(Pocket-lint) - When Google launched the first Chromecast back in 2013, we quickly picked up the affordable HDMI dongle for several friends and family members. After all, it's an inexpensive and incredibly handy way to wirelessly "cast" content to a TV and access smart apps (even if the TV isn't smart), and therefore an ideal gift.
Unfortunately none of our loved ones understood Chromecast or what it can do - and so they all seemed to blankly nod at us, then thank us for it, before tucking it away to never be properly used. Which is a shame. Now Chromecast 2 from Google is available, it's even faster, more responsive and just as affordable. Which sounds like a good excuse to educate those who could make great use from one.
Chromecast 2 also comes with an updated Chromecast app that serves as a one-stop shop for finding Chromecast-compatible apps and specific content across those apps. We've spent a couple weeks playing with this latest device and its new app, and think that although it's not wildly different from before, it's just as cool.
Chromecast 2 review: What the puck is that?
The first Chromecast looked like a basic USB stick, while the Chromecast 2 has an all-new look that should make it easier to squeeze between ports behind your television. It's a small, plastic, hockey-puck-shaped device with a glossy and colourful front and matte bottom.
You can get the glossy front plate in black, red, or yellow, but the matte bottom is magnetised and only available in grey. No matter the colour choice you prefer, a short HDMI cable protrudes out the end of the device, which seals to the magnetised bottom when not in use, making the new Chromecast both compact and neat.
On the opposite side of the device, there's a USB port (for power), reset button, and indicator light. None of this really matters though, because the new Chromecast plugs into the back of your TV via an HMDI port and will be out of sight and mind for years - or at least until Google decides to update this Chromecast with a newer version.
Chromecast 2 review: Setup
Here's what you need to run Chromecast: a television with HDMI, a Wi-Fi network with a broadband internet connection, a smartphone or tablet running Android or iOS for the Chromecast app.
In addition to plugging into a spare HDMI port on your television, Chromecast 2 also has to plug it into a power source via USB. It comes with a USB adapter as well as a power adapter should your television not have USB.
Once you get everything hooked up, toggle to the correct HDMI input (some TVs will automatically toggle to the correct input when you cast, as Chromecast supports HDMI-CEC), then download the Chromecast app on your Android or iOS device, and follow the on-screen instructions. You'll be prompted to connect your local network before you're able to start streaming from a Chromecast-compatible app. But more on that later.
Setup should be painless - it was for us. Your television will give you easy-to-follow steps, including instructions to download the Chromecast app on your device and pair the two, so that your device knows where to cast. You'll need to give your Chromecast a name, too.
The new Chromecast is compatible with 5GHz Wi-Fi networks and comes with three radios rather than a single-band Wi-Fi antenna. Theoretically, you should experience less interference than you would with the old Chromecast on a 2.4GHz network. More reliable streaming is a definite positive, although we've not had issues with the original Chromecast in our particular setup.
Chromecast 2 is able to play Full HD 1080p streams - even in crowded areas or near devices that emit electromagnetic waveforms (like microwave ovens). That's the power of 5GHz, although it doesn't function as well over long distances like 2.4GHz.
You can also use Chromecast 2 with the Google Chrome browser on a computer. Simply install the Cast extension in the browser, then you can start casting whatever is displayed in a tab and more. Unfortunately, casting from tabs is still restricted to 720p, which is the same quality that the original Chromecast has supported since launch.
Chromecast 2 review: No TV interface
Chromecast still doesn't have a user interface, per se, but Google has retained that rotation of changing wallpapers and screensavers (pulled from 500x and other sources) to display on screen. Instead controls run through the app on your phone, not on the TV screen itself.
Currently, there are hundreds of apps on Android and iOS - including the Chrome browser on PCs and Macs - that can stream content through Chromecast. High-profile examples include BBC iPlayer, Spotify, Hulu Plus, Netflix, Showtime, Sling TV, Google Photos, and YouTube. Amazon-owned Twitch will even stream to Chromecast and turn your tablet into a second-screen chat window of sorts as you watch on the main TV screen. Unfortunately, Amazon's Instant Video service doesn't offer support.
When watching a video through a compatible app on your device, such as YouTube or Netflix, you'll see a Chromecast icon appear in the corner of the app. Simply tap the icon to immediately cast video from your device to your television. It's easy to see how an interface might make Chromecast seem more familiar or approachable, especially to people who have no idea what Chromecast can do or what its purpose is, but we think the lack of an interface is genius.
It helps Chromecast to stay dead-simple and stand apart from the competition and the set-top box category. There's nothing to fuss around with and no menus to tap or click. And there is certainly no separate remote you have to grab either. It's all super easy.
Chromecast 2 review: Let's mirror and cast stuff!
The new Chromecast is supposed to be faster than the original Chromecast. We tested the old and new models side by side and the new version certainly seems more responsive. Google says apps should stream faster, as content will load in the background in precognition of what you want to watch next.
So, when you start up a video on your device, Chromecast will play the stream straight away in high definition. When we casted from mobile devices using the new Chromecast, Netflix and YouTube streams launched in less than 2 seconds, while the old Chromecast tended to lag and take about 20 seconds to get up and running.
We also tested screen mirroring and casting from Chrome, and everything seemed nippy. Screen mirroring over the improved Wi-Fi architecture was silky smooth, but keep in mind mirroring is not the same as casting. Mirroring displays whatever is on your device screen on your television. Casting sends video from your device to your television.
Also, unlike screen mirroring, once you start casting a video to your television, your phone, tablet or computer will be freed up to do other things. You can still use them to open other apps, view webpages, and so forth, because Google built the Chromecast 2 upon cloud-based playback not device-based playback.
Because Chromecast 2 is designed to pull content from the cloud instead of through your device, you cannot cast content - like music or photos or videos - locally stored on your phone or tablet. But you can drop things like MP4 files into your Chrome browser and then screen mirror the playback, which is a handy workaround for local content.
Here's a complete listing of supported media, so you'll know exactly what types of files you can cast or mirror.
Chromecast 2 review: Universal search is uh-mazing
The final thing that makes the new Chromecast standout beyond the original is its software. Well, to be specific: the Chromecast app. It's all so straightforward and clean and simple to use, which is exactly how an app should be.
Technically, old Chromecast hardware can use the new app too, but it's still a big reason why we like Chromecast 2 so much. For one, it features a universal search bar along the top of every screen within the app.
This browse option is a lot like the universal search function in Roku's devices or Amazon Fire TV. It scours multiple apps (the ones installed on your device) and serves up results in one place. Just search for any movie or TV show, and then the app will show you which apps offer that content. It's amazing.
Google still needs to add many apps to its search catalogue though, so the feature currently only works with a select few apps, such as Netflix, Hulu, FXNow, Crackle, HBO Go, YouTube, and Google Play Movies and TV. We're still waiting on apps like HBO Now, Vudu, Sling TV, Showtime, CBS, Watch ESPN, and many others, including audio apps.
You can search by text or voice, too. Voice search is powered by Google Now and seems to understand us pretty well. When we looked for Keanu Reeves, the app only surfaced his films available to buy or rent from Google Play as well as his videos from YouTube. When you click on a result, you'll be able to see summary info and trailers.
There's also a watch button embedded in results, which when tapped, launches the app tied to the service hosting the content. From there you can hit the Chromecast icon in order to cast video from your device to your television.
Apart from universal search, the new Chromecast app has three main screens: What's on, Devices, and Get apps. What's on recommends different videos and clips to watch from the apps on your device, while Devices lets you manage all the Chromecast and Chromecast Audio devices in your house (Audio has a 3.5mm audio jack to make old speakers new with streaming capabilities). Get apps just suggests games and streaming services to install.
Chromecast 2 review: Be social with split-screen gaming
There are many ways to put mobile games right up on your television, but that hasn't stopped Chromecast from becoming yet another option. You can, for instance, load Angry Birds Go on your device, and then beam it to your TV, with your phone acting as a game controller. It's sort of like what you can do with AirPlay and an iOS device.
In the coming months, several mobile games, including Angry Birds, WGT Golf, and Driver Speedboat Paradise, will add cast support. Your phone's touchscreen and sensors not only enable you to control these games, but its processing power will also handle all the graphics, so game streams should be responsive and smooth over Chromecast.
Chromecast also allows up to four gamers to play on one TV at the same time, meaning you can be social with friends while nerding out over your favourite mobile game. We didn't get the chance to test this feature much, because not many games with cast support are available at the time of writing, but we can see the appeal for avid gamers.
The new Chromecast is an easy way to get content to your TV via your phone, tablet or PC without any hassle. Whether you want to playback from apps, mirror browser tabs (or local media playback within), or even play split-screen games - Chromecast 2 the device that makes your basic TV extra smart.
In the new model the updated app with universal search is great, everything is more responsive, and support for 5GHz Wi-Fi networks means less interference for those streams. If we had to nitpick, then we wish Google had included 4K casting and screen mirroring support. And some apps, such as Amazon Instant Video, lack support at present.
If any of that interests you, the new Chromecast is well worth the £30. But if your existing Chromecast is serving you just fine then there's perhaps no major reason to upgrade. The first Chromecast was near perfect, with the sequel Google's just done some polishing to make it shine even more.
It won't ever begin to replace set-top boxes, but it does simplify the process of flinging content from your smart devices to your television. Now, if only we can convince our loved ones to take a minute to figure out how to use it...