Google launched the Chromecast Ultra as a top-end model back in 2016 but has yet to replace it. In that time, it has refreshed the "regular" Chromecast, now in its third generation, to slot underneath it at half the price. Which one is right for you? Well, it's pretty simple.
What is a Chromecast?
A Chromecast is a small device that plugs into an HDMI port on your TV, A/V receiver, or any other display that can play video and audio. Once in place, you use an app for your phone, or Chrome on your computer, to set it up and control media streaming to the Chromecast remotely. To send the media to a Chromecast, you open it on your phone or in Chrome on your computer and "Cast" it to the Chromecast receiver. Your stream will start playing on your TV and you're free to do other things on your phone or computer while it plays.
The features and price make a Chromecast the best way to stream your media.
A Chromecast can mirror local content from your phone, like pictures or video you took yourself, but when you're streaming from an online source like Netflix, it doesn't come from your phone. Instead, it makes a connection with the source and streams directly, saving battery and not using your phone's network or resources. You can still use your phone or computer to control the stream and do things like pause playback or change volume, but the actual transmission from Netflix (in our example) goes to the Chromecast.
There are thousands of apps in Google Play and Apple App Store, including hundreds of the most popular streaming services, that are Chromecast-enabled. Google maintains a robust (but not necessarily complete) list of Chromecast-enabled apps, and CordCutters has a breakdown of popular services that you can browse before buying a Chromecast.
The experience is identical on a Chromecast Ultra, Chromecast, or an Android or smart TV with Cast built-in. There's no interface or browsing to be done on the Chromecast itself — everything is initiated from your phone or computer. The only difference on a Chromecast Ultra or Chromecast is that there is no remote (standard or optional) — everything is controlled from your phone or computer.
Who should buy the 'regular' Chromecast?
This third-generation Chromecast is the basic media streamer many of us want. It handles 1080p video streams really well, it's small, and supports 802.11ac Wi-Fi at both 2.4GHz and 5GHz for easy setup and good quality. It can be powered by your TV if you have a suitably powerful USB port on the back, but there's also a power adapter in the box so you can even plug it into older TVs.
If you don't have a 4K TV or streaming services with 4K, stick to the regular Chromecast.
This Chromecast's only shortcoming is that it doesn't support 4K or HDR video, which are the latet top-end quality for streaming; it's limited to just 1080p. TVs purchased in the last few years have 4K resolution, if not also HDR, so you may already be expecting to watch some of your content in those formats — but the Chromecast can't offer them.
This isn't as big of an issue as it seems at first. Many streaming services don't offer 4K streams, fewer still offer 4K HDR streams, and those that do often charge more for the content. 4K and HDR also require dramatically higher bandwidth — a good rule of thumb is 25Mbps sustained at the device — than 1080p streams, which many people's home internet connection just can't keep up with.
All of that explanation boils down to this: if you don't have a 4K TV or aren't planning on watching any 4K content, the $35 Chromecast is great. Even if you do have a 4K TV, evaluate how many of the streaming services you use actually offer 4K and HDR, and how fast your home internet is, before laying out the extra money for the Chromecast Ultra.
Who should buy the Chromecast Ultra?
The Chromecast Ultra offers a step up from the regular version in resolution and speed. When provided with a suitable internet connection, it can stream 4K and HDR content. The hardware inside the Chromecast Ultra is fast and powerful enough to do things on the fly without a lot of buffering or skipping (although the regular Chromecast is no slouch).
If you have a 4K TV and can afford it the extra cost, buy the Chromecast Ultra.
The Chromecast Ultra connects to 802.11ac 2.4GHz and 5GHz Wi-Fi, just like the regular Chromecast, but also has a 2x1 MISO (Multi Input Single Output) antenna for faster network speeds and low latency. It also comes standard with an ethernet port built into the power supply, which can be important for maintaining 4K streams or bringing the Chromecast to tough Wi-Fi areas like basements, patios, and far-flung corners of the house. You can buy a $16 ethernet adapter for the regular Chromecast if you need that particular feature, but at that point, you might as well get a Chromecast Ultra instead.
Even if you don't watch a ton of 4K HDR content now, if you have a 4K TV and expect to stream in 4K soon it's probably worth spending the extra money on a Chromecast Ultra. It's faster and still more capable than the regular Chromecast, despite being a few years old. And the included Ethernet adapter means you'll never have to buy an extra accessory for your Chromecast to get it online.
It's also worth noting that the Chromecast Ultra works with Google Stadia, although as it stands currently, you also need a Stadia controller to play Stadia games via Chromecast. If Google Stadia intrigues you and you don't already own a Chromecast Ultra, you might want to invest in a Google Stadia Premiere Edition, which includes the $70 Stadia controller and a Chromecast Ultra for just $129. Do the math and you'll be saving a bit of money on the typical cost of a Chromecast Ultra while also being on the bleeding edge for Google's cloud-based gaming advancements.
4K HDR power
The best Chromecast you can get
It's double the price of the standard Chromecast, but you can stream in 4K HDR and get an ethernet adapter in the box. At this price, your options for 4K HDR streaming are limited, so the Chromecast Ultra is a great choice.
The cheapest way to get into Chromecast
If you're looking for the cheapest possible way to start streaming to your TV, the 3rd-gen Chromecast fits the bill. It's half the price of the Ultra, making it appealing for anyone who doesn't stream 4K or wants to connect a secondary TV.
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