, as well as improved internal components, which means that videos load faster and are less prone to slowdown. 

Those features help Google’s latest iteration of the streamer feel more premium than its predecessor without necessarily offering a major departure in terms of form factor or available content. 

The key feature that makes the Chromecast (and Chromecast-equipped devices) so popular after all these years is their ability to ‘Cast’ content – i.e. send a link from your phone or mobile device to a piece of content that Chromecast then loads and displays on your TV. 

Sure, you can use casting for really simple things – like sending a YouTube video to the big screen for your friends to enjoy – but the system is capable of so much more. A number of excellent games support Chromecast functionality, and now deep integration with Google Home and Google Assistant allow you to send information like weather and photos straight to your screen.

But before we dive further into what makes the Chromecast Ultra worthy of its title (and in our books, it’s very well-deserving), let’s talk about its two major shortcomings: the lack of a remote and the Chromecast’s inability to pool content on your TV screen due to the lack of a standard user interface. 

Not having a place on the TV to find fresh videos can be utterly annoying for some folks used to flipping through television stations, and downright confusing for anyone who can’t wrap their head around sending content from their phone, laptop or tablet the TV.

Chromecast Ultra, therefore, is perfect for tech-savvy people who can use their phone or tablet to send video to the big screen, and who don’t necessarily need a user interface to surface content for them to watch. But buying it as a gift for someone who might not know their Google Cast from their Bluetooth might not go over as well.

OK, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk dive into what makes this year’s Chromecast the best ever for 4K HDR owners.

Design

  • Similar puck shape to the original Chromecast
  • Adds an ethernet port to the power cable
  • Only available in one color

Not much has changed in the design of the Chromecast Ultra – it’s more or less the same puck-shape that we saw from the original design. And that’s a very good thing considering that the last one was definitely one the sleekest, most minimalistic streaming devices on the planet. 

An HDMI cable still juts out of one end of the disc while the other hosts a microUSB port used for charging – that charging cable, by the way, now needs to be plugged into a wall outlet via the included adapter, and can no longer be charged by a USB port on your TV – but the layman would be hard-pressed to pick out one from the other. 

That said, to the trained eye there are three major differences and one minor one in the design department. The first is that, circumference-wise, the Ultra is just a hair bigger than the 2015 Chromecast. It’s 2.29 inches now versus 2.04 on the original model. It’s not a big difference, though, and the Ultra still hides behind the TV with relative ease despite the gain. 

The minor tweak is that the Ultra is currently only available in a single color, black, unlike last year’s version which came in fun, eye-popping colors like coral and lemonade. Few will likely mourn the passing of these color options, admittedly, but it seemed like a nice option for the few who took advantage of it. Regardless, your color options here are more limited and it’s something that might not change for some time. 

Another major alteration Google’s design team made, and the only one that will actually impact performance, is the addition of an ethernet port to the charging cable that plugs into the wall. For anyone who has a router close enough to the Chromecast, this would allow faster, more consistent streams over a wired connection, though you won’t necessarily need to connect it via wires to get the speeds necessary for 4K. 

Finally – and at this point we’re just splitting hairs – instead of an engraved Chrome logo on the top face, you’ll find a simple G. Why exactly that’s changed is anyone’s guess, however it seems to us that Google’s prerogative is to disassociate the device with the browser and instead focus on how it interacts with other Google products such as the Home, something we’ll discuss later on in the review.

Beyond those four noteworthy changes, though, everything else is exactly how you remember it. There’s the coiled 802.11ac (2.4 GHz/5 GHz) Wi-Fi antenna tucked inside the casing for high-performance streaming and reset button along the outer rim that you can use to restart the system should it start acting up.

Interface

  • There isn't one really
  • But setup is quick and dead-simple
  • You'll need to use the Google Home app

Once you run the included five-foot power cable into a wall outlet with the included adapter and plug in the ethernet cable, it’ll be time to run through the new Chromecast’s quick and easy setup process. 

The process takes all of five minutes, most of which are spent actually downloading the Chromecast app from either the Google Play Store or iOS App Store and giving the Ultra minute to download the latest firmware. 

You’ll be asked to connect the Chromecast to your home wireless network (unless you’re using a wired connection, of course) and finally you’ll be met with a settings screen that will let you to choose to enable Guest Mode and wallpapers.

When you’re not actively streaming something to the Chromecast, it will enter a screensaver mode that can display images from Google Photos, Facebook, Flickr, curated artwork, the weather and even headlines from top news sources. 

