After years of selling its Chromecast devices — “dumb” media streamers that only work in conjunction with a phone, tablet, or computer — Google has finally launched a truly smart media streaming device: The $50 Chromecast with Google TV.
On paper, this thing has it all. An elegant remote control that balances functionality with simplicity, as well as support for 4K, HDR (even Dolby Vision), and Dolby Atmos. As the name suggests, it still works as a Chromecast for when you want to stream content to your TV directly from another device. The whole show runs on Android TV — the smart TV software that Google has been refining for years and which now has thousands of streaming apps. And its price is pitch-perfect: $50 is what Roku charges for the Streaming Stick+ and what Amazon charges for its Fire TV Stick 4K.
But all of these attributes simply mean that the new Chromecast has effectively reached parity with Roku and Amazon, with a small argument that having Chromecast built-in gives it an edge. Surely Google didn’t wait all of this time just bring a me-too device to the streaming media table?
No, it certainly didn’t. Google’s ace in the hole and the Chromecast with Google TV’s whole point of differentiation lies in those last two words of its title: Google TV.
For some with long memories, that’s a name that evokes nightmarishly slow interfaces and poor design. Google’s original streaming media device, the Nexus Q, featured “Google TV” as its operating system and the reviews weren’t kind. But that was then.
Today, Google TV isn’t so much an operating system as it is a custom skin that runs on top of Android TV. It’s Google’s answer to the content discovery and curation experiences that have overtaken the grid-of-icons home screen in recent years. Apple built the Apple TV app. Roku built the Roku Channel. And Amazon has the Fire TV interface.
Google TV follows in the footsteps of these competing interfaces by offering an easy way to browse the huge amount of streaming content most of us have access to. It layers recommendations on top of this menu, and gives everyone the ability to create watchlists that move with you from TV to mobile.
But the real pièce de résistance of Google TV is its ability to seamlessly integrate YouTube TV, the company’s live TV streaming service that has become a fan favorite with cord-cutters. Sure, YouTube TV is already available on a host of devices, including Roku, Apple TV, and Fire TV — not to mention every major smart TV OS too. But none of these devices put YouTube TV front and center like the Chromecast with Google TV.
This combo — an easy way to browse, discover and receive content recommendations, plus a fully integrated live TV streaming service for those who use YouTube TV — could be exactly what Roku and Amazon users have been waiting for. But it’s also a one-way street.
Unlike the Apple TV app, which users can opt in or out of as their home screen experience (leaving the standard Apple TV interface untouched), disabling the Google TV experience “hobbles the Chromecast so badly that there’s really no point in doing it — especially since it’s the same home screen, just without recommendations below your row of apps,” according to The Verge, “You’d be better off just buying something else.”
In other words, if Google TV isn’t a smash hit, the new Chromecast could be facing a very tough road ahead that no remote in the world will make any easier.