Google Chromecast (2020) review: reinvented — and now with a remote

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The new Chromecast is a much different product than the original $35 streaming stick that proved to be an unexpected hardware hit for Google way back in 2013. Instead of a barebones interface that requires you to play and control content using your smartphone or PC, the 2020 Chromecast has evolved to offer a richer, full-featured streaming experience much more akin to a Roku, Amazon Fire TV, or Apple TV.

It’s got an all-new user interface designed by Google (and built atop Android TV) that’s flush with content from popular services like Netflix, Prime Video, Disney Plus, and HBO Max. You navigate that content with a normal remote control that comes in the box. And as a streaming gadget, the Chromecast checks off almost everything important: it does 4K, supports Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos, and has a massive selection of apps at the ready.

The “Chromecast with Google TV,” as it’s fully called, is available starting today for $49.99, a price that puts Google right in line with Roku’s Streaming Stick Plus and Amazon’s Fire TV Stick 4K. It’s also $20 less than Google’s Chromecast Ultra, which doesn’t have a remote or its own TV interface.

After spending a few days with the new Chromecast, I’ve been mostly pleased with the new Google TV software, which puts a huge emphasis on discovery and helping you find something to watch. And the changes don’t come at the sacrifice of functionality; you can still cast content to the Chromecast from your phone, tablet, or computer — say, if a friend comes over and wants to show you a video or play a song from their phone.

Like its recent predecessors, this Chromecast is a dongle that plugs into your TV’s HDMI port, but it’s got a softer oval shape with a matte finish. Unlike older models, which could sometimes get enough power from a TV’s USB port, this one must be plugged into the accompanying 7.5-watt power brick. But hey, at least Google has switched to USB-C on the Chromecast itself.

The Chromecast now runs Android TV as its operating system, which means you’ve got a wide variety of apps to choose from. Aside from an Apple TV Plus app, which doesn’t currently exist on Google’s platforms, there are no obvious holes in the Chromecast’s roster of streaming services. HBO Max and Peacock are both available already, as are Netflix, Prime Video, Hulu, Disney Plus, Vudu, Plex, and just about anything else you’ll be looking for.

The Chromecast remote can control your TV over both IR and HDMI-CEC.

And oh, what a difference a good remote makes. The Chromecast’s new remote control looks and feels like a minimalistic, well-designed Roku remote (minus the headphone jack, unfortunately). It’s compact, comfortable, and the buttons beneath the D-pad are well-spaced out. There’s a Google Assistant button, which you can press and hold for voice searches, plus shortcuts for YouTube (of course) and Netflix. The remote uses both HDMI-CEC and IR, so it’s got power and volume buttons. There’s also an input button for switching your TV over to the Chromecast, so you don’t have to reach for another remote to do that, either. It’s powered by two AAA batteries, which are conveniently included in the box.

Voice search with the remote almost always works reliably. There was one instance where I searched for “movies with Tom Hanks,” and it surfaced illegal YouTube rips above everything else, but I never ran into that amusing bug again. With Google Assistant, you can say things like “watch The Social Dilemma on Netflix” or “watch The Mandalorian on Disney Plus” and you’ll jump right to that content. Searches for “show me Academy Award-winning movies” work like you’d expect, though “show me movies with a 90 percent or better rating on Rotten Tomatoes” is still too much for Assistant to figure out. Womp womp.

You can dive into your favorite streaming apps and use them just like normal, which I’ve found myself doing plenty. But the big new thing with this Chromecast — and something no other Android TV device offers — is the “Google TV” software that completely replaces the regular Android TV home screen. The user experience Google came up with looks and feels pretty familiar. Visually, it’s close to Amazon’s Fire TV interface. Functionally, it aims for the same, comprehensive aggregation as the Apple TV app.

Google TV attempts to break down the walls between streaming platforms and puts all of their movies and shows side by side. It’s split into different sections — For You, Movies, Shows, Apps, and Library — and you can switch between them from the top navigation bar. Browse the first three and you’ll find a very Netflix-like layout with rows of content grouped by genre or some other category that links them. (Action shows, Oscar-winning movies, true crime shows… you get the idea.) Each row combines content from all the big services you’d expect and makes it very obvious where each title is coming from. You’ll also see a Rotten Tomatoes average for most shows and movies as you scroll through them.

You can customize the order for the row of apps on the home screen. (Stadia has been sideloaded in this example.)

Google TV will prioritize recommendations for the apps you already subscribe to.

