Very little has been added to the third-generation Chromecast, but it still represents superb value for money
- Works with lots of apps
- Google Home integration
- No UI or physical remote
- No 4K support
Google released the new Chromecast just ahead of its recent #MadeByGoogle event but failed to mention it at all during the launch, focusing instead on the Home Hub, Pixel 3 and Pixel Slate. The reason for this is now pretty obvious: there’s not very much to say about the company’s new media-streaming device.
The third-generation streamer has had a subtle redesign and now plays 1080p video at 60fps (in apps that support it) where its predecessor maxed out at 1080p 30fps. Google also claims it’s 15% faster than its predecessor, but with no 4K support, that’s just about the full extent of what’s new about the streaming device. So, is Google’s latest dongle worth £30 of your hard-earned cash? Read on to find out.
Chromecast 2018 review: What you need to know
Another subtle improvement is that this Chromecast will reportedly support multi-room streaming at some stage (the feature isn’t available at launch) as currently offered by the Chromecast Audio. Otherwise, the third-generation Chromecast is the same streaming device we’ve come to know and love.
Powered via micro-USB, it plugs into your TV’s HDMI port and is controlled from your smartphone, computer or Google Home device. There’s no user interface, but, as before, you can use it to cast from compatible apps and mirror your Android phone or computer’s screen directly to your TV.
As well as supporting most TV and movie apps such as BBC iPlayer, Netflix, YouTube, Now TV, BT Sport and All4, Google’s Chromecast works with a number of music streaming apps. These include Spotify, Soundcloud, Deezer, TuneIn Radio, and of course, Google Play Music. Last but not least, the Chromecast can also be used to play a growing library of games, and you can also cast anything from your home media library via Plex.
Chromecast 2018 review: Price and competition
As far as devices that plug inconspicuously into the back of your TV are concerned, the Chromecast’s main competition comes from the Roku Express (£29) and Amazon Fire TV Stick (£39.99). Both devices support streaming at 1080p, offer a similar range of apps (with a few exceptions) and come with handy remotes for browsing their respective interfaces.
If you want 4K playback, though, you’ll have to choose between the Chromecast Ultra (£69), Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K (£50) and Roku Streaming Stick+ (£80). The Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K stands out among these devices not only because of its lower price, but because it also comes with the all-new Alexa remote, which can control a range of functions on infrared devices and also lets you view live camera feeds, as well as control other compatible smart home devices.
Last but not least, there’s Now TV’s Smart Stick, which has the same hardware as the Roku Streaming Stick+ but costs only £15. The catch is that it can only play video at 1080p (Now TV programmes are limited to 720p) and it lacks some popular streaming apps – there’s no Amazon Prime Video, for example.
Chromecast 2018 review: Features and apps
The best thing about the Chromecast is just how simple it is, both in terms of design and usability. There’s no clutter below your TV as you have with a set-top box, and nor is there a remote to lose, making it the perfect device for home use and travelling alike. Indeed, after adding your Chromecast to your home network via the Google Home app on your phone, you can begin casting media by simply tapping the appropriate icon from a compatible mobile app or video streaming player.
This is particularly handy if you’ve been playing something on your phone or laptop and want to carry on watching on your TV without finding it again in a new interface. What’s more, because your phone only tells the Chromecast where to find the stream (and doesn’t always transmit the media) there’s no need to worry about playback stuttering or being interrupted if you leave the room or your phone battery dies.
There are naturally drawbacks to having no remote, though. One problem is that, should your phone run out of battery, you lose the means of controlling whatever you’re watching on TV. That’s no big deal if you have another Android or Google Home device from which you or someone else can take the reigns, but it’s still not ideal.
And, for some people, the idea of finding something to watch on a small phone screen (as opposed to browsing on your TV screen) will be enough to put them off – if that sounds like you, you’re better off with a Roku Express or Amazon Fire TV Stick, both of which come with dedicated remotes and user interfaces.
