Fact: A lot of the best stuff to watch is now online. All those movies and TV shows from Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Video, iTunes, YouTube, HBO Go, and so on. And lot of people like to watch those Internet videos on a TV.
Fact: Many companies sell boxes to put those videos on your TV. Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire TV, TiVo, game consoles. (Actually, most new TVs come with the necessary apps built right in—you don’t even need the box.)
Fun fact: Google just released the second generation of its own Internet video box, the super-inexpensive Chromecast ($35). But the new, sibling product, Chromecast Audio, is actually far more disruptive and interesting.
The new shape
Google sold 20 million of the first Chromecast, which debuted in 2013. That is a lot. At $35, it was almost an impulse buy.
It’s not actually a “box.” The original looked like a flash drive that plugged straight into your TV. The new one is now a plastic disc, available in four fun fruit flavors, with a short, permanently attached HDMI cable:
The built-in cable is welcome and useful. The connector is also magnetized, so that it lies flat against the disc when not in use.
That’s cool but absolutely bizarre. The Chromecast is going to spend its life hanging from the back of your TV—when would you ever care about a four-inch cable flopping free in your luggage?
Anyway, the ads always leave out the fact that the Chromecast also needs power. You can plug it into the wall—or, if you’re lucky, your TV has USB jacks on the back, too. You can plug the Chromecast into one of those, with less clutter and cord tangling.
How it works
Finishing the setup takes about two minutes. You download an app (Android or iOS), introduce it to your Wi-Fi network, and give your Chromecast a name.
Now you’re ready. You open a video app, like YouTube, Netflix, Google Play, or thousands of others. (That’s a big improvement from the three apps that were compatible when the Chromecast debuted in 2013.) When you open a video to play, a special icon appears:
Tap the icon and then your Chromecast’s name—and that video is now playing on your TV.
The Chromecast gets the video straight from the Internet. The phone is just your remote control; it’s not actually streaming any video itself. (You can even adjust the volume using the phone’s physical volume keys.) Your phone isn’t using any data or battery power.
The beauty is that you can do other things on your phone while you’re watching your show, like running apps or even turning it off. The downside, of course, is that you have to wake and unlock your phone just to control playback. That’s not as handy as having a dedicated remote control. (One handy exception: On Android, a Pause button appears right on the phone’s lock screen.)
Not all video apps display the little Chromecast icon; Amazon Instant Video and Apple’s own iTunes videos are among the holdouts. (Can you say, “bitter competition with Google”?)
But the Chromecast offers an evilly clever workaround. It turns out that you can also send any Web page to your TV, from any device: phone, tablet, Mac or PC laptop. All you have to do is use Google’s Chrome browser, with the free Chromecast extension installed. Now you can beam Apple’s videos or Amazon’s videos to your TV, despite their best efforts to stay out of Google’s ecosystem.
So what’s new in the Chromecast 2? The size and shape are new, of course, but that’s not just cosmetic. Google says that the disc contains three WiFi antennas and some sophisticated circuitry that select the strongest signal, no matter what the position and angle of the gadget. The result: Less video stuttering, especially when the WiFi signal is weak.
Now, when you’re not playing anything, the Chromecast fills your TV with gorgeous nature photos, which is a surprisingly sweet touch.
The new Chromecast app has a new “What’s On” screen that rounds up, on one page, recommended videos from 20 different Chromecast-compatible apps. (This feature is available only on Android; it’s coming soon to iOS.)
Unfortunately, what shows up on this screen has been selected (read: promoted) by various marketing forces beyond your control. It would be better if they were tailored to your taste.
At least the new app has a Search box, so you can plumb all of your video apps for a show or actor’s name. And it lists Chromecast-compatible apps, to help you get more out of your $35.
The new Chromecast also offers something called Fast Play. That’s when the Chromecast tries to guess what you’ll want to play next, and starts downloading the video in advance, so it’ll be ready if you hit the Play button.
I didn’t actually notice Fast Play kicking in; in fact, there were mysterious times when videos took a long time to start playing—maybe 12 seconds.
There are also games to play on Chromecast, like a new Angry Birds Go racing game. “The phone is now the most powerful computer you own,” says a Google product manager—so why shouldn’t it become the touchscreen game controller for your TV?
Truth is, the Chromecast isn’t quite as essential as it once was, now that Internet video apps come built into so many components you already own: your video recorder, game console, or the TV itself.
Yet you may want one anyway. It’s just much easier to search for what you want using your phone’s touchscreen, on-screen keyboard, and voice dictation features. And, I mean—$35! That’s still the world’s least expensive way to add Internet video to a TV that doesn’t already have built-in apps.
Almost as a footnote, Google also unleashed last week a second tiny, round, $35 product: Chromecast Audio.
It’s the same idea: you tap the Chromecast icon in apps like Spotify, Pandora, I Heart Radio, or Google Play Music. But instead of sending Internet video wirelessly to your TV, you’re now sending Internet audio wirelessly to any speaker in your house. The little disc plugs into the Audio Input jack of your speaker, whether it’s a miniplug, optical jack, or RCA jacks. (The miniplug cable is included.)
Now, the universe is teeming with Bluetooth speakers that play what your phone is playing. But Chromecast Audio is different—really different.
This time, your phone is not transmitting audio; the audio comes directly from the Internet to your speaker. Therefore, the music is much higher quality (it hasn’t been subjected to the usual Bluetooth compression). Once again, the phone is just the remote control. That means your phone isn’t using data or battery power.
(Which also means that you can use the phone as a phone while the music plays. A Google product manager told me that his little girl was dancing to the music—he wanted to film her with the phone. If he’d been transmitting to a Bluetooth speaker, the music would have stopped the minute he tried to record video.)
But here’s the other world-changer: This system works over WiFi (maximum range: your whole house), not Bluetooth (maximum range: 30 feet). That’s an amazingly liberating change. You feel like you’ve paid $3,000 for someone to install a whole-house audio system.
Speaking of which: If you buy more than one Chromecast Audio, you can set things up so that all speakers play the same thing simultaneously, cleverly time-synced: the iHome in bedroom, the Bose in the kitchen, the Sony in the den.
What you can’t do is create more than one such zone, or to play different things on different speakers. (That Sonos-like feature is coming in 2016, Google says.)
Chromecast Audio turns anything into a useful wireless speaker. Suddenly, you can give new wireless life to that old charging/speaker dock with a now-obsolete, 30-pin iPhone connector. Or you can turn a bedside alarm clock, born without any wireless features, into a wireless speaker you control from your phone. This holiday season, there will be a lot of old, once beloved speakers being dug out from closets.
Google: the Idea Company
The first Chromecast was a remarkable invention from Google—not a copycat product, but a truly new idea. The 2.0 version is better, and still an astonishing value, but it’s just a refinement of that original concept.
The Chromecast Audio, though, is Google striking again with an idea nobody’s had before. It serves a real purpose and wrings new value from speaker investments you’ve already made.
These products aren’t just inexpensive and effective; they’re also original. Fact: Google is finally finding its stride as a hardware company.
David Pogue is the founder of Yahoo Tech. On the Web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s firstname.lastname@example.org. He welcomes non-toxic comments in the Comments below.