The original Chromecast is viewed by many as one of the best streaming devices on the market. The tiny stick let users stream video from their smartphone or tablet to any TV or monitor with an HDMI cable – and cost a piddly £30.
However, the home-entertainment market has moved on since the first Chromecast. Newer products such as the Roku and Amazon Fire streaming sticks have moved in on Google’s territory.
The Chromecast 2 aims to push back the competition, by adding new content aggregation, gaming and screen-mirroring services traditionally seen on dedicated streaming boxes, such as Roku 2 and Fire TV, while maintaining the same £30 price.
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The Chromecast 2 has a completely reworked design, straying considerably from the "stick" format of the original.
Now the device has a round chassis that connects to your TV’s HDMI port. Google has also made the Chromecast 2 cross-platform, adding support for iOS and Windows.
The setup process is pretty much identical to the one with the original Chromecast. Simply attach the power cable and install the Chromecast app on your smartphone, tablet or laptop.
From there you power up the app and follow the on-screen commands to connect the Chromecast to your Wi-Fi network and pair it with your device. Once this is done, you’re ready to stream.
Despite having the same setup process, the Chromecast 2 runs using a completely redesigned application.
Google describes the app as a hub for all your digital content needs. It works by pulling content from all the apps installed on the device that it can stream from into a single-pane of glass interface.
In theory, this means you can view every bit of content you can watch on the Chromecast in one place, without having to individually check each app. You could see what movies are on Netflix alongside recently added TV shows on the BBC iPlayer, for example.
The Chromecast 2 is also meant to have a cross-platform search function, enabling you to hunt for specific content across your installed apps.
This could be one of the biggest and most important updates to the Chromecast 2, moving it from a basic streaming stick into an all-in-one entertainment hub. I’d love to comment on how well it works, but Google hasn’t turned the feature on in the UK.
As it is, the app only displays shortcuts to compatible services currently installed on the device.
Luckily, there are a few other hidden goodies that partially make up for the app’s current status. For starters, the Chromecast 2 supports a greater number of apps. For entertainment, Spotify is the biggest new addition.
The first Chromecast didn’t have the functionality to let you stream music from Spotify to your TV, which was annoying for those who didn’t have a decent Bluetooth speaker or home sound system.
Also new to the Chromecast 2 is support for productivity applications. These include Google’s own Docs as well as third-party services such as Polaris Office.
The ability to stream webpages from open Chrome tabs is another welcome addition, making it easier to stream unsupported applications – such as DeviantArt – onto TVs.
Finally, the Chromecast 2 now supports some Android games. On paper, the gaming feature is another big update that puts the Chromecast 2 on a par with larger streaming boxes, such as the Fire TV.
Sadly, as is the case with most streaming sticks and entertainment hubs, the quality and quantity of streamable games on the Android Store is lacking. Those that are present are fairly casual – Wheel of Fortune, for example, rather than Sonic the Hedgehog.
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Google claims the Chromecast 2 will stream video significantly faster thanks to the addition of 5GHz Wi-Fi network support and a new “Fast Play” feature.
The enhanced Wi-Fi support lets the Chromecast stream and connect to devices using the newer, more stable 5GHz frequency. The old Chromecast only supports the older 2.4GHz frequency, which is why it could on occasion be a little jittery when streaming movies.
Fast Play is a key feature of the Chromecast, designed to let the device cache shows in the background that it thinks you’re likely to watch. Google claims this functionality will enable the Chromecast 2 to stream content 80% faster. Sadly, I didn’t get the opportunity to check out Google’s claim – as with the content-aggregation service, Fast Play isn’t available in the UK yet.
Pitting the Chromecast 2 head-to-head against its predecessor, the updated device is slightly faster. I swapped the two Chromecasts in and out of a 40-inch Samsung TV while streaming content from Netflix, Crunchyroll and BBC iPlayer on a Nexus 6 smartphone and BT Home Hub router.
When running the two devices on the 2.4GHz frequency, content universally loaded two to five seconds faster on the Chromecast 2. I didn’t notice a massive improvement in either speed or picture quality moving onto the 5GHz frequency, although the Chromecast 2 maintained its lead on loading times.
Unlike the Nvidia Shield TV or Amazon Fire TV, the Chromecast 2 can’t stream 4K content.; it streams at a maximum 1080p resolution. Considering the lack of 4K content available in the UK this is forgivable, although it could hamper the Chromecast 2’s long-term appeal.
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If you own a first-generation Chromecast, then the answer is probably no. The Chromecast 2 is more a refinement than a reimagining of Google’s streaming stick.
With its primary selling point – the new app – still not fully functional in the UK, its only notable improvements are a few under-the-hood performance upgrades and increased application support.
If you don’t own the first-generation Chromecast, however, Google’s latest streamer is definitely worth a look.
The Chromecast 2 remains one of the best value-for-money streamers on the market, offering functionality traditionally seen on entertainment boxes that are close to twice, if not three times its price.
I’d also recommend any iOS user on a budget to check out the Chromecast 2 before shelling out for an Apple TV as well.
The Chromecast 2 is one of the best-value streaming sticks on the market, even if it doesn’t feel terribly original.