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If you aren’t streaming your media off of a game console, there’s a war for a spot on your TV’s HDMI port. There are three main options if you’re not ready to invest in a smart TV right now—Roku, Amazon Fire Stick, and Google Chromecast—and they each have distinct strengths and weaknesses. Here’s everything you need to know about Chromecast and how it stacks up to the competition.
Google Chromecast is a series of three digital media players designed to meet various streaming needs of different people. Each device is controlled solely via your smartphone, so if you’re looking for a standard remote, you’ll want to look elsewhere. The device “casts” whatever is playing on your smartphone to your TV, whether it’s a Netflix original series or your photo gallery.
Each Chromecast model requires an internet connection. Once you connect the device to your TV or stereo, you then control your Chromecast via the Google Home app on your smartphone or tablet. There’s just one catch: Unlike Roku or Amazon Fire Stick, with Chromecast you’re not navigating on your TV screen, you’re browsing through your phone, tablet, or computer. That’s a boon for some users and a curse for others. The upside is you never have to worry about losing your remote between the sofa cushions but it also means if you have children or house guests who want to watch something on Netflix, they’ll need a smartphone and the app to start viewing.
Once you select to play on your device, the Chromecast finds the video online and streams it to your TV. This process takes some getting used to, and can frankly be a little frustrating if you’re used a more streamlined interface. Especially when you’re trying to pick a movie with a friend, huddling around your phone or computer to browse your options doesn’t feel the same as navigating a menu on your screen. It’s a minor complaint, but one that gets in the way of the Chromecast experience.
Setting up your Chromecast is easy. Just plug it in and go to chromecast.com/setup and follow the instructions. You’ll be ready to start streaming in no time. Here’s a video showing how the set up works.
If you’re looking to cut the cord, Chromecast can be your conduit to all of the services you’d typically get from a cable package. You can use it to watch ESPN or to purchase NFL Sunday Ticket. You can subscribe to premium apps like HBO Now and Showtime Anytime, and streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Sling TV. There’s just one glaring omission in the form of Amazon Prime. Given its investment in the Firestick and its own 4K TVs, Amazon wants to make it difficult for you to stream its library via Roku or Chromecast. There are workarounds, but it’s a needless pain.
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Which Chromecast is right for you?
There are three types of Google Chromecast.
Chromecast Audio is strictly for streaming music, podcasts, and news. It plugs into your stereo via a standard 3.5mm aux cable, RCA hookup or optical audio connection. The only reason you should buy this device is if you are interested in building a multiroom stereo system and want an easy way to control what plays through your stereo in each room. Google Home makes it easy to quickly switch songs or activate a playlist from any room when using Spotify or Google Play Music. Unfortunately, the device doesn’t support Apple Music or Amazon Prime.
Chromecast Audio costs $35. A 3.5mm cable is included to help hook it up to your stereo, but if your setup includes an optical audio port, we suggest connecting your Chromecast Audio that way for the best sound quality possible.
Chromecast’s basic model is a great all-purpose video player and media center, capable of streaming a movie in 1080p HD or playing your favorite songs from Spotify. Unless you’ve already upgraded to a 4K Ultra HD television set, the basic Chromecast is all you’ll ever need.
The standard version of Chromecast also costs $35.
If you’ve made the leap to 4K already, your only option is the Chromecast Ultra. This sleek monster can stream 4K Ultra HD content and supports HDR10 and Dolby Vision HDR, giving your picture deeper contrast and richer color if your set supports it. To handle the massive data needs of 4K, the Chromecast Ultra has Ethernet support, giving you a more consistent data stream than standard Wi-Fi. You’ll need to make sure your streaming services are setup to produce 4K video, including upgrading your Netflix subscription. (4K is one area where the lack of Amazon Prime support stings. Amazon Prime is one of the few major streaming services offering 4K content at the moment.)
Chromecast Ultra will set you back $69
Where Chromecast really shines is as a media player. Its compatibility with Plex and Kodi make it a popular choice for streaming fans with big content libraries. It’s far easier to stream your own media collection to a Chromecast than it is on an Amazon Fire Stick or Roku device. Chromecast also allows you to mirror your screen from your computer or Android device to your TV screen, making it useful in a pinch for work presentations or if you want to watch a video you don’t have an app for. Want to share photos at Christmas? Chromecast makes it easy.
But we’re sorry to say Google Chromecast just can’t stand up to the competition. Roku’s cheapest options start at $29, $6 cheaper than Chromecast, and it comes with a remote, support for Amazon Prime, and an easy-to-understand interface. Imagine handing your grandmother a smartphone and explaining to her how to find her shows on it. Now imagine giving her a remote and showing her how to find a channel like she would on TV. Chromecast can’t compete on price or simplicity.
Roku’s starter 4K option, the Roku Premiere, is exactly as expensive as Chromecast Ultra, but, again, it comes with a remote and Amazon Prime access.
Even if Roku devices didn’t come with a remote, Roku has a better smartphone app than Chromecast, thanks to its Private Listening feature. With Private Listening, you can plug a pair of headphones into your phone, isolating your TVs audio for late-night viewing when you’re trying to let someone else sleep.
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Amazon Fire Stick also provides a better experience than Chromecast. The device supports more streaming options than Chromecast and it comes with a remote. Amazon’s streaming devices also boast the company’s Alexa voice search, which makes it easy to do everything from pull up a TV show to order a pizza right from your remote control. Amazon’s devices also support Kodi, taking at least one feather out of Chromecast’s hat.
Chromecast is a fine device, but it’s currently fighting in a market full of great options. At the moment, Roku is still our streaming device of choice, with Amazon Fire Stick right behind. Chromecast just can’t compete when it comes to price or features.
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John-Michael Bond is a tech reporter and culture writer for Daily Dot. A longtime cord-cutter and early adopter, he's an expert on streaming services (Hulu with Live TV), devices (Roku, Amazon Fire), and anime. A former staff writer for TUAW, he's knowledgeable on all things Apple and Android. You can also also find him regularly performing standup comedy in Los Angeles.