Google Chromecast Ultra review

Google's Chromecast Ultra is the cheapest path to razor-sharp 4K HDR

Google’s Chromecast Ultra is a slick and simple way to serve up tons of 4K Ultra HD content in glistening HDR.
Google’s Chromecast Ultra is a slick and simple way to serve up tons of 4K Ultra HD content in glistening HDR.
Google’s Chromecast Ultra is a slick and simple way to serve up tons of 4K Ultra HD content in glistening HDR.

Highs

  • Simple and affordable 4K streaming
  • Widest HDR support available
  • Intuitive interface and setup
  • Supports YouTube HDR
  • Dual-band Wi-Fi and Ethernet for strong connection

Lows

  • Cross platform search still mediocre
  • No Amazon video

Released to resounding success in 2013, Google’s Chromecast is about as simple as streaming devices get. Little more than a conduit that passes streaming video from the cloud to your TV — with your mobile device as the remote control — there’s little to add to Chromecast when it comes to updates. Aside from an app update, the biggest changes for 2015’s second-gen device were a design revamp from a dongle to a puck, and the addition of dual-band Wi-Fi. Really, the only place left for Chromecast to venture was into the world of 4K Ultra HD video. Enter the Ultra.

An inevitable move to mirror the latest in TV technology, the Chromecast Ultra may not look much different, but under the hood is the key to unlocking the best resolution available in streaming land, including support for High Dynamic Range to unleash the rich contrast and expanded color gamut of today’s most eye-popping movies and TV shows. While the upgrade pushes the Ultra’s price to double its predecessors ($69), for those eyeing a versatile way to stream in 4K Ultra HD with HDR, it’s one of the best bargains in town.

Setup

First things first, simply plug your Ultra into your TV and wall outlet — the new device can’t source power directly from your TV like its siblings. Apart from that, one of the biggest changes Chromecast alumni will notice isn’t the device itself, but the app — well, the name, anyway. Though it’s now dubbed Google Home to signal broader functionality, the interface is essentially the same as it always was. Adding your new Ultra into the fold is as simple as clicking the device icon at the top right, and following the basic instructions.

The other big change is that, for many users, 4K streaming will require hardwiring the device to your modem via the new Ethernet port, located on the Ultra’s power adaptor. Recommended streaming speed for 4K content is generally 25Mbps and up, For a variety of reasons, this rules out many routers. You can attempt to connect via Wi-Fi, but your safest bet is hardwiring. The device comes with no real accessories, so you’ll also need your own Ethernet cable on hand.

Features and design

As mentioned, the new Chromecast looks a lot like the old one, save for a glossy finish and a toned-down color scheme — it comes in black, and black. (Apparently, not too many users cared about a coral-colored streamer hidden behind their TV.) The Chromecast logo has also been replaced with a “G,” to let you know it’s a “made by Google” product.

Connecting your Ultra is as simple as clicking the device icon at the top right, and following the instructions.

Some basic hardware upgrades have also been added, which Google claims will make the device “1.8” times faster at loading streaming content. In practice, we didn’t experience quite that much of a boost, though the Ultra was a few seconds faster, on average, at loading HD content than our 2015 Chromecast. Like the 2015 model, the Ultra’s Wi-Fi connection is 802.11ac compatible, and it will connect to both 2.4Ghz and 5GHz access points. Google recommends a 5Ghz connection for 4K streaming, but again, we advise opting for an Ethernet connection for best results.

While the big headline is 4K Ultra HD compatibility, just as important — some might say more so — is support for HDR (High Dynamic Range). While you’ll need a certified Ultra HD Premium TV (which is more expensive) to fully appreciate it, HDR is often referred to as the icing on the 4K cake, offering vastly brighter contrast and richer shading that enhances the expanded color gamut of top-tier 4K TVs. Unlike Roku and Nvidia’s Shield device, the Ultra offers support for both HDR10 (the most prevalent HDR format) and Dolby Vision (the second-most prevalent), for the best compatibility of any streamer in its price class.

