Google’s history with hardware has been somewhat hit-or-miss, but there’s no doubt that its Chromecast streaming stick has been a huge success, helping to change the way we watch movies and shows and listen to music since 2013.
When the Chromecast debuted in July 2013, the launch had the same sort of feel to it as the Amazon Echo’s debut would the following year — as in, a piece of technology that initially seemed unnecessary and superfluous, too simple and basic to be of any real use. Why exactly did we need this?
The answer quickly became obvious: The Chromecast sidestepped the bloated, sluggish smart TV interfaces of the time to quickly (and affordably) cast content from a phone, tablet, or laptop to a larger screen on the same wifi network. It was incredibly easy to use, and crucially, it quickly added support for all the major media players on Android and iOS (at launch, the first Chromecast only worked with YouTube, Netflix, Google Play Movies & TV, and Google Play Music).
This clever new dongle undercut the Apple TVs and Rokus of the time on price and simplicity, and it’s been getting better and better since — adding more formats, supporting more apps, and extending to more devices. We’re all used to it now, but at the time, getting a video stream from your phone to your (HDMI-enabled) TV set with a couple of taps felt almost like magic.
Here’s everything you need to know about the Chromecast and how it works.
How Chromecast Works
While the term Chromecast is often used to refer to both the hardware and software side of the operation, technically speaking the Chromecast dongle is deploying a protocol called Google Cast to get audio and video up on the big screen (it’s sometimes referred to as “Chromecast built-in” on product packaging and in product listings).
Perhaps the smartest part of the whole operation is that Google Cast pings the web directly, rather than trying to stream anything from your phone or other connected device. Once it knows what you want to play, it pulls it straight from the cloud, so you can carry on using your phone or tablet for other tasks without interrupting the stream.
It can work locally too, though, and is able to mirror the screens on newer Android phones as well as tabs from the Google Chrome web browser (Chromecast devices actually run a pared back version of Chrome). You can try it out by opening the Chrome menu on a laptop (the icon showing three dots) and choosing Cast to look for local Chromecast devices. This local streaming isn’t quite so smooth though, and it’s not particularly suitable for streaming video.
What you might not have noticed is that a lot of streaming services can cast from inside a desktop web browser, as well as a mobile app: Netflix, YouTube, and Plex are three services that support casting from the web. In this case you’re not casting the Chrome tab, you’re telling the Chromecast where to pick the stream up from, so the playback on the big screen should be a lot smoother.
Google has released an extensive set of tools to help developers get their mobile and web apps cast-ready — in a lot of cases it doesn’t take a huge amount of extra work to convert a streaming app into a version that’s Google Cast-ready, with a lot of the most common codecs and formats supported natively.
As time has gone on, more and more apps have added Google Cast support, including presentation tools, photo slideshow presenters, and even some basic games. The Chromecasts themselves have developed too, with new options for setting an ambient mode when nothing is playing, allowing guest access (to someone who isn’t connected to your wifi network), and handling switching to and from different devices.
Apps are getting smarter at working with Chromecast and Google Cast as well — if you’re casting from the YouTube app on your phone, for example, when you go to play a new video you’ll be asked if you want to watch it immediately or add it to the queue of videos being sent to your Chromecast device. Chromecasts have also been given a new lease of life in gaming terms as the primary devices for getting Google Stadia on the big screen.
How to Use the Chromecast Now
There’s a new Chromecast in town — the Chromecast with Google TV. It offers support for 4K video at 60 fps with HDR via Dolby Vision, and redefines what a Chromecast actually is: It’s the first Chromecast with a remote control, and the first to come with proper streaming app support on board. You no longer need a separate device to Chromecast, because you can run apps like Netflix and Hulu straight from the shiny new Google TV interface.
In a way it’s a shame to see the simplicity of the original Chromecast disappear, but streaming devices have changed a lot in the last seven years, and Google obviously felt a more advanced Chromecast was necessary. It still connects via HDMI, and you can still cast audio and video to it from a separate device, if you need to, just like the old days.
A basic $59 Chromecast dongle remains on sale (offering 1080p video at 60fps), though it looks as though the Chromecast Ultra has been retired. The Chromecast with Google TV is the new 4K-ready, premium Chromecast, for better or for worse (though the Ultra model will still be bundled with Stadia, until support is added to the newer model next year).
There are plenty more Chromecast-capable devices out there. The Google Nest Hub Max can work as a Chromecast device, as can anything running Android TV, whether that’s a Sony television or the Nvidia Shield TV. Google says that Google TV will become the default interface or top layer for Android TV over the next couple of years, on both old and new products.
Chromecast capabilities are appearing in more and more audio products too, including speakers from the likes of LG, Sony, Bang & Olufsen, Philips, Pioneer, and others, as well as the Nest range of smart speakers. For the purposes of streaming audio, speakers can be grouped together in rooms, and it’s even possible to switch streams between rooms with a couple of button pushes.
As for app support, it would be easier to list the apps that don’t let you cast audio and video. The Apple TV app is perhaps the biggest one that won’t connect to a Chromecast — surprise, surprise — but just about every other well-known video and audio streaming app will work, whether from Android, iOS, or the web.
The Google Home app for Android and iOS isn’t essential for actually casting from your phone, but you do need it to set up Chromecast devices to begin with, and it’s useful for configuring your streaming dongle as well as casting the screen of an Android device. You can also use the app to set up your default services for voice commands, so you can get content up on a Chromecast with the Google Assistant, too.