Way back in 2013, Google surprised consumers and technology enthusiasts alike by entering the already crowded media streaming device market with their own entry: the Chromecast.

Unlike its major competitors, including the Apple TV, Roku Ultra, and Amazon Fire TV, Google’s device eschewed convention in two major ways.

First, Google managed to cram all the electronics necessary for high definition streaming into a dongle that could hide easily behind your TV, something that had not yet been done.  

Second, and more significantly, Google decided not to include a remote.  Instead, Google figured that it would be better to use the one device that everyone always has on them: their smartphone.  

Google also bet big that it could use its clout to ensure that the other major streaming services would incorporate the necessary code to make apps Chromecast compatible.  It is this functionality that is the focus of this article.

Today, Google offers its media streaming device in two flavors: the standard Chromecast, which can stream video in up to 1080p resolution costs $35.00, and the Chromecast Ultra, which offers 4k HDR and retails for $69.

How is it that a Chromecast is able to deliver fantastic picture quality on a device that is smaller than a silver dollar pancake, and how is it that users are able to control video playback on their smartphones and tablets without doing anything other than connecting to the same wifi network?

We will explore these questions below.

How can the Chromecast be so small?

Prior to the Chromecast’s release in 2013, the idea that a streaming device could be as small as a USB thumb-drive was absurd. Google proved that aside from some minor performance issues, it was completely feasible.  

This performance in a small package is (and was) made possible by a custom SoC (system-on-chip) designed in conjunction with Marvell.  Since 2013, Google has changed the form factor to a circular disc dongle, which increases wifi performance and makes it more compatible with certain TVs.

First Generation Chromecast
Third Generation Chromecast

How does the Chromecast work without a remote?

Google developed the Chromecast on top of a wireless protocol known as DIAL (DIscovery And Launch), which for consumers, “removes the pain of having to launch the required app on [their TV] before interacting with it from their [mobile device].”  

DIAL is now maintained by Google and Netflix.  In addition to DIAL, Google also developed a Google Cast SDK (Software Development Kit), that included additional APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) for app developers to offer functionality for their app, including volume and playback control as well as others.

cast option on mobile phone

All this techno-babble aside, the result of the above technology results in a app experience that allows you to seamlessly “cast” content from your mobile device directly to your TV.  

In addition, all of this functionality remains hidden until the app automatically detects a chromecast is present on the same network. In that case, a small icon appears, which allows you to choose which Chromecast you want to cast media to.

After playback begins, playback, volume and any other controls built-in to the app by the developer will automatically appear in the app.  If you have an android device, there are often additional controls that will appear in a persistent notification.

Another cool feature of the Chromecast SDK is that once someone in the home has started playback of, say, a movie on Netflix, anyone who launches the Netflix app on their phone or tablet on the same network will also have the ability to control playback, volume, or any other feature integrated by the app.  

Effectively, any wifi-enabled smart device becomes a potential remote control for the Chromecast, including personal assistants such as Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant and their family of devices.

Differences Between the Chromecast and Chromecast Ultra

The differences between the two current Chromecast models boils down to use cases.

The major factors to consider is price and the type of TV you have in your home.  If you have a 4k TV, then the natural option for you is the Chromecast Ