It might have been the worst-kept secret leading up to today's Google event — aside from the new Nexus phones, that is — but Google has just announced two new Chromecast devices: a second-generation stick for streaming video, and a Chromecast Audio dongle that adds wireless music-streaming capabilities to any speaker with a 3.5mm auxiliary jack.
Like the first Chromecast, which was brought to market in 2013, the new Chromecast for video plugs into the back of a TV set via an HDMI port, and it mirrors, or casts, content from the Chromecast mobile app to TV screens. And like the first one, it costs just $35, making it a less expensive option than any of the streaming devices that Apple, Amazon, or Roku have to offer.
But the newest video streaming stick comes with some notable updates that will likely make it a no-brainer upgrade for Chromecast devotees. In some ways Google's just playing catch-up, but they're welcome changes, regardless.
First, it has a new look, which is both for aesthetics and for functionality. It's now a round, disc-like plastic device, rather than a stick. A long-ish, bendable HDMI arm extends from the disc. Google says this is so the device hangs further away from the TV set and other devices plugged into the back of the TV, to reduce interference. It ships in lemon yellow and bright red in addition to black (although, honestly, who even sees these things when they're plugged into the back of a TV set).
More significantly, Google has updated the guts of the Chromecast to include support for modern Wi-Fi streaming standards (802.11ac, 5Ghz). There are three different antennas in the device for optimized Wi-Fi streaming, whereas the first Chromecast only had one. In fact, the Chromecast team says it worked with the Google OnHub team to design the Chromecast's new antenna structure.
There's also something called "Fast Play" being introduced with the new Chromecast. It's a way for the Chromecast to pre-fetch a video streaming app (like Netflix) and video content it thinks you'll want to watch before you hit play. Though the technical details are a little complicated (think coordination between your phone, the Chromecast's software, and the web service delivering the video), the results are meant to equal less time waiting before you get your Narcos fix.
Google says there are now "thousands" of apps that support casting through Chromecast, compared with just a handful that were available at the product's first launch. These include apps like Netflix, Sling TV, Discovery, Google Photos, and DirecTV NFL Sunday Ticket. The Chromecast app itself has gotten a total refresh. As anyone who uses Chromecast knows, the time you actually spend using the app to stream video is minimal — once you find the content you want, you're booted to that specific streaming app — but Google has improved the discovery features within the Chromecast app, with a "What's On" section that shows top content from the streaming video apps you have downloaded onto your phone.
People with 4K TVs might be disappointed to learn that this second-generation Chromecast still doesn't support 4K content, but Google says that's something consumers can expect with Android TV.
Oh, right. Maybe you forgot about Android TV.
Why have Android TV and Chromecast?
It's been a long (and sometimes baffling) road for Google in its efforts to infiltrate television sets. Its Google TV product, which launched in 2010, married a slow, confusing interface with undesirable hardware made by third-party manufacturing partners. That has now been reincarnated as Android TV, another attempt to take over the TV by running an Android OS on television sets made by Sony, Sharp, and Philips. Android TV is also available through gaming devices, like the Razer Forge TV and the Nvidia Shield. And, Google offers a $50, Asus-made Nexus Player that runs Android TV.
All of which might make any reasonable consumer ask: why have Android TV and Chromecast?
According to Rishi Chandra, vice president of product management for the company's TV efforts, Google sees these products as serving different needs. "We do believe computers will be in TVs," Chandra said in an interview prior to today's event. But he went on to say that Android TV is more of a bet for the future — the TV upgrade cycle for most consumers is still around every seven years, so maybe the next TV a person buys will be an Android TV.
In the meantime, Chandra said, "if you want to get thousands of apps, the apps already on your phone, and mirror them to the TV, then you cast it."
Chandra says Google has sold 20 million Chromecast sticks globally since the device's launch in 2013. That's not an insignificant number, but in the context of a billion active Android devices, it's very small. Google is certainly hoping the new Chromecasts will push that number up, even if the future of Google in TVs is less about the actual stick and more about getting people to want a Google-powered TV or set-top box.
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Google: Chromecast audio demo