Google Chromecast (2nd gen) review

The best part of Google's new Chromecast works on the old one, too

Even if you’re already committed to another streamer, the Chromecast’s new app alone makes picking one up well worth the 35 bucks.
Even if you’re already committed to another streamer, the Chromecast’s new app alone makes picking one up well worth the 35 bucks.
Even if you’re already committed to another streamer, the Chromecast’s new app alone makes picking one up well worth the 35 bucks.

Highs

  • New design fits any port
  • Slightly faster load speeds
  • New app is a huge improvement
  • Cross-platform search at this price is impressive

Lows

  • Search could use a bit of work
  • Still can't control playback from main app
  • What's On could stand some more personalization

There are a lot of ways to stream these days – you’ve got your smart TVs, little black set-top boxes, and game consoles — but Google’s Chromecast has always gone its own way. When it launched in 2013, the little HDMI stick that provided a cheap and easy way to pull movies and TV shows from your favorite apps and “cast” them off to your TV screen was such a revolution, Digital Trends named it Best Product of 2013.

Now the Chromecast is back with an all-new look, a few new features, and a completely new app that promises to make finding what you want easier than ever before. But does this second-gen dongle boast enough new charms to trade in your old Chromecast? Spoiler alert: No, not really. But it’s still a real improvement to a device everyone should probably own. Here’s what’s new with Chromecast, and why you still want one.

Make sure to check out our review of the updated 3rd generation Chromecast

New look, better fit

When it comes to its exterior, the next-gen Chromecast more or less got a total redesign. Now the dongle is less a stick and more of a small disk with a short, flexible HDMI cable extending from it. It’s a big change-up, and while Chromecast has added some splashy new colors (with names like Lemonade and Coral) the new shape does more for utility than aesthetics: The smaller HDMI connector and contorting cable make it a little easier to get into tight spaces for those hard-to-reach ports.

The magnet on the back of the little puck recoils the cable for compact travel, and it allows you to affix the device either to the cable itself or the back of your TV — provided you’ve got any metal back there, that is. Like the original, the Chromecast can get its power directly from a standard outlet or a compatible USB port on the back of your TV. Perhaps most convenient, the new design allows users who want a cleaner look to more easily tuck the device behind the TV when using side-mounted HDMI ports.

New hardware

Inside the little disk is a trio of antennae the device switches between to pull in the strongest possible Wi-Fi signal. The Chromecast is also now 802.11ac compatible, and it will connect to 5GHz access points. All of these improvements are meant to improve connection stability and improve the streaming experience. On paper, this adds up, but gauging any improvement in connectivity is tough for us because we’ve never had a problem in the first place. Still, those who have had trouble in the past should see at least some improvement.

A smaller HDMI connector and contorting cable make it a little easier to get into tight spaces.

At the Chromecast’s unveiling in San Francisco, Google also claimed the device will offer higher quality video and audio delivery, with less buffering for a better overall experience. But apart from a stronger hold on your Wi-Fi signal, there’s no real change in streaming quality. The new Chromecast offers 1080p HD, just like its predecessor, and (no surprise at $35) it doesn’t support 4K UHD content as other streamers do, notably Amazon’s new Fire TV ($100) and the Roku 4 ($130).

It’s all about the app

The new design touches are nice and all, but when it comes to the meat of what’s new with Chromecast, it’s all about the app. Unlike a lot of tech companies (which shall go unnamed here), Google’s software upgrade works with all Chromecast devices, including the new and old video streamers, and the new Chromecast Audio device. That makes trading up for a new one all but unnecessary for current Chromecast owners. Still, for those outside the Chromecast family, the app offers a glut of new features that make for a great reason to buy in. And hell, at $35, it’s also reason for heavy users to double down.

The updated app is broken into three main categories: What’s On, which serves up a selection of titles from all the apps you’ve already got on your phone (handy, though we wish it were personalized); Devices, which allows you to easily switch between Chromecasts; and Get Apps, which, as you may have guessed, lets you directly download all Chromecast-compatible streaming apps.

In the settings for each device, the app now makes it easy to add your own photos from services like Flickr, Facebook, and Google accounts to mix in with the standard (and gorgeous) background photos Chromecast serves up.

There’s also Fast Play, which is designed to predict what you’ll watch next, and pre-load it for faster delivery. The feature was shown in Google’s demo on the Netflix app, but honestly, if Fast Play is live for Netflix now, we didn’t notice a whole lot of difference there. In fact, while the new device is supposed to load faster overall, the gap between the new and old Chromecast is more of a small step than a giant leap. Load times are more likely to be affected by your home network congestion and configuration than the device itself.

The Chromecast app’s coolest new feature  is the addition of cross-platform search.

The Chromecast app’s coolest new feature — by a long stretch — is the addition of cross-platform search, which allows you to search for content via text or voice across any of your Chromecast streaming apps. Search makes a huge difference when it comes to pure convenience — especially when trolling through Netflix’s dense catalog, and the new feature (finally) allows the Chromecast to better compete with the horde of pricier set-top boxes and streaming sticks from the likes of Amazon, Roku, and Apple.

