Google Chromecast and Chromecast Ultra: Everything you need to know

Serving as Google’s first foray into streaming devices, the Chromecast was a complete knockout when it debuted in 2013. Since then, Google has continued to update its streaming device, including the latest, incrementally updated third-generation HD Chromecast, an audio-only version, as well as the Chromecast Ultra with 4K Ultra HD and HDR support. Whichever version you use, the Chromecast remains as convenient as ever, providing a simple way to cast your favorite TV shows, music, and movies from a mobile device or computer to the big screen (or speaker) of your choice.

While Chromecast’s popularity has spread far and wide, those who have yet to be initiated may still have a lot of questions about how Chromecast works and what it can do. We cover all of that below, along with some very handy apps you’ll want in your arsenal. So, follow along to get your Chromecast on.

What is Chromecast and how does it work?

Chromecast devices run a simplified version of Google’s Chrome OS and have limited memory and hardware specs. They don’t need a ton of power, though, because they aren’t much more than glorified gateways to streaming content. To use a Chromecast, you simply plug it into your TV’s HDMI port, plug it into a power source, and connect to your home’s internet network following the simple instructions provided in the Google Home app. The device then acts as a portal for your favorite streaming apps on your mobile device or computer to be “cast” onto your TV.

Chromecast 3rd Gen
Dan Baker/Digital Trends

Here’s how casting works: Using apps on your mobile device or computer, you essentially hand off content to the Chromecast by tapping the Chromecast symbol (a square with wavy lines in the corner) within the app. Using the information it receives about what you want to watch, the Chromecast finds the TV show or movie on the web and streams it directly from the streaming service to the TV.

This way, your mobile device’s resources aren’t hogged up by streaming tasks, and battery life doesn’t take much of a hit. Think of your mobile device or computer as a remote control for the Chromecast. One exception to this rule is when the Chromecast mirrors your Chrome browser on your computer. In this case, the Chromecast is depending entirely on your computer as the source for what it displays. The other exception is an app called AllCast, which we dig into a little further down.

Introducing the Chromecast family

If you haven’t yet entered the world of 4K Ultra HD TVs, you’ll be happy to know that the 1080p version of the Chromecast ($35) is still your best bet. The device comes in two colors, chalk and charcoal — and features three built-in antennas, a malleable HDMI cord, and support for 802.11ac and 5 GHz bands.

chromecast-ultra
Chromecast Ultra

For those looking to step into the future of high-resolution content, the $70 Chromecast Ultra (shown above) will be the best fit. The Chromecast Ultra brings more than just a higher pixel count to your streaming toolkit — along with 4K Ultra HD, the device supports the two most popular versions of HDR (HDR10 and Dolby Vision) to work with virtually any 4K HDR-ready TV. HDR content allows for deeper contrast, brighter highlights, and richer color shading. It is widely regarded as a key element in making 4K shows and movies look more realistic and engaging.

Google offers plenty of 4K Ultra HD movies via Google Play, joining Netflix and YouTube as top casting sources supporting 4K Ultra HD resolution. Thanks to Amazon and Google’s feud, however, Amazon Prime (which offers a fair amount of 4K HDR video in its own right) is not natively available on any Chromecast.

Chromecast
Google Chromecast Audio Jeffrey Van Camp/Digital Trends

Last, but not least, Google’s Chromecast Audio offers a simple way to turn virtually any powered speaker into an audio streaming device. Similar to its video-streaming family members, the Chromecast Audio “casts” audio from streaming services like Spotify, Pandora, and many others. However, instead of an HDMI connection, the Chromecast Audio connects via a 3.5mm audio jack or a digital Optical input (though you’ll need an additional mini-Toslink adapter or cable to do so). For this guide, we’ll be talking about the video-ready Chromecast devices, but you can find out more about Chromecast Audio in our full review.

Which source devices work with Chromecast?

Google’s Chromecast devices are supported by Android tablets and phones, iPads and iPhones, and the Chrome browser for Windows and Mac OS X.

Best Buy B&H Walmart

Home Theater

How much are the initials ‘LV’ worth? $700 if you put them on your earphones

If you're looking for truly wireless earbuds that make as much of a statement about the state of your finances as they do about your high-tech street cred, Louis Vuitton's Horizon earbuds fit the $995 bill.
Mobile

Here’s how to download podcasts and listen to them on Android or iOS

Podcasts have become a cultural staple. Here's how to download podcasts and listen to them on your Android or iOS device, and which apps to use if you're looking to get the most out of the format.
Social Media

Spice up your Instagram videos by adding your top tunes to the soundtrack

Have you ever taken a beautiful video, only to have it ruined by some jerk in the background yelling curse words? Here's a list of apps you can use to add your own music to Instagram posts as well as your Story.
Mobile

Turn to these apps to help you in your next hunt for a job

Looking for a job can be a stressful experience, but these days, a simple mobile app can help you to find and apply for jobs all over the country -- here are some of the best job search apps for iOS and Android.
Mobile

Unleash your inner artist with the best drawing apps for the iPad Pro

The best drawing apps for the iPad Pro turn Apple's robust tablet into a canvas worthy of a true artist. Here are 20 of our current favorites, whether you're looking to keep things simple or take your art to the next level.
Home Theater

What’s new on Amazon Prime Video (February 2019)

Amazon Prime Video adds new titles each month that are available for free to all Prime members. Check out our list to find all the content hitting Amazon Prime Video in January and February, from new original series to classic films.
Features

Netflix’s latest price increase heralds the end of streaming’s golden age

Netflix’s recent price rise is just the latest in a string of signs that streaming’s golden age is nearly over. As more services enter the fray, content will be further partitioned, signaling the end of streaming’s good old days.
Home Theater

What are HDMI ARC and eARC? Here’s how they can simplify your home theater

HDMI ARC is one of the coolest TV features at your disposal. But if you're like most folks, you have no idea how it works, if you even know what it is at all. Here's our primer on HDMI ARC, as well as the next generation technology, eARC.
Home Theater

Looking to cut cable? Here’s everything you need to know about Pluto TV

Pluto TV offers plenty of entertainment in a fashion similar to live internet TV services, only at no cost — you don’t even need to register. Too good to be true? Here’s everything you need to know.
Home Theater

Want to mirror your smartphone or tablet onto your TV? Here's how

A vast arsenal of devices exists to allow sending anything on your mobile device to your TV. Our in-depth guide shows you how to mirror content from your smartphone or tablet to the big screen from virtually any device available.
Deals

Need a smart speaker? Amazon knocks $50 off Sonos Beam soundbar with Alexa

If you're looking to add some oomph to your home audio setup, then through February 3, the Alexa-enabled Sonos Beam is on sale for $50 off, bringing this excellent smart sound bar down to just $349 on Amazon.
Home Theater

Walmart abandons its plans for a streaming Netflix killer

Rumored plans for a Walmart owned, Vudu-labeled Netflix streaming killer have been shelved according to a new report from CNBC. The billions it would have needed to invest in order to compete apparently gave the mega retailer cold feet.
Home Theater

Dolby’s secret recording studio app may soon exit stealth mode

In secret testing since June, Dolby's stealth recording and social network app may soon be ready to make an appearance. Dolby 234 blends unique noise-canceling tech with Instagram-like audio filters.
Home Theater

From the Roku Ultra to the Fire TV Cube, these are the best streaming devices

There are more options for media streamers than ever, so it’s more difficult to pick the best option. But that’s why we're here. Our curated list of the best streaming devices will get you online in no time.
1 of 2