Google’s lost year in TV

Amid all the announcements Google made at a press event earlier this week, the company could barely spare a thought for TV.

Yes, Google did announce a new Chromecast—via a blog post, rather than actual stage time—but it’s just a minor upgrade over the second-generation model, with a 15-percent speed boost, 60-frames-per-second support for 1080p videos, and a more rounded design that you won’t even notice behind the TV. And while Xiaomi announced a new Android TV box at the same time as Google’s event, that device didn’t get any stage time either, probably because it’s two-year-old hardware in a slightly updated package.

For Google, all of this makes for a sleepy 2018 on the TV front. While other companies, including Amazon, Roku, and Apple are adding new features and trying new ideas, Google seems lost as to where it should take things next.

What Chromecast needs

It’s easy to forget what a breakthrough the original Chromecast was when it launched in 2013. At the time, the cheapest Roku player cost $50, had a sluggish interface, and could play only 720p video. Chromecast was $15 cheaper, supported 1080p video, and didn’t feel slow because it offloaded all the navigation to your phone.

Since then, Chromecast has lost its steam, and that’s especially evident in the current hardware. For the basic $35 Chromecast, being able to play 1080p videos at 60 frames per second will help for certain YouTube videos and Twitch streams, but not much else. Nearly every movie and TV show plays at 30 frames per second, and most live TV channels that stream at 60 frames per second top out at 720p resolution. The speed increase will provide a modest improvement to video load times, but all the navigation still happens on your phone.

newchromecastsGoogle

The first new $35 Chromecast in three years has a new design, a slight speed increase, and 60-frames-per-second video at 1080p.

And when it comes to 4K streaming, Google’s $70 Chromecast Ultra is no longer among the cheapest options. Roku’s Premiere and Premiere+ offer 4K HDR video for $40 and $50 respectively, and the Fire TV Stick 4K costs $50. These devices also support Dolby Atmos surround sound, which the Chromecast Ultra does not. Even Xiaomi’s Mi Box S undercuts the Chromecast Ultra by $10, despite offering the same casting features and a lot more.

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Meanwhile, Google has left some long-standing issues unaddressed:

  • Most phones don’t have IR blasters in them, so you can’t control volume on the TV or A/V gear without a separate remote. (Chromecast has its own built-in volume controls, but apps don’t support this consistently, and you can only adjust volume down from the TV’s internal volume level.)
  • If you’re on Android, there’s no single sign-on feature for logging into multiple TV network apps at once, like what Roku, Apple TV, and Amazon Fire TV offer. (iPhone users can use iOS’s single sign-on feature.)
  • The Google Home app, which acts as a way to browse and search content across apps, offers no personalization from services like Netflix, no watchlists, and no way to resume shows you’ve been watching.

Chromecast remains a useful product, letting you quickly launch music or video from the phone you’re probably holding in your hand already, and it will become more useful when Google adds multi-room audio support later this year. But as Roku and Amazon have reduced prices and added new features, Chromecast becomes harder to justify as the primary way to watch TV at home.

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