The easiest way to smarten up your TV β if it's not already smart β is to get yourself a streaming stick, which usually comes loaded with a bunch of apps to get stuck into.
Google's Chromecast takes a different strategy. Rather than host streaming content, it broadcasts stuff from your phone and computer. It's a very different affair, and it may even feel outdated in a world where almost all TVs are smart and streaming sticks are extremely affordable.
Read this: Chromecast tips and tricks
But Chromecast is chugging along, with the Ultra bringing high-end performance and 4K support. But is it worth its price tag in the new landscape of smart TVs? We spent some time with it to find out.
Chromecast Ultra: Design and setup
The best thing about the Chromecast has always been how simple it is to use, and a lot of that has to do with its dongle design. You simply plug it into an HDMI port on your TV with one wire and into the mains with another.
The bummer with the Ultra is that unlike the regular Chromecast, the Ultra can't draw its power from your TVs USB port (if it has one). It simply doesn't provide enough power to fuel its 4K-pushing processor. How much of an inconvenience this is will depend on how crowded your outlets are already.
Unlike the latest non-4K Chromecasts, the Ultra is coated in a shiny plastic rather than a matte finish. There's a good chance the Chromecast is going to spend most of its time out of sight, but if you do have to look at it, it's nice enough.
Setup is also a breeze. When you power it on, the Ultra tells you to install the Google Home app. When you do, it'll tell you there's a new device to install. It'll ask you to confirm the device number, a pin code and then connect to your Wi-Fi. Once you've done that, you're pretty much set.
The Google Home app will also walk you through setting up Google Assistant with services like Netflix, so that you can say things like, "Hey Google, play The House On Haunted Hill from Netflix on TV". You'll then quickly be able to start streaming away your favourite movies, music, shows and YouTube videos.
Chromecast Ultra: Performance and features
Google claims the Ultra has a better processor that improves streaming performance and, well, it certainly does deliver. When you're watching something, it's easy to forget you're streaming it from your phone.
There was no buffering or blurry images in our testing. The quality is clear and pristine, especially in 4K. I watched Planet Earth II on Netflix, which is a show filled with crisp detail, and it was like watching on regular cable or a streaming stick.
But let's back up a bit here to explain why it's so impressive. When you use a smart app on your TV or a streaming stick, that device is using all its processing power to stream something directly. When you're using a Chromecast β or even AirPlay for that matter β you're adding a second step. Your phone or computer is pulling down the video, and then it's pushing it back out to the Chromecast.
All of that good performance can be used to do a couple different things. You can obviously watch TV shows, movies, and all kinds of videos. You can do that from either your phone or your computer. You can also listen to music or podcast, view photos and play games. If you've got a laptop, you can also stream what you're doing on Chrome.
There are a couple of other features here that are pretty handy. Guest mode allows other people in your home to control your Chromecast without signing into your Wi-Fi. You can give them a pin that they can use to log into your Chromecast to play their own stuff.
Even better is Google's Ambient Mode, which has been available for a while and is also available on its Smart Displays. On the Ultra it looks beautiful. You have high-res images and every one is a stunner. Google Photos shines brightest here, but Art gallery and Experimental aren't bad either.
Chromecast Ultra: Apps and services
Sure, the Ultra's hardware and performance are great β but what the heck can you watch on this thing? Most of the heavy hitters are present and accounted for: Netflix, YouTube, YouTube TV, HBO, PlayStation Vue, Vudu, Twitch, Vevo, Hulu and a number of other services are available to cast.
In the music world, you have Spotify, Tidal, Pandora, iHeartRadio, Slacker, TuneIn and a few others. But this is also Google's world. There is no iTunes, there is no Apple Music, there is no Amazon Prime. Apple has AirPlay to push rather than Chromecast, while Amazon and Google are still having their corporate spat.
Oh yes, you're not going to get iCloud Photo support either. You can view your photos from Facebook and Google Photos, but if you've got all your photos in Apple's cloud then you're out of luck here. You probably expected that, though.
The other question is what 4K stuff you can see on Chromecast Ultra. There are only three apps that support 4K content: Netflix, YouTube and Vudu. It's a bit of a shame considering how many apps and services have Chromecast support, but the reality is not a lot of apps and services have 4K support yet.
YouTube has a wealth of 4K videos, Netflix's own series are shot in 4K and Vudu has an entire collection of 4K movies. Amazon and Apple have a good amount of 4K movies and TV shows, but they're absent here. Apple's loss is particularly stinging, as it has one of the best collections of 4K support anywhere. Cupertino may be sharing iTunes with Samsung TV owners, but Chromecast is probably too much of a stretch of generosity. It's also worth noting that the Ultra can do both HDR10 and Dolby Vision, so if you've got a video in either of those HDR formats you're supported.
Naturally, Chromecast Ultra is also Google Assistant compatible. This allows you to ask Assistant to stream things from a small collection of streaming services: Netflix, HBO Now, CBS, Vudu, Starz and YouTube.
- Excellent cast quality
- 4K HDR10 and Dolby Vision support
- Simple setup
- Needs more 4K support
- Amazon and Apple missing
- Slightly expensive