Chromecast Ultra Review
In an increasingly wireless world, wired network support adds a new layer to the Chromecast experience
As we just mentioned, with the Chromecast Ultra, Google's streamer updates from a Wi-Fi driven accessory (with Ethernet as an optional upgrade few users are likely to take advantage of) to one with Ethernet support right out of the box.
But more than that, it also streamlines setup and improves connection reliability. The Chromecast has always been pretty straightforward to configure – that ease of use is a critical component to the tool's allure – but leaning too heavily on wireless internet has a way of adding unnecessary complexity to such a setup process. It may not sound like much when you're verifying on-screen pairing codes to those displayed on your phone or tablet, but when you first configure the Chromecast Ultra over Wi-Fi – and realize that you no longer have to worry about such steps – it can be very illuminating. For as much as Wi-Fi adds to our lives, there's a lot to be said for the simple reliability of a plug-and-play wired connection.
Like the second-gen Chromecast, the Ultra upgrades its wireless connectivity options from what was available with the original Chromecast, picking up the same support for high-speed 802.11ac networks, as well working in the 5GHz frequency range. Even with the presence of an Ethernet port, we imagine the vast majority of users are still going to want to hook up their Chromecasts wirelessly.
We put the Chromecast Ultra through its paces on both wired and wireless networks, and while performance was similar on both, setup was a little bumpier over Wi-Fi. The Google Home app has a bad habit of hanging during the wireless setup procedure – maybe that's the wrong word, as the app is still responsive, but more than once it simply stopped making forward progress. It would say “wait while X happens,” and X never did. Once we realized we were getting nowhere, putting the app back on track took little more than hitting back and trying again, but that's still a little frustrating; if something's not working as expected, we'd far prefer the app say something to that effect, rather than just waiting quietly in perpetuity.
To the credit of the Google Home app and Chromecast Ultra, once you get past those hiccups, the setup process is relatively smooth – and unlike the Goole Home smart speaker (which you also manage through your phone on the Home app), the Chromecast Ultra was successfully able to used saved Wi-Fi credentials on our phone, rather than requiring password re-entry.
Interface and Functionality
Chromecast Ultra looks and feels like the old Chromecast you know, but bumps speed up to the next level
Once your Chromecast Ultra is set up, the Google Home app gives you a brief overview of Chromecast functionality. Basically, if you've ever used another Chromecast model, you know exactly what to expect: look for the Chromecast icon in connected apps, hit it and choose your Chromecast (which you'll want to uniquely name in case you want multiple units set up on the same network), and streaming commences in just a few moments.
While it's all very simple and streamlined when it works, some of the same little usability quirks we've noticed with older Chromecast hardware and software still pop up. For instance, while you can use the volume buttons on your phone to control the audio level at your TV, apps have an annoying tendency to get confused about which volume you're trying to adjust: the Chromecast or your phone. So even when you're actively streaming, sometimes an app won't pass your change-of-volume request along to the Chromecast, misinterpreting your input as on-phone volume adjustment.
Other times, an app will successfully display the Chromecast volume slider, but then undo your adjustments the moment you stop pressing the volume rocker. If an app disallows volume control, there has to be a more graceful way to communicate that than simply discarding user input.
There's also the occasional tendency for apps to lose track of what's going on with the Chromecast Ultra. We'd fire up a Google Play Music playlist, listen for a few tracks and then … silence. Tapping “play” again on the app got things going once more, but why did things stop in the first place? A lack of clear error messages leaves users unable to tell if the problem lies in the app, their network, or the Chromecast itself. We'd hoped that wired Ethernet connections would improve reliability a bit, but we experiences similar issues on both network types.
Of course, glitches with streaming are a familiar part of the Chromecast experience – we're just a little bummed that the high-priced Ultra doesn't do more to fix them. But even if it drops the ball a little there, it still delivers some interesting new functionality.
The big deal there is support for 4K Ultra HD resolutions, and playback of high-dynamic-range content, already available from various Chromecast-supporting streaming apps.
Sadly, our Chromecast Ultra review unit didn't arrive with a shiny new 4K HDR-ready television bundled in the box, so we were unable to try out that new support for ourselves. If you are lucky enough to own such a set, though, you already know what to expect from that extra-sharp video, with as much detail visible in murky shadows as you'll find in the brightest snowscapes. Other streaming devices like the Roku Ultra offer similar functionality, but the Chromecast Ultra costs roughly half as much.
One thing you can enjoy whether or not you've got a brand-new TV is the Chromecast Ultra's speedier performance. With older models, a little loading lag was to be expected: it could take a few moments for the Chromecast to buffer some media and get playback started. And while buffering continues to be an inexorable part of the Chromecast experience, it is appreciably swifter with the Ultra. Streaming Netflix to the device, loading messages would tick forward from zero to ten percent in just a second or two, then nearly blast all the way to 100 at break-neck speed; playback would even get started while the on-screen loading ticker was still advancing.
Load times are better – we can't deny that – but the improvement is also something less than a night-and-day difference.