Google's latest Chromecast dongle comes in at twice the cost of its predecessor. But for that price, it supports 4K video, and high dynamic range video. Using your phone as a remote control, it can wirelessly stream the best quality video possible from Netflix, YouTube, Stan and a host of other Google Cast apps. Is its $99 price worthwhile over the existing $59 Chromecast, though?
What Is It?
The $99 Google Chromecast Ultra is the third and latest iteration of the Chromecast wireless video streaming dongle. You plug it into your TV's HDMI port, you power it over USB either from your TV or from an included wall plug, and you run everything from your Android or iOS phone. It's genuinely as simple as that. Your grandparents could set one up, as long as they can read instructions on a phone and on a TV screen. The Chromecast has always been unique in that your phone does all the work — browsing content in your familiar apps and picking a show, and 'casting' it to Chromecast.
The Chromecast Ultra, though, improves on the Chromecasts it
replaces complements by adding in native support for 4K television screens and high dynamic range (HDR) video. In apps that support it, and as long as your home internet connection is fast enough, you can stream 4K HDR video. Netflix asks for around 25Mbps for a 4K video stream, though, and HDR is around a 10 per cent overhead on top of that. Unless you've got a solid cable or NBN connection, that's not likely to be available to most Australian homes for a while, but the fact is that the Chromecast Ultra does support it.
In the box, you now get the addition of a power adapter that includes an Ethernet port. You're able to hook the Chromecast Ultra up to your home network via the power adapter — it's a bit of a daisy chain, but it does give the Ultra the best possible connection to your home's network and therefore the cleanest route possible to the internet. For most homes with 25Mbps-plus internet, that's still going to be the only way to stream 4K — most wi-fi routers just can't push enough data to handle that streaming resolution reliably.
What's It Good At?
If you have a relatively recent TV with a native 4K resolution and support for high dynamic range video, then the Chromecast Ultra is one of the only devices that you can get right now that'll let you stream media — from any source that supports it, like YouTube and Netflix — at both 4K and HDR. And for $99, it does that at a surprisingly cheap price. If you have that new TV, it's an absolutely worthwhile upgrade at twice the price of the Chromecast 2, which only supports 1080p video streaming and doesn't handle HDR at all.
Using the new and improved Google Home app, which takes all the goodies of previous iterations of Chromecast and Google Cast and builds on them, setting up the Chromecast Ultra is easier than any Chromecast has been before. The setup process is still largely the same either on iOS or Android, but tells you more about what's going on — when your phone is connecting to the Chromecast itself, when the Ultra is connecting or updating, and then finally what your Chromecast is displaying at any given time.
And it's quick in every aspect of its operation, clearly quicker than the original Chromecast and (very very slightly) quicker than the Chromecast 2 of 2015. Everything is controlled from your phone, of course, so that's got to be up to snuff in the first place, but if you've got a relatively recent iPhone or Android and decent wi-fi then you'll be ready to cast a video from YouTube or from Netflix within a couple of seconds of tapping the 'cast' button in each of those apps. Some apps, like Stan, take slightly longer, but they're still speedy.
Google including Ethernet in the Chromecast Ultra's set of abilities, too, is a big bonus if you've got a nearby wired network connection in a large house but don't have perfect wi-fi coverage. In larger Aussie houses this is going to be a big advantage for the Chromecast; unless you're in a small apartment with your wi-fi router living in your living room then chances are you'll have a faster connection with a wired link — and likely only that'll be enough to stream 4K for most Aussie users.
What's It Not Good At?
The Chromecast Ultra has stronger competition than ever from the apps and smart TV features that are integrated into 2016's crop of HDR-ready, 4K-capable TVs. Samsung's smart TVs, for example, hibernate in a low-power state but will switch on nearly instantly and pop back into whatever YouTube or Netflix or Stan show you're watching. LG's 4K Dolby Vision OLEDs are exactly the same. The utility of the Chromecast — and I love that utility — comes from the fact that it uses your smartphone as a remote control, rather than the clicky candybar of your TV.
The fact that the Chromecast Ultra is a $99 dongle excuses it from a lot of the complaints I'd have with it otherwise. It doesn't support Dolby Vision, which is disappointing, because Dolby Vision works at lower resolutions than 4K — but entirely understandable given its price. The bigger issue is that its HDR streaming, in my early testing, doesn't have quite the range of either Samsung's or LG's integrated Netflix apps — it looks slightly washed out.
This could be down to the video decoder inside the Chromecast — it's hard to build a $99 dongle that can compete with either the processing power or the integrated end-to-end quality of an app that's running on Samsung or LG or Sony or Panasonic's own hardware. It's one of the reasons that there are $100 Blu-ray players and there are $1000 Blu-ray players. Either way, you're making slight trade-offs in quality for the convenience of Chromecast streaming, and that's a trade-off I'm mostly happy to make.
One problem that Google could address pretty readily through a software update, as could its partners, though — to actually tell you when you're choosing HDR content to watch. YouTube's HDR selection is (understandably) pitiful at the moment, and apart from a HDR demo playlist there's really no content. There is plenty of 4K, to be fair, on both YouTube and on Netflix's catalogue — but Netflix doesn't show you 4K in the app.
Should You Buy It?
If you only own a 1080p TV, there's no real reason to upgrade to a $99 Chromecast Ultra — especially if you already have a Chromecast 2, which is half the price. If you need Ethernet connectivity, then sure, it's a rational purchase, but otherwise a Full HD TV without HDR capability gains nothing from the Chromecast Ultra over the Chromecast 2. Save yourself the $50 and put it towards a savings account for a 4K TV.
But if you do have a 4K TV, and especially one that supports HDR video, then the Chromecast Ultra is the Chromecast to get. If you've made that extra investment in an expensive new TV in the first place, it doesn't really make sense to hobble it with a 1080p Chromecast 2. It's not quite up to the visual quality of the smart TV apps that already live inside your 4K screen, but if you don't like using those apps — and let's be honest, navigating with a remote control is annoying when you have a smartphone next to you — then the Chromecast Ultra is a great alternative for $99.
The Chromecast Ultra goes on sale in Australia on November 24.