Every fall, Google holds a hardware event during which it reveals its new Pixel flagships and other devices. This year’s event was notable for two reasons: It was held virtually—thanks, COVID-19!—and I was far less interested in the new Pixels than I was with Google’s other devices, the Nest Audio speakers, which I wrote about yesterday, and the new Chromecast with Google TV.
I ordered the Nest Audio speakers and new Chromecast immediately, and both arrived this week. Of the two, however, I guess I’m more interested in the Chromecast. We’ve vacillated between a Roku Ultra, an Amazon Fire TV Stick, and, less often, an Apple TV 4K as our TV interface in our living room over the past year, and each has its issues. (Short version: The Roku is slow and has lots of ads, the Fire TV Stick is unreliable, and the Apple TV remote is a crime against humanity.) So I’ve been thinking about making a change.
And there are definitely some possibilities. The newly-announced Roku Ultra, for example, is supposed to offer a significant performance improvement over its predecessor, so that would solve one of my issues with that device. And Apple is rumored to have a new Apple TV waiting in the wings; if that thing came with a better remote—a low bar—that would be an obvious choice.
But then Google announced the Chromecast with Google TV. I was immediately intrigued: I’ve always really liked the idea of Chromecast—and here, by “Chromecast,” I mean the video-based Chromecast dongles with HDMI ports, not Chromecast Audio, which was excellent and should still exist. The problem was that Chromecast relied too heavily on your smartphone, both to find content, as the dongles had no real user interface, and as a remote control. A real hardware remote control—even the crappy Applet TV version—is always better than using your phone.
Chromecast with Google TV solves both of these problems. It includes a full user interface, called Google TV, which looks/works like the UIs on other streamer boxes and will assumedly and eventually replace Android TV. And it comes with a great little remote, which seems to work well in early testing. It’s also inexpensive at just $49.99. By comparison, its predecessor, Chromecast Ultra 4K, started at $69.99 when it launched in 2016.
Compared to the Ultra, the Chromecast with Google TV looks and works similarly, though it features a kind of oblong body instead of the circular form factor of its predecessor. And it requires a power adapter, connected via USB-C instead of micro-USB, and can’t be powered off of a USB port on your TV. It also comes in multiple colors, Snow (white), Sunrise (pink), and Sky (light blue), whereas older models were black. I chose white, but black makes more sense for something that will be hidden behind a TV.
Setup is similar to that of the Nest Audio speakers, or really any modern connected device, which is to say that is a simple but time-consuming process with multiple steps, one of which involves downloading the requisite software update. Welcome to the 21st century, folks.
In the good news department, pairing the device with my TV (a Samsung smart TV) and soundbar (a Sonos Beam) was straightforward, and everything worked properly the first time. That means I can turn the TV on and off and change the soundbar’s volume with the Chromecast’s remote.
The interface is straightforward, with top-level For you, Movies, Shows, Apps, and Library options, and there are no real advertisements that I’ve yet seen, which is a problem with Roku and, to a lesser degree, Fire TV Stick. In fact, it’s very similar to Amazon’s UI.
I’ve only seen two issues so far, one of which I assume is temporary: The UI sometimes gets stuck on a blank-ish screen in which you can see content boxes but not the content they’re supposed to display.
And the Library view is a bit tough: Movies and Shows each get only one row to display all of the content in your library, and for folks like me that have literally hundreds of movies to scroll through, this is not ideal. I assume you’re supposed to search, but browsing is sometimes preferable and this UI is pointless for that.
Content playback works as expected, with nice navigation features, a captions toggle, and other settings.
Beyond that, you’ll find all the expected settings interfaces, and for those familiar with past video-based Chromecast dongles (and Google smart displays), you’ll also find the familiar ambient mode that appears after a timeout period. I’ve configured this to display family and friend photos from Google Photos.
Overall, this seems like a great choice for the living room. I’ll keep using it and make sure it continues to meet my expectations. But it seems great so far.