Tapping on the mic or dropping the cursor in the window at the top of the screen allows you to search by voice or text, either for specific TV shows and movies, various genres like horror or sci-fi, or by the name of your favorite actors. Once the movie or show you’re looking for shows up, a simple click on the icon pulls up available choices for streaming (or purchase through Google Play), and a quick click takes you right to the appropriate app. You still have to control playback through the app itself, but it’s a big step up, nonetheless.

Search works relatively well in practice, though it’s not as steadfast as you might expect from a company that’s based its entire gilded empire around … well, searching for things.

Asking for shows with Rob Lowe, for instance, pulls up his new Fox show The Grinder, his new Comedy Central cartoon Moonbeam City, as well as a bunch of other stuff going back decades that you may or may not be able to stream. But oddly, it doesn’t find his last big project, Parks and Recreation.

We had similar experiences with other searches, too. The app couldn’t seem to find Jerry Seinfeld’s new show on Crackle, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, though it found other titles on the service just fine. Still, adding search is a big improvement, and we imagine it will get better over time.

Conclusion

In the end, the new design features are a step up, but not enough to make us trade in our old Chromecast — especially considering all of our favorite new features work just fine on the old version. But for those who still haven’t checked out a Chromecast, this new version offers more motivation than ever to get on board.

Chromecast remains the same funky way to stream it always was, and while it won’t replace the massive array of apps or intuitive home screens offered by pricier streaming set-top boxes, there’s still no easier — and more affordable — way to make your dumb TV smart. Even if you’re already committed to another streamer, the Chromecast’s new app alone makes picking one up well worth the 35 bones.

Highs

  • New design fits any port
  • Slightly faster load speeds
  • New app is a huge improvement
  • Cross-platform search at this price is impressive

Lows

  • Search could use a bit of work
  • Still can’t control playback from main app
  • What’s On could stand some more personalization
Home Theater

Streaming services blast past networks for the most scripted TV shows in 2018

For the first time in history, streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon, produced more original scripted series than broadcast or cable channels, setting a new record for the number of TV shows on the air.
Computing

These Windows 10 keyboard shortcuts will update your OG Windows skills

Windows 10 has many new features, and they come flanked with useful new keyboard shortcuts. Check out some of the new Windows 10 keyboard shortcuts to improve your user experience and save more time!
Mobile

Want to watch Netflix in bed or browse the web? We have a tablet for everyone

There’s so much choice when shopping for a new tablet that it can be hard to pick the right one. From iPads to Android, these are our picks for the best tablets you can buy right now whatever your budget.
Mobile

Google makes it easy to donate to charity straight through the Play Store

As we head into the holiday season, Google announced a new feature on Google Play that makes it a little easier to donate to charity. Through the new page, you'll be able to choose from a range of charities to donate to.
Home Theater

Block the outside world, tune into your own with the best in-ear headphones

Over-the-ear headphones offer top-flight sound, but they're not so easy to take along with you. If you're looking to upgrade your portable sound, check out our favorite in-ear headphones -- there's a model for every user and every budget.
Home Theater

These awesome A/V receivers will swarm you with surround sound at any budget

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to shopping for a receiver, so we assembled our favorites for 2018, at multiple price points and all loaded with features, from Dolby Atmos to 4K HDR, and much more.
Movies & TV

Celebrate the 25th anniversary of ‘The X-Files’ with the show’s 10 best episodes

The X-Files premiered 25 years ago, so here are the 10 best episodes of the award-winning sci-fi series. From alien-abduction drama to hilarious satires, these are the best episodes from all 11 seasons of the hit series.
Movies & TV

Can't get enough lightsaber action? Here's how to get your Star Wars fix online

Few of us want to deal with DVDs or Blu-ray discs anymore. Unfortunately, the Star Wars movies are few and far between when it comes to streaming. If you want to watch Star Wars online, check out our guide on where to find the films online.
Home Theater

Netflix vs. Hulu vs. Amazon Prime: Battle of the streaming giants

Trying to figure out which subscription streaming service to use while sticking to a frugal entertainment budget? Check out our updated comparison of the big three: Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, and Hulu.
Home Theater

How to master your equalizer settings for the perfect sound

You may know what an EQ is, but do you know how to adjust equalizer settings for the best possible sound? We go through the basics of the modern EQ and lay out some guidelines for how to achieve tip-top sound from your system.
Home Theater

Confused about LED vs. LCD TVs? Here's everything you need to know

Our LED vs. LCD TV buying guide explains why these two common types of displays are fundamentally connected, how they differ, what to look for in buying an LED TV, and what's on the horizon for TVs.
Home Theater

What is Terrarium TV? Here’s everything you need to know

Terrarium TV offered a way to watch movies & TV for free, but now after a troubled existence, the app's developer has shut it down, and offered an ominous message to users on his way out.
Home Theater

The best Dolby Atmos movies for your home theater sound as good as they look

If you've got your hands on some sweet Dolby Atmos gear, the next step is to find films that take advantage of it. These are our picks in every genre for the best Dolby Atmos movies currently available on Blu-ray and streaming services.
Movies & TV

Do you have questions about Hulu? We’ve got answers

Not sure which Hulu subscription is right for you? We're here to help. This is your complete guide to Hulu and Hulu with Live TV, including content offerings for each service, pricing, internet requirements, and more.