Chromecast Ultra review: the best Chromecast ever. But don’t buy it.
The original Chromecast was great, and on paper the Chromecast Ultra ought to be even better. It’s the cheapest 4K HDR TV streamer on the market, and just like its predecessor, it makes streaming video and audio from your phone, laptop or tablet to your TV incredibly simple.
However, at the moment, I wouldn’t recommend you buy it. But why?
Chromecast Ultra review: How does it compare to the competition?
Here’s the good news. If you want a 4K streamer, this is the cheapest one around. Currys have it for under £60. It’s less expensive than any 4K Blu-ray player, including the Xbox One S; it’s cheaper than the Amazon Fire TV, which doesn’t handle HDR; it’s more cost-effective than even the updated version of the Nvidia Shield TV; and it’s a cheaper way to get Ultra HD TV than stumping up for Sky Q or BT TV.
So, why is the Chromecast Ultra pointless? First, if you own a 4K TV right now you will almost certainly have all the major sources of 4K content covered via embedded smart TV apps. They might not be the best-quality apps, and they might not work exactly how you like, but they’re there, and they’re free.
Worse, though is the fact that most smart TVs are likely to have more apps available than the Chromecast Ultra. I tested the Ultra on a 49in Philips 49PUS6401. This has Netflix, YouTube and Amazon Video apps, so all the major sources of streamed 4K content are covered.
But Google doesn’t support Amazon Video. Or, to put it another way, Amazon is politely declining the opportunity to put its content on what it sees as a competitor’s platform, just as it’s not currently available on Apple TV. Worse still, Google itself has yet to stream its 4K content on Google Play Movies in the UK – something head-scratchingly stupid.
So, why would you buy a Chromecast Ultra? The only reasons I can see would be if you don’t have a Chromecast yet at all and want to make sure you get 4K in the future, if you want to control everything via your smartphone (although many TVs have remote apps anyway), or if you hate the apps on your TV so much that merely pressing the button on your remote to access them brings you out in cold sweats.
Chromecast Ultra review: How easy is it to use?
If you’re still reading, I’m going to assume you fall into one of these categories. And if you do, there’s some good news for you: as a product, Chromecast Ultra is really pretty good.
It’s not quite as easy to set up as a regular Chromecast. Unlike previous Chromecasts, the Ultra can’t be powered via a spare USB port on your TV, and instead must be plugged into a wall socket via the (included) USB mains adapter.
You can connect via Ethernet, though, in addition to Wi-Fi. Google has achieved this without compromising on the size of the Chromecast itself by putting a port in the mains adapter, which is a neat design touch. And if your Wi-Fi isn’t great, that Ethernet connection will come in handy, as the speed requirement for 4K content is around 25Mbits/sec.
Once you’ve done that, it’s all very Chromecast. The Ultra is disc-shaped, like the latest Chromecast 2 but a little larger and thicker. There’s an integrated HDMI extension ribbon, which means it dangles pleasingly (if you like that sort of thing).
The final setup step is to download the Google Home app, which detects the Chromecast immediately and takes you through the setup routine, step by step. All of this should just take a few minutes.
One thing to note is that with some TVs in the UK (the Philips 49PUS6401 is a case in point) you might need to set the Chromecast Ultra to 50Hz mode to use it. I wasn’t able to see the setup screen on the TV at all until I’d changed the mode.
Chromecast Ultra review: Performance
Sending 4K to your TV from your smartphone, tablet or laptop is as simple as it is with any other content on Chromecast. Look for the Google Cast logo in an app or website, tap it, select your Chromecast Ultra and your stream will appear on your TV after a few seconds.
The great part of the Chromecast is that, at this point, the phone’s work is done. That’s because the Chromecast is handling all the hard work of getting the stream, decoding it and putting it on your TV, so you can use your phone to do something else – you don’t even need to keep the app open.
The only small issue is that full 4K streams aren’t instant. Instead, the Chromecast gets the normal HD stream and then kicks into 4K after a few seconds. Once it does, though, the quality of the video is great, especially if you’re watching HDR content.
Chromecast Ultra review: Should you buy it?
I’ve always loved the Chromecast system. It’s simple to use, easy to set up and works really well. However, Chromecast Ultra is the first Chromecast I’ve had to pause and think hard about recommending. That’s not because of how well, or how badly, it works, but simply because the apps on your 4K TV are probably going to deliver more 4K content at the moment.
Add to that a price that’s more than double the regular Chromecast and it’s no longer a purchase you can make without thinking too hard. I have every Chromecast ever made in my house. But I don’t think I’ll bother with an Ultra, at least for now.