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
Google 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.

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.

google chromecast ultra 2016
Google Chromecast Ultra Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

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 Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, and YouTube as top casting sources supporting 4K Ultra HD resolution.

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 macOS and Windows.

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