Google unveiled the second generation of its Chromecast streaming stick at a press event in San Francisco Tuesday. The new Chromecast, which will be available in 17 countries starting Tuesday, doesn’t just look different, it also comes with new technology to improve playback in the home.
Part of that can actually be attributed to the design: The original Chromecast was a stick-shaped streaming adapter, similar to a USB drive with a bulbous end, and plugged directly into a TV’s HDMI port. Turns out that’s not actually all that good for connectivity, which is why the new device instead looks like a round disc that comes with an integrated HDMI cable.
Chromecast also got support for 5 Ghz Wifi, which is being used by many modern routers and generally offers better coverage over larger areas of a home. But the new Chromecast is also smarter in how it is using Wifi.
“Wifi actually changes all the time,” said Google’s VP of product management Rish Chandra during a recent interview. Someone may turn on their microwave, neighbors may add a new access point, or a bunch of devices within the own home may suddenly crowd the network. Chromecast now accounts for this with an adaptive antenna system that chooses the optimal connection based on current network conditions, Chandra explained.
Google’s new Chromecast also introduces a new technology called Fastplay, which pre-fetches content in the background to make playback seem more instantaneous. For example, Netflix may already preload its Chromecast app and even the beginning of the show you binge-watched last night as soon as you open the Netflix app on your phone, and playback will automatically start without any buffering when you press play.
Another interesting feature of the new Chromecast is something Google doesn’t talk about as much yet: The new streaming dongle includes Bluetooth LE support, which is currently being used to bring some features to iPhones that in the past only worked on Android phones.
But in the long run, Google may also use Bluetooth to add proximity and presence detection to Chromecast. Chandra didn’t want to commit to any concrete features just yet, but said that proximity could for example make it possible to automatically suggest the Chromecast closest to you in houses with multiple streaming dongles.
Google also made a few improvements to the Chromecast experience on the software side. The latest version 46 of Google’s Chrome browser, which is scheduled to be released later this week, will include better mirroring to Chromecast, which means that users will be able to beam anything they’re seeing on their computer screen to the TV. This feature, while available, has so far been in beta, and Chandra said that playback quality is greatly improved with the new update.
Finally, Google is making a new version of the Chromecast app available for Android and iOS. In the past, that app was primarily available for setup and configuration. With the update, it actually includes content recommendations and universal search for movies and TV shows. Select apps from partners like Netflix, Hulu, Fox, CBS and Crackle are able to surface content recommendations in right within the app. Upon selecting one of the recommended titles, a user is then taken into the right app, one click away from casting the show to the TV.
Universal search similarly indexes content from participating partners, making it possible to find an episode of a TV show on Hulu, Netflix or elsewhere. Right now, Google is limiting search to select partners, but Chandra said that this may change in the future. “We do want to eventually open it up,” he said.
Chromecast has been a very successful product for Google, with executives announcing Tuesday that the company has sold more than 20 million units worldwide since introducing it a little over two years ago. Chandra said that the company wants to continue to support those first-generation devices, and for example eventually add some aspects of Fastplay to them as well. Some users who have experienced connectivity woes in the past may benefit from upgrading to a second-generation Chromecast, he said, but added that the new device was really about bringing streaming services to the many of millions of TVs that still aren’t connected.