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My smart TV isn’t just dumb. It’s malicious.
I’ve been using a 2019 model of a top-5 (or maybe top-3) brand of flatscreen for a little over a year. On its own, the set has connection issues — both wired and wireless — and the interface and OS feel dated. Outside of Netflix, no apps run well.
My streaming services work better when I go through my Xbox One, but that still features more of a game-centric interaction and forces me to either use an awkward controller to poke around my different apps, or a remote that doesn’t seem to work unless I’m standing less than two feet away.
Recently, I connected my TV with a Roku Express, hoping that a simple $30 HDMI plug-in device would allow me to interface with all my streaming apps at once. Instead, some of those apps froze constantly (looking at you, HBO Max) and the device itself hijacked my TV; I’d press a setting for my DVR and the Roku would randomly take over and not allow me access back to my regular cable TV unless I literally unplugged the device.
For someone who watches TV across a dozen services and apps, I needed something that was simple to use, well organized and remembered me and my interests.
Ergo, I’ve spent a few weeks with Google’s Chromecast with Google TV, and I love it. It’s a $50 device that hangs a bit awkwardly in back of my TV from a small cord attached to an HDMI port. Paired with a nine-button remote that also provides access to Google Assistant, this device is thankfully about 90% of the solution I wanted for accessing my streaming services. It does a few other things that are less important and not quite as good — mainly personal recommendations — but the idea here is, can I get to my Hulu/Netflix/HBO Max/Prime Video/YouTube quickly and intuitively from one screen using one remote?
While ostensibly plug-and-play, setting up Chromecast, downloading and signing into various streaming apps and then waiting for a system update required about 30 minutes of time.
- Arrives with a Chromecast and voice remote, available in three colors (snow, sunrise, sky)
- Video: Up to 4K HDR, 60 FPS
- Video Formats: Dolby Vision, HDR10, HDR10+
- Ports: HDMI to plug directly into the TV
- USB Type-C power
- Wi-Fi 802.11ac (2.4 GHz / 5 GHz)
- Android TV OS
- Switching between services was easy and instantaneous. If you want to use this Chromecast simply so you can access all your apps in one place, it’s worth it just for the organization it brings.
- The voice remote brought Google Assistant into my living room, and because you have to press it to activate, I got a sense of security (perhaps false?) that I now had a smart assistant that wasn’t always listening. Bonus: When I asked for weather, I got both a voiced report and my TV screen brought up a seven-day visual forecast.
- The voice commands all seemed to work if I had the right apps installed — for example, “Watch Saturday Night Live on YouTube” brought me to SNL skits on the video service. If I said “show me science fiction movies” I got a list of recommendations on screen across all my apps.
- Unlike Roku, I had no problems streaming HBO Max or any other app.
- The remote was small, the buttons were intuitive and the directional pad worked well. Scrolling between apps and shows/movies within apps was easier than using my cable, gaming or TV remotes.
What kind of works:
- When not in use, the app defaults to artwork or photos. Since I didn’t set up Google Photos, I was stuck with some temporary art if I stopped using the device or watching TV but didn’t power off.
- There are supposedly 6,500 apps built for Android TV OS in genres like gaming, fitness, education and music that I could potentially use with Chromecast. I downloaded a couple and they seemed to work fine, although I found the app library and search function to be more pedestrian than it was for shows or movies. But I can now access an app called “Fart Machine” with one or two clicks of my remote, so hooray?
- I “cast” a few apps from my phone to the TV, but honestly, I rarely see an occasion to use this.
What needs work:
- The device features a very short dongle but long power cord, which means the Chromecast hung awkwardly behind my set. It may be nice to have something out of visual range, but anything that will eventually require me to reach behind a 65” screen for access is going to cause frustration.
- For all the emphasis on recommendations, Google TV suggested movies I’d already seen or was not interested in (even if they did a nice job of taking suggestions across the multitude of apps I used). For now, I’d say almost any individual app’s recommendations were better than the multi-platform picks from Google, though I believe if I use Chromecast enough and bookmark and/or review enough shows, the suggestions will improve. Side note: On my iPad, I already use the app JustWatch to “save” films and TV series I want to watch and get updates on what services they’ll be on — I would love to integrate that service into Google TV.
- It’s a minor quibble, but the two dedicated buttons on the remote are for Netflix and YouTube. An option to customize one of those buttons (I’d prefer an instant switch to Hulu, for example) would have been nice.
Note: There were several features I didn’t try, including the Library Tab (which shows movies and shows via Google services and new DVR recordings from YouTube TV). I also didn’t try said live TV, which requires a YouTube TV subscription — which, for cord cutters, is apparently pretty good. I also didn’t try to pair Chromecast with Nest or any other smart devices, and I didn’t set it up to control my TV’s power or work with my connected Sonos speakers, because I’m legitimately afraid to give one remote or service all my tech access.
What others are saying:
(9.2/10) If you subscribe to YouTube TV or are a fan of Google Assistant, however, the Chromecast with Google TV is a great pick. It integrates really well with other Google services like Photos, and support for nearly all major streaming apps means it should be fine no matter what you want to watch. — CNET
(4/5) The Chromecast with Google TV is about the same price as the Roku and Amazon Fire TV Sticks on the market, but … it’s the things only Google can bring that make this one of the best smart streaming devices. — Tom’s Guide
(4.5/5) The Chromecast with Google TV doesn’t reinvent the wheel for streaming devices, but it does offer a convenient, easy-to-use and fully featured option for people who don’t want to spend more than they have to on the latest streaming hardware. — TechRadar
What we’re saying:
Being able to quickly flip from Sex Education on Netflix to Invincible on Prime Video to whatever’s on Hulu or even YouTube without picking up multiple remotes or having one device hijack another made Chromecast worth the $50.
If I had truly cut the cord, this would be an ideal way to keep my watching habits organized. But as someone who still uses regular cable TV and a DVR, this is more about condensing my machinery as opposed to having an all-in-one solution.
I’m hoping a few more weeks with the Chromecast — and a little more interaction on my part — will improve the recommendations from Google TV. Other than that, however, this is an ideal device for when your smart TV gets mad about handling anything beyond linear programming.
Where to buy: Chromecast with Google TV is available now for $50 from most retailers.
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