Living with Google's new Chromecast (2015): Is it worth the upgrade?

Some real-world reflections on Google's new $35 Internet-to-TV streaming device -- and for whom this refreshed version makes sense.

New Google Chromecast (2015)
JR Raphael, IDG

Google's original Chromecast media streamer proved to be nothing short of revolutionary in my life. The $35 stick was significant not so much for what it did but rather how it did it: The device took the overcomplicated task of Internet-to-TV streaming and made it as simple as can be. No clunky on-screen menus to navigate, no extra remotes to lose, no unnecessary hassles; just find something you want to watch or listen to in an app on your phone, tap a button, and boom -- it's playing on your TV.

As I mused after my first month with the original Chromecast, it was exactly the solution I'd been searching for. I'd used several Internet-to-TV streaming devices over the preceding years and had always been underwhelmed with the experience. Chromecast "just worked," to borrow a phrase -- in a way that felt both refreshing and liberating.

Fast-forward two years, and Chromecast has continued to play an integral role in my home. We use the hell out of that thing -- for casting movies and shows from Netflix or Google Play to the TV, casting music from Google Play Music or Pandora to the living room stereo, casting YouTube videos to the big screen, and even casting personal photos and videos to the TV for collective viewing. It's easily the best $35 I've ever spent, especially considering the experience has only gotten better over time (as more and more apps have added native support for casting).

So when Google announced a new model of the Chromecast a couple weeks back, I figured it was worth giving a whirl. Same 35 bucks for a device that's slightly better than what I've got now? Sure -- why not. I hightailed my way over to Best Buy, picked one up, and plugged 'er into my living room boob-tube.

Chromecast -- take two

My wife and I have been using the new Chromecast for about a week and a half now. (My daughter's been trying to use it, too, but her baby hands aren't quite up to the task yet. Give her a few more weeks.) The verdict? It really is a slightly better version of the first-gen device -- with "slightly" being the key word.

How slightly? Let's put it this way: If someone swapped out your old Chromecast for a new one, you might not even notice anything was different if you weren't paying close attention. The new 2015 Chromecast works exactly like the original: You just plug it into your TV, follow a simple two-minute setup process, and then cast content from any device (by tapping or clicking the cast icon in a compatible app or simply casting your entire screen) to the TV. Easy as can be. Any phone, tablet, or computer in the house can serve as a remote, which works great for me and mine.

The one difference that's somewhat apparent in day-to-day use is the speed at which stuff loads. It's subtle but noticeable, at least in our house. An example: When we start a new show casting from Netflix, we see the progress bar show up on the TV screen, just like we always have. But now, instead of filling in incrementally from zero to 100%, it goes from zero to 5 or 10 and then jumps almost instantly from there to 100. We're talking a difference of a few seconds at most, which isn't enormously significant when it comes to a show loading on your TV screen but is a nice little improvement -- and one my wife and I have both definitely been aware of every time we've used the new device.

The reason for the speed boost is that the new Chromecast has better Wi-Fi support -- something that may or may not make as much of a difference for you, depending on the specifics of your home Wi-Fi situation. Google is also working on a new system that'll intelligently predict what you want to watch and then start to load content on your Chromecast before you even ask for it, but that isn't widely available yet (and it'll be available for both the new and old Chromecast once it launches).

The new Chromecast does have a fancy new appearance -- but considering you're probably going to plug it into the back of your TV and never look at it again, that doesn't really mean a heck of a lot (aside from maybe giving you a brief "ooh" or "ahh" when you first open up the box).

The bottom line

So is the 2015 Chromecast worth buying? If you don't have a Chromecast yet and want a dead-simple way to cast content from your mobile device or computer to a television, the answer is easy: Absolutely. Don't think twice -- go buy one right now. You won't regret it.

If you already have the original Chromecast, I wouldn't fret too much about the decision. If you've got an extra 35 bucks burning in your pocket and want to make things potentially load a few seconds faster -- especially if your home Wi-Fi situation isn't entirely ideal -- what the hell? Go get one. It'll make an already-excellent experience a little bit better, and if you use the device as much as I do, you'll appreciate the difference (subtle as it may be).

But I wouldn't consider it a crucial or high-priority upgrade by any stretch of the imagination. What makes Chromecast exceptional is the simplicity it brings to Internet-to-TV streaming -- and that's something the original version does almost as well as the new one.

And you know what? In the big picture, the fact that an inconspicuous $35 gadget is still providing that great of an experience more than two years after its release tells you everything you need to know.

[SEE ALSO: Living with Chromecast Audio: A brilliantly simple audio streaming solution

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Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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