If you are happy controlling everything from a phone or tablet, the Chromecast works flawlessly with an impressive range of apps. Most catch-up TV apps – including BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub and All4 and My5 – are compatible with the device, and you can also watch content from premium services such as Netflix, Google Play Movies, Now TV and BT Sport.
As far as which apps will offer 1080p at 60fps, sadly your guess is as good as mine, but since 1080p 24fps is the broadcasting standard, I’d be surprised if it was used much, if at all. YouTube is perhaps the one exception to this, so if you watch lots of gaming videos, you should benefit from being able to stream those at the intended frame rate.
Music and audio apps are well represented, with Spotify, Google Play Music, Soundcloud, Deezer, Tidal, BBC iPlayer Radio, TuneIn and Google Podcasts among the services currently listed on Google’s Chromecast apps page.
Another perk to buying a product that’s part of Google’s ecosystem is that you can cast images from Google Photos to your TV screen, and instead of seeing slideshows of Google’s selection of landscape photography, you can set your own albums to appear on the Chromecast’s splash screen when it’s not in use. That’s a nice touch if you want to turn your TV into a giant digital photo frame.
Besides casting from compatible apps, the other thing that the Chromecast does very well is screen mirroring. In short, this means displaying whatever’s on your phone or tablet screen on your TV screen, either to share it with others or just to watch on a larger screen.
To do this from your Android phone, all you need to do is tap “Mirror device” from the Google Home app. Because it sends audio too, this is a great way of casting either music or video from apps that aren’t ordinarily supported by the Chromecast. The quality is rarely as good as when content is downloaded directly to the streamer, and you’ll likely be able to detect a small delay, but it’s a useful tool nonetheless.
You can do the same from the Google Chrome browser for PCs, Macs and Chromebooks, choosing to share either individual browser tabs or your entire computer screen. Again, this can be an extremely useful feature, whether you want to share a presentation or video, as both audio and video are transmitted. Sadly, though, you can’t use Windows 10’s “Connect to a wireless display” feature because it uses the Miracast standard.
Chromecast 2018 review: Google Home integration
Since the launch of Google’s Home and Home Mini smart speakers, there’s now an entirely new way of controlling your Chromecast – with your voice. Only YouTube, Netflix, All4, and Google Photos are currently supported, but it’s now possible to instruct Google Assistant to play whatever you want on those apps.
That might sound great on paper, but the reality is that it’s pretty basic in its current form. With Netflix, for example, if you ask your Home speaker to play Fargo, it’ll automatically start playing the movie without considering that you might want to play the TV series. And, when you ask it to play a TV series, it uses your default user profile and starts at the beginning of episode one every time. Not ideal.
The way YouTube works is a little more sophisticated because it gives you a range of different search results to pick from, but the voice recognition engine could still use a bit of improvement. When I tried to watch videos of big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton, it took me about four attempts before the Home Mini successfully recognised my query, by which time I could have easily found the video from my phone.
Where it’s much more useful is controlling content you’ve already started casting from your phone or tablet. You can use commands such as “turn on subtitles”, “pause” and “next episode” to perform a range of actions without even picking up your phone. What’s more, I discovered some of the more basic commands – for example, “pause” and “fast forward ten seconds” – already work with other apps such as BBC iPlayer.
Chromecast 2018 review: Verdict
In truth, there’s very little to get excited about with the new Chromecast – the addition of 1080p 60fps streaming is hardly worth shouting about – but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the cheapest and best ways to add smart functionality to a TV or monitor.
Along with its inconspicuous design and a huge range of supported apps, what’s most appealing about the Chromecast is its integration with Google Home. The technology is still in its infancy, but being able to control your TV with your voice alone is what separates it from many of its similarly priced rivals.
There’s no need to upgrade, then, if you already have the second-generation Chromecast, but if you’re looking for a cheap TV streamer, the Chromecast is worth every bit of your attention, especially if you own one of Google’s smart speakers.