(Pocket-lint) - Google Chromecast has always been something of an oddity. While clever in its premise, a lot of people never really understood what it was supposed to do or, importantly, how it did it.
While we've had several models of Chromecast, the latest - Chromecast with Google TV - is easily the most significant. It adds a user interface and a remote, something that Chromecast previously failed to offer.
And with it, Google steps into a brave new world of TV entertainment.
- HDMI dongle dimensions: 162 x 61 x 12.5mm
- Colours: Snow, Sunrise, Sky
- Voice remote included
- Power: USB Type-C
The puck-like design of the Chromecast remains, with a short flexible cable sporting an HDMI to connect to the back of your TV or amp. There's a USB-Type C connector that you'll need for power - and not from the 5V USB socket on your TV, as you'll need mains power instead.
The design isn't hugely revolutionary, similar to previous iterations, but with a softer finish to fit in with the overall design of Google's more recent hardware. The design doesn't really matter, because it will live around the back of your TV for most of its life, with most interaction only while taking it out of the packet.
It's perhaps larger than some other streamers, like the Amazon Fire TV Stick models or those from Roku, but the flexible cable for the HDMI has the advantage of meaning it attaches easily in all manner of setups - a wall-mounted TV with rear-facing HDMI isn't a problem, for example - while its flattened nature means it will slip into the gap behind your TV too.
But the other major component of the package you will spend more time with is the remote. Chromecast has never had a remote before, instead acting only as the bridge between your content and your TV, as controlled by your phone or voice.
The new remote runs on two AAA batteries (supplied) and has been nicely designed to sit comfortably and securely in the hand, while offering plentiful controls. That includes a top directional controller with select buttons for home, back, Google Assistant, mute, and shortcuts to YouTube and Netflix.
There are additional controls on the remote that are programmable, allowing you to control your TV's power and volume, or volume of an amp if that's how you've connected it up. The great thing is that when using Chromecast with Google TV, you don't then need to use separate remotes, so it ticks a lot of boxes.
Setup and getting connected
- Can control connected TV and sound systems
- Connectivity: Wi-Fi 802.11ac (2.4 / 5GHz)
- Google Home app required
- Ethernet is optional
Setup begins with the Home app on your phone, as was the case for previous Chromecast models. This will get things started, with some actions taken on the phone and some on the TV. Once you're connected to your Wi-Fi and signed into your Google account, most of the setup then takes place on your TV itself - which is the advantage of having a proper user interface, finally.
The setup includes selecting the streaming services that you use, so that the Chromecast can install those apps for you, but signing in isn't universal. If Google knows your login details - for example if you subscribed via Google - then it might be able to sign you in. We found it was a mixture, with signing into services essentially different depending on the app - some use on-screen keyboards, some use on-screen codes in combination with your phone, and so on.
Google services - YouTube, Play Movies - naturally get signed into automatically via your account, but you do have the option to logout. That means you could sign into a different YouTube account, for example, because the app it uses is essentially the same as on other streaming platforms. That means you can let the kids sign into YouTube to watch DanTDM and leave your YouTube history of classic 90s adverts and DIY tips unsullied.
The other important part of setup is helping the remote recognise your TV - and amp or sound system if you're using one - so it can learn the controls. This is a fairly standard trial and error process, selecting the brand of your connected devices (in our case it was connected to a Sony amp and an LG TV) and after a few attempts it will find the right controls. It's simple and easy, with on-screen instructions.
Wi-Fi will suffice for most connections and we've found no problems streaming 4K content via Wi-Fi, but it will depend on your setup. There is an option for Ethernet, but you'll have to buy a separate mains power pack for this job, if you think it will be necessary. From our tests we've found connectivity to be better than we've experienced from the Chromecast Ultra - but it will depend on where you place the Chromecast, the strength of your Wi-Fi signal and so on.
As for the settings themselves, you can dive in and change the audio and video options if you want, but in most cases the automatic setup will give you the settings you want by default.
TV functions and recommendations
- Google TV interface
- Majority of streaming apps
- Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos support
Streaming TV content is the primary function of Chromecast and that hasn't changed with this latest iteration - but having a user interface thanks to Google TV, and a remote to interact, makes a massive difference to approachability. Where the previous Chromecast devices might only appeal to the tech savvy, the Chromecast with Google TV is a serious competitor to devices like Apple TV 4K, Roku and Amazon's Fire TV Sticks.
Google TV aims to serve up access to your content, while also providing something visually engaging and giving you recommendations in the "For you" tab. Visually, it's more reminiscent the Apple TV+ app (ironic considering that's one service that's not supported), with full screen visuals packed with detail. It's a step beyond Roku - which offers nothing but a grid of apps - and the Fire TV Stick, which serves up Prime Video or other apps, without pulling them together.
Google manages to bridge that gap, pulling programming from all your sources designed to appeal to your tastes. We're not certain how Google establishes your profile, but it seems accurate enough for us, except some of the headline shows it was promoting - like The Boys - that we'd already seen. Other shows seem to stick to the genres we've watched, or bought on Play Movies before, which we suspect is where some of the profiling comes from.
Surprisingly, there's nothing in the "For you" tab that hooks into content you're already watching. You might expect to be able to click a show you're in the middle of to keep watching, but there's no such thing. Google TV doesn't seem to know we're watching Lucifer on Prime Video, so it misses a trick by not actually providing a link back into what we're watching, it's just recommendations in a range of categories.
