Google’s Chromecast is a pretty ingenious device. Leveraging the decent tech you already have in your house — TVs for displaying content, phones for searching, playing, changing volume — it gives you cheap access to the world of streaming without the need to replace all your stuff, use a game console or put up with inferior set-top boxes.
The platform has continued to grow since its introduction in 2013, with the latest version if its app sorting all your existing subscriptions and services into channels for one-stop TV and movie browsing. But today Google is releasing the second generation of Chromecast hardware Australia and New Zealand, along with a brand new music-focused product that can make any speaker or audio receiver in your house a smart device.
While Chromecast 2.0 has undergone a visual and technical overhaul, it remains functionally almost identical, and that’s not a bad thing.
For those who haven’t used one, here’s how it works. You plug the Chromecast into your TV’s HDMI port and into a source of power (either the wall or a USB port). Then, you use the Chromecast smartphone app to feed your Wi-Fi details to the device and get it connected. That’s it, your TV has Google-powered brains now, and your laptop, phone or tablet (either Android or Apple) is your remote.
Now when you open a compatible app on your phone (and there are heaps, including all the major streaming services and of course Google stuff like YouTube and Play Movies), you can tap the cast icon to play the content on your TV. The video streams direct from the internet to the Chromecast, so you won’t run down the battery on your phone and you can continue to use apps or even stream different video content without affecting the TV. For non-compatible apps you can mirror your Android display or Chrome browser on the TV, but it’s not as smooth as streaming video from supported apps.
The ‘cast’ icon appears on hundreds of video, audio and game apps, and are used to send content to your Chromecast. Photo: Google
As I mentioned, this is all mostly the same between the old and new Chromecasts, but there are some important differences.
The old Chromecast was a chunky stick, while the new one is a shiny little disk with an HDMI cord attached. This means it will fit into even the most crowded of TV panels without the need to rearrange. The cord also folds up and sticks to the unit via a magnet, so it’ll stay neat and safe if you take it with you or only plug it into the TV sometimes.
The other major change is internal: the device now features three separate Wi-Fi antennas that automatically cycle to adapt to your wireless network. Since it’s getting video straight from the internet rather than constantly streaming from your phone, Chromecast was always impressively stable, but it is still vulnerable to weak Wi-Fi. I never had any issues with the old design — even with the bedroom Chromecast sitting quite a distance from the router — but extra stability can’t be a bad thing. The new tech means it also now supports 5GHz and 802.11ac home networks, if that’s your thing.
The only aspect of the Chromecast I’m not totally sold on is casting game apps, which is something Google is only just starting to play with. Unlike a game console or Apple TV, game content on Chromecast is streamed from the cloud, like its video content. This potentially allows for graphics and complexity that would melt a low-end phone, but it also means the visual fidelity and — more importantly — the lag between your input and the on-screen result will vary depending on your Wi-Fi. In the end it’s up to game developers to make something that makes sense for streaming, but anything requiring quick reflexes is out.
The new Chromecast is $59; you can get it in black, pink or yellow from Google Store or in black from other retailers.
The more exciting new product is Chromecast Audio, which as the name suggests is a capable of lending its smarts to stereo systems and speakers as opposed to TVs.
In place of the HDMI plug is a standard 3.5mm audio jack. A funky yellow 3.5mm cable is included so you can connect to any system or speaker with an AUX input out of the box, but the Chromecast Audio also supports RCA and optical if you have an adapter. For the most part, if you plug a CD player, turntable or phone into something, you can switch it out for the Chromecast Audio and get streaming.
I really liked the subtly different look of the Chromecast Audio — the top is cutely textured to resemble a vinyl LP — for the three seconds or so before I stuffed it behind my audio receiver never to be seen again.
Many of us already have some solution to play audio from our phones through a speaker or AV receiver via Bluetooth, but the Wi-Fi approach of the Chromecast has significant advantages.
Most importantly, streaming by Bluetooth can be tough on your phone, which has to simultaneously download music using Wi-Fi while it broadcasts it out again to the speaker using Bluetooth. With Chromecast your phone merely controls the music, so it’s not going to overheat or drain its battery with constant work.
Secondly, Bluetooth is flaky. You need to leave your phone close to the speaker at all times to avoid drop-outs, and if you continue to use your phone while the music is playing you risk juddering or having your phone’s audio (from, say, notifications or videos) coming out through the speaker. By contrast, once the music is playing through the Chromecast Audio — via Google Play Music, Spotify, Pandora, whatever — you can take your phone around the house or outside, play a game or watch a video and there’s no interruption.
Even if you already have a good quality Bluetooth speaker, the Chromecast Audio represents a $59 upgrade that will make your home streaming experience way more stable and easy on your phone, assuming your speaker has an option to plug in an external source.
The Chromecast Audio has some neat tricks up its sleeve as well. Multiple units can be paired together to play as a group, making for a cheap and versatile multi-room audio solution using the speakers you already have. Also, multiple users can connect to the same Chromecast or group at once so — assuming the app supports it — you can take it in turns choosing the music or building the playlists. This is actually something the regular Chromecast can do as well, but it makes a heap more sense for the Audio.