Unlike the Amazon Fire TV Stick or Roku Streaming Stick, there’s no central hub for apps that you can browse on the TV itself. Chromecast is either taking content from your phone, tablet or PC, or simply displays pretty pictures until it’s told to do otherwise. 

That said, the Google Home app serves as the main spot for checking out what content is available to stream and which apps you already have installed that work with your new streaming dongle.

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 the original 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 out the 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. 

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 console for its on-demand game-streaming service,

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 is 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.

If you’re a 4K owner who happens to hate the smart TV system that came built into your set, there’s a lot to love with the Chromecast Ultra. 

Improvements like 4K and HDR support on top of a built-in ethernet adapter and dual-band Wi-Fi make the Chromecast Ultra one of the best streaming devices on the planet, however, without a remote or a user interface it’s still missing many of the utilitarian features that other streaming options have.

That said, if you’re a person who can moderately maneuver through menus and can suss out the Google Cast button in the apps where it exists, you’ll have no problem here.

But how does it stack it against the competition? Here's what we've pieced together. 

Chromecast Ultra vs. the competition

The Chromecast's calling card has always been the ability to sync up with your mobile phone, tablet and PC. Few devices work as seamlessly with your electronics as Chromecast does, and any that do require you to be bought into a particular family of products.

Chromecast Ultra vs. Amazon Fire TV and Fire TV Stick: While Amazon might offer a cheaper streaming stick at  $39 (£35, about AU$56), keep in mind that it only supports 1080p, SDR video. Amazon’s $99 (£79, about AU$140) Fire TV, on the other hand, supports 4K but not HDR. However, more irritating than either of those facts, both products rely heavily on a subscription to Amazon Prime to function at their fullest potential.

That said, if you are an Amazon Prime subscriber you won't be able to watch the service natively on Chromecast as Amazon's mobile app doesn't support Google Cast functionality.

Chromecast Ultra vs. Roku Premiere and Roku Streaming Stick: Here's a story of David and the Goliath. The circular Chromecast does much of what the $99 (£79, about AU$140) Roku Premiere does, though it depends more on your phone, tablet and PC to keep pace. That said, Roku is known for having thousands of channels of content and universal search functionality that allows you to search multiple sources at once as well as a pretty svelte remote.

Google has adopted the latter into the latest version of its Chromecast app, but doesn't have near the amount of channels Roku has. If you're looking for full-size streaming device with access to any and every streaming service, Roku can't be beat. If you're looking for a 4K solution to putting audio and video on your TV, however, Chromecast Ultra is the way to go.

Chromecast Ultra vs. Apple TV: Apple TV, like Amazon's streamer, favors its own ecosystem, at least in terms of hardware. On the software side of things, Apple opened up its app store to every developer for the first time in the history of its home entertainment device, making it a bit more well-rounded than the Chromecast. It also includes a new remote and an 802.11ac antenna, identical to the one found in the new Chromecast. That said, Apple TV costs a whopping $149 (about £96, AU$200) and doesn’t do 4K or HDR.

We liked

It’s easy to criticize the few missteps Google has made here (see below), but by and large Chromecast Ultra is an impeccably pristine streaming device capable of procuring gorgeous 4K HDR streams for less than the competition.

Minor improvements like the ethernet adapter improve upon last year’s Chromecast, while Google Home integration helps make the Chromecast feel right at home at the epicenter of our burgeoning smart home.

We disliked

That said, for all the positives here there’s still a few lingering issues. The first is its price – $69 (£69 or about AU$90). It offers a heck of alot for that sticker price, but it feels like less of a value here than the $35 (£30, AU$49) Chromecast does considering that it shares nearly all of the same functionality and feature set.

That’s due, in fair amount, to the fact that Chromecast really doesn’t come with any modern conveniences – both Roku’s Streaming Stick and Amazon’s Fire TV Stick offer a remote and have a centralized user interface. 

Final verdict

Though, there’s little reason not to buy a Chromecast Ultra if you’re a 4K TV owner. But at the same time, if you want 4K and HDR video and you have a compatible TV, there's a good chance it already has built-in apps. Although if you don't like your TVs' native user interface, it might make more sense.

For the most part Chromecast Ultra is an exceptionally smart, powerful and fast streaming in a device the size of a wafer. There’s not as much benefit for the 1080p crowd, but for 4K TV owners, it’s hard to find a device that offers as much as Chromecast Ultra for the price.

Nick Pino
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