You can tell Google TV which streaming apps you pay for, and those will be prioritized in your recommendations. But that doesn’t mean you’ll never get suggestions from apps you’re not subscribed to; I don’t have HBO Max, but Google TV still leans on it pretty heavily in the Movies section. Paid rentals and purchases are also included in these carousels of content. If you don’t subscribe to a service or if Google TV is pushing a rental on you, you’ll see a lock icon below the content to make this clear. (The lock goes away after you log into each app.) You’ll also see the occasional recommendation from free, ad-supported services like Tubi TV or Crackle.

There’s no way to tell Google TV to stop including a particular service altogether, but you can long-press the center button on the remote to like or dislike individual content, or add something to your watchlist. Clicking into each item brings up a details page with cast information and related recommendations. And if there are multiple ways of streaming something, you’ll see that on this screen too; free options or existing subscriptions are always given higher rank.

The Google TV software seems very good at aggregating content from everywhere. This can be surprisingly helpful for services like Sling TV. I typically use it just to stream live TV, but Google’s software highlights just how much on-demand content comes with my subscription. Speaking of TV services, if you’re a YouTube TV customer, you’ll see a “live” tab added to the main Google TV interface, which takes you right to the channel guide. That’s a nice touch. Google says the API for the live TV tab is available to other services and that it’s already working with Sling on it.

You won’t find any blatant advertising while using Google TV — at least nothing like the banner ads on Roku OS or the clear “sponsored” row on Fire TV. But some of the recommendations feel like paid placement. I couldn’t be less interested in watching Disney Plus’ Secret Society of Second-Born Royals, but it’s among the rotating picks with giant artwork at the top of the For You tab. If that’s the worst that it gets, I can live with it. There are also rows for “trending on Google” and “YouTube recommended videos,” but it’s a Google product. What’d you expect? Oh, but the Library tab does need a lot of work. Got a big Movies Anywhere library? Right now, it just shows everything in a single, horizontal row. You really couldn’t have made it any less efficient, Google.

If you strongly dislike Google TV, there’s an “apps-only mode” that can be enabled in settings that hides all recommendations from your home screen. But this is a drastic step, as it also completely disables search and Google Assistant. It hobbles the Chromecast so badly that there’s really no point in doing it — especially since it’s the same home screen, just without recommendations below your row of apps. You’d be better off just buying something else.

But if you do go with the Chromecast, you’ll be pleased with its streaming quality. It consistently pulled down excellent 4K HDR streams without any noticeable artifacting or buffering interruptions. Performance is generally responsive when you’re browsing around, but I did run into a few instances of sluggishness — and every so often you’ll see a blank home screen with a loading animation as the Chromecast works to fill everything in.

Android TV is still running the show underneath all this, so you can sideload apps, explore developer settings, and try to hack the Chromecast into doing whatever you want from it. You can pair Bluetooth gamepads (such as an Xbox One controller) to the Chromecast and try running Stadia or Xbox game streaming on the thing. No one’s stopping you, even if proper Stadia support isn’t coming until early next year. (I’ve confirmed that the Chromecast will accept a wired internet connection from some USB-C hubs with Ethernet.) As always, Google Assistant can control your smart home gadgets or update you on the weather. And you can set the Chromecast to cycle through your Google Photos library when in ambient mode, turning your TV into a giant picture frame.

Google is making a big shift with the new Chromecast, and that doesn’t come without bugs and frustrations. Beyond the aforementioned sluggishness, there’s a small learning curve to the software; clicking on any regular-sized rectangle for a movie or show takes you to its Google TV details page, but click on any of the larger banners up top and you’re immediately fired into a streaming app. Google’s “continue watching” feature only supports select apps — Netflix yes, Prime Video no — so you can’t always quickly resume what you were just watching. Last, while I can appreciate the content-first focus of Google TV, it’d be nice to have some level of home screen customization resembling what Android TV normally allows for. Aside from organizing your row of favorite apps how you want them, everything else has been tossed out in favor of a simpler lean-back experience.

The Chromecast plugs into any HDMI port on your TV.

Even so, I’d rate the new Chromecast with Google TV as a big success. When it first debuted, the Chromecast stuck out as a unique, irresistibly cheap streaming device. But times have changed. With Roku and Amazon packing so much value into their own affordable hardware, Google couldn’t stick with the same formula of relaying content from phone to Chromecast anymore. Instead, it reinvented the Chromecast as an excellent 4K streamer that’s dramatically easier to use — turns out actual menus and a remote really do matter — without losing sight of what made the original great.

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