By now, you may be asking yourself, “Don’t all new premium 4K TVs pack smart interfaces with 4K apps like Netflix and YouTube built right in?” To which we’d reply, “Yes, and that’s a very astute observation!” This fact limits the use cases for the Ultra significantly, as does the fact that only a handful of streaming services even offer 4K Ultra HD content, with HDR or without.

google chromecast ultra 2016
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

However, as of writing this review, the Ultra has one major advantage over other devices right now: It’s the only current streamer that supports 4K HDR videos on YouTube. As HDR support has just launched on the site, this may soon translate into a bounty of new HDR content.

Like most streaming devices, the Chromecast’s app support is also much heartier than most built-in TV interfaces, with support for apps like Vudu, Google Play movies, and others that may or may not come with your new TV. The major omission here is Amazon Video, which you can find on Roku devices and, of course, the Fire TV. Still, 4K apps will only grow in number in the years ahead, and thanks to HDR (which Amazon’s current Fire TV doesn’t support), the Ultra can grow with them.

Interface/usability

Google’s Chromecast … er, Home app is much the same as it has been since its 2015 update, and as such, is still limited in its usefulness. The biggest addition to last year’s update was voice search, which searches across a few apps such as Netflix and YouTube with voice commands like “Show me 4K movies.”

It’s improved a little since our last review (asking for Rob Lowe TV shows now actually finds Parks and Recreation), but it’s still not as intuitive or useful as Roku’s cross-platform search. Then again, the Ultra is also $30 cheaper than a comparable Roku. Perhaps the app’s best attribute is (no surprise) finding good 4K videos on YouTube.

Where Chromecast’s cast system really comes in handy is allowing you to easily transition from an app on a mobile device to your TV with the simple tap of the cast icon. Nothing’s changed there, so if this is how you like to get your streaming kicks, and you want to add more 4K content into the mix, the Ultra may be right up your alley.

Performance

Once we connected to Ethernet (again, this requirement will vary depending on your router), the Chromecast Ultra showed its mettle, loading 4K content in a matter of seconds, and adjusting to full resolution just as quickly. We enjoyed diving through all the 4K content we could handle on Netflix, including Marco Polo and House of Cards, which stood out as the best examples of narrative-driven 4K content.

We also spent some quality time on YouTube, though it takes a bit more digging to find quality content there. The best examples came through in brilliant resolution with little aliasing. We did experience some stuttering with faster-moving content and quick pans in some videos, but we experienced similar issues via our test TV’s native YouTube app, so it’s hard to blame the Ultra there. More to the point, searching for HDR videos unearthed a treasure trove of glistening HDR content basked in bright, vivid colors, which, for now, only the Ultra can support.

Our Take

Google’s Chromecast Ultra is a slick and simple way to serve up 4K Ultra HD content, including the addition of HDR in both major formats. The latter feature is a significant upgrade that could pay dividends over 4K streamers without HDR, such as the Amazon Fire TV. And while virtually all HDR TVs come loaded with major apps like YouTube and Netflix, the Ultra is the only device right now that can take advantage of YouTube’s new HDR feature.

Apart from that, Chromecast Ultra will likely most benefit users with older or cheaper 4K TVs that don’t include many streaming apps, especially those without Google’s growing suite of content, including Google Play movies. Though it’s more expensive than the HD Chromecast, the Ultra’s inclusion of 4K support, along with HDR10 and Dolby Vision, should allow it to increase its value as 4K streaming expands.

How long will it last?

With dual band Wi-Fi, Ethernet connection, and all the latest 4K and HDR formats on board, the Ultra is ready to grow with you and your choice of higher-quality 4K Ultra HD TVs for years.

What are the alternatives?

The native apps loaded right into your 4K Ultra HD TV may be the Chromecast Ultra’s biggest competition right now. For third-party streaming devices, alternatives include the $60 Roku Streaming Stick+ at $70 and the $100 Roku Ultra, which adds features like an Optical digital audio output for outboard audio connection, and a remote control with a finder function. Both Roku devices also feature a more traditional interface and better cross platform search than the Ultra, though their HDR capability is limited to HDR10. The $70 Amazon Fire TV (2017) is also worth checking out.

Should you buy it?

If you’re looking for a highly affordable streaming add-on to your 4K Ultra HD TV — and you love Google’s casting style — then definitely. You can get a bit more content with a Roku, including Amazon Video, but it will also cost you more. More importantly, for now the Ultra is the only device compatible with HDR videos on YouTube. As more streaming apps come out of the woodwork, the Ultra’s value will only rise.

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