Otherwise the interface is pretty slick and fast, it's easy to move around, and occasionally you'll see a paid-for offering from Play Movies - which is Google's background plan here, to get you to buy from its own store. Certainly, all the content you've bought from Google previously is available under the Library tab, while the other tabs - Movies and Shows - logically fill out their respective categories.
In that sense, looking for a new TV show to binge on is easy, as you can flip to shows and see suggestions from all your services and dive in. Those in the US also have a Live tab which is designed to integrate content from TV providers, but in the UK we don't get that option, so you don't see it.
The Chromecast supports 4K HDR content, including Dolby Vision and HDR10+ where available, although you'll need a compatible TV. It will support up to 60fps at 4K. Of course, all the services use variable bitrate, but we've found quick delivery of sharp 4K content.
Dolby Atmos is supported too, although we didn't test it with an Atmos setup, only a 5.1 system - with solid support for 5.1 experienced in our testing. Of course, what you get will depend on the source and this may well differ from service to service. We've also been in the position recently of only getting PCM from our Roku Streaming Stick+, so the return to proper surround sound is welcomed.
On the whole, it's a great viewing experience, with the lack of Apple TV+ and All4 (for those in the UK), notable exceptions, although the latter can still be cast if you have the app on a phone.
You immediately hit a wall if you're a family, however. With two children in our household, the first thing they see is The Boys recommended, which is as far from a family show as you can get. As we've often seen before on streaming devices, if you have user profiles in other apps, those are accessible - and that covers the likes of Prime Video, Netflix or Disney+ - so your kids can enter those apps and see the content they want to see and resume watching what they were watching.
But there's no top level separation of profiles for other family users, it's only the main account that the device is registered to. Google does declare this in the settings, saying that other accounts can be added, but recommendations only work through that one main account.
Parental controls are a bit of mixed bag, like with most other devices. There are some controls for Google Assistant to filter bad language, but generally speaking you'll have to setup parental controls for each individual service, in accordance with the provider's instructions. Some can be done through the apps themselves, some have to be set universally through an account page in a browser - there's no universal approach.
Google Assistant, casting and the Android ecosystem
- Voice control and searching
- Can cast services
- Access to apps and casting services
- Bluetooth accessories
Beyond TV, the Chromecast with Google TV offers a wide range of other functions. Supporting Google Assistant through the remote is a great addition, as fiddly on-screen keyboard searches are no longer necessary. You can ask for content by name, the actors it stars, you can ask to open the service, or you can just say "Play Lucifer on Prime Video" and it will open in the right place.
Unfortunately, like the recommendations, it doesn't really know what you're watching or how far you've got to, so if you say "Play Lucifer", it might open it in Netflix instead of Prime Video.
You can also use voice for music services; radio stations will play through the likes of TuneIn; and with a Spotify app you can ask for playlists - although you need to be signed in on the app on the Chromecast to do this.
Google Assistant supports a full range of functions as it does elsewhere, so you can ask for things like weather, ask questions and control smart home devices you have setup and linked to your Google account too, all from the TV. That means you can dim the lights, turn up the heating and play a movie, all via voice and all via the same remote.
As this is a Chromecast device, it still also supports traditional Chromecast functions. That means you can cast from a separate device to the TV. That gives wider support for apps and services that aren't on the platform - you can cast content from Google Photos, your entire phone screen, browser tabs from Chrome or Chrome OS, and so on.
This also provides a little shortcut for those apps not supported - if they support casting, as All4 in the UK does, then you can still cast it to the Chromecast and watch it on the big TV, if you want.
On top of those immediate streaming services there are other apps that will run on this Android platform. That includes some games, and searching will reveal the full range that is available. We installed Real Racing 3 and thanks to support for Bluetooth controllers, it was a quick process to pair an Xbox controller and play RR3 on the big screen.
There's no support for Google's game streaming service Stadia, and no Stadia app - which seems like an obvious route for Chromecast with Google TV to take in the future. Google previously confirmed that Stadia support would be coming in 2021, but you can sideload the app if you want to take that route - although we suspect the performance won't be what Google intended. We'd rather wait for the 2021 update to get the best experience.
Chromecast with Google TV takes Google's streaming platform and takes it into a completely new dimension. It was previously hard to recommend getting a Chromecast for TV viewing except in exceptional circumstances. But with Chromecast for Google TV, there's now a much more complete offering, with the ease of use and performance to compete with and better rival devices.
There are some content holes - like Apple TV+ absence - and we have no idea if this will ever be plugged. But arguably that's a smaller service compared to the likes of Netflix, Amazon and Disney+. The lack of Stadia is surprising, but we know that's going to change in the future.
Ultimately, Chromecast with Google TV feels like a platform that will develop from a strong foundation on day one into something rock solid later down the line. As such, it's an easy recommendation.
Welcome to the party Google - a few years late, but you finally made it here in style.
Roku Streaming Stick+
The Streaming Stick+ offers the services that aren't supported on the Google device, like Apple TV+, while also supporting casting and 4K HDR content, although there's no Dolby Vision support. It's a good performer, but the user interface is strictly limited to a grid of apps to access your content.
Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K
The 4K Fire TV Stick serves up Prime Video first and foremost, but supports a wide range or TV services to bring streaming to the big screen. It will also interface with Alexa - and includes Alexa Voice Control - for a very complete package.