Chromecast 2 review: Google chooses evolution over revolution

The new Chromecast offers fairly modest change, but with so much done right, that's not a bad thing

5
Price when reviewed 
30
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Google faces a difficult choice with its Chromecast, and, to be fair, it’s quite a good dilemma to have. The £30 back-of-the-TV dongle did pretty much everything you’d want it to do at a hugely appealing price, streaming content straight from your phone to your TV. It made dumb TVs smart, provided they had a free HDMI port.

How do you follow up something that’s this close to perfection? That question is actually pretty hard to answer, even after some extended time with the Chromecast 2. Arguably, the biggest issue with the original – that it needs its own supply of power – is still present on the newer model. That’s the fault of the HDMI spec, though, not Google’s engineers.  

Google Chromecast 2 review

It certainly looks different enough that you couldn’t confuse which one you’re using. The chunky stick has been replaced with a circular disc. It comes in three colours – two exclusive to the Google store, including the “Lemonade” yellow model I’ve been using – and the HDMI lead poking out the side of it makes it look slightly lollipop-like.

That might not be a coincidence, given Google’s penchant for naming Android systems after sweet treats, but it’s certainly a touch more practical. The new design means it will be easier to fit the Chromecast into awkward HDMI ports already crowded by other connections.

Google Chromecast 2: Setup and connectivity

Setup is as quick and breezy as ever. Plug it into the back of the TV through an HDMI port, connect the supplied USB cable to the bundled power supply (or a nearby spare USB socket) and it will immediately flash up easy-to-follow instructions on screen, starting with downloading the Chromecast app onto your smartphone. From there, you pair the two, so your handset knows where to shoot your content.

It’s certainly nippy. We’ll be updating this with tests against the original Chromecast soon, but for now, screen mirroring showed virtually no lag, allowing you to broadcast whatever’s on your phone screen in both landscape and portrait mode. This is in part due to the improved Wi-Fi architecture. The new Chromecast includes an adaptive antenna system supporting 802.11ac Wi-Fi, which means you can hook up to 5GHz networks as well as 2.4GHz ones, so in theory it should be more reliable. All important when you’re trying to rattle through the latest series of Arrested Development.

By far, the biggest change will come in the next few weeks, with a newly updated Chromecast app, in which Google will take a more hands-on role in helping you find the content you want. This has rolled out to the US already, but in the UK it remains a familiar list of your supported apps in one tab, a list of Chromecasts to connect to in the next, and suggested apps on the final tab, encompassing everything from streaming TV to games and sport.

Veterans of the original Chromecast will know the ropes by now. In any cast-compatible app, you’ll see the Chromecast icon in the top-right hand corner of the screen. Tap it, select which Chromecast to shoot it at and your show now appears on the big screen.

From there, you use your phone as a remote, able to control volume and fast forward/rewind as you would if it were in your hand. Crucially, you don’t need the app to stay as the main focus for it to continue streaming, so if you’re the kind of person who likes to tweet while you stream, you’re in luck. And since the video data is pulled down from the cloud and not streamed from your phone, it won’t suck the battery dry either.

Chromecast 2: Watching and gaming

It works as well as ever. Even connected to a router used by dozens of other journalists, subs and designers, the Chromecast coped effortlessly, pumping out Netflix and BBC iPlayer programmes to the big screen at Full HD with aplomb. It took a couple of moments to lose its initial fuzziness, but then the same happens on desktop or the console apps, too, and is a symptom of buffering, rather than the limitations of casting. Before long, the image is HD as advertised.

You can also, with a Chrome browser, broadcast a tab to the big screen to show everyone what you’re doing, or run embedded videos with no cast support built in. This works in much the same fashion as before, and the results are perfectly watchable, with perhaps a little artifacting around the edge of videos. Still, if it’s your only way of sharing your content, it’s perfectly watchable.

As a gaming system, however, Chromecast 2 is still very much in its infancy. One of Google’s representatives told me at the launch event that the demos were put together in the last few days, so the best is yet to come. Compatible games will include WGT Golf, Driver Speedboat Paradise and a split-screen version of Angry Birds Go. I tried a demo of the latter in a race against Alphr’s reviews editor Jon Bray (he won), and impressively we were able to play across platforms with very little lag, with one person on an iPhone and another on a demo Android handset. Right now though, the store merely recommends quiz games, which is hardly in keeping with Google’s grand vision.

Google Chromecast 2 review lemonade colour

That’s presumably where the new app will come into play, making it much easier to find compatible games, and that’s where it gets really exciting. For the moment, Chromecast 2 works best when you know exactly what you want to watch and play, but Google hopes that it will become the app you go to when you have a free moment – and that’s where the most effective mobile apps become a success.

Google Chromecast 2: Verdict

It’s assumed, however, that all of this is coming to the original Chromecast as well. Beyond the new Wi-Fi channels, which we’ll be putting through more extensive testing soon, the technology remains broadly the same, and as the biggest improvements are in the field of search within the app, the reasons to upgrade are pretty slim, especially if your existing Chromecast works well for you in your current wireless setup.

Chromecast 2 review lemonade colour

The design is nicer (if you like the puck look), but it sits behind the TV – so it doesn’t really matter what it looks like. True, it’s more flexible, but other than that your trusty existing Chromecast should do the job just fine, assuming the signal is strong and reliable enough for you.

At only £30, however, you may decide that it’s worth a punt anyway, and that’s hard to argue with. To come back to the original problem I posed: how do you improve on a product that’s near perfect? Minimal changes at a similarly minimal price tag ought to do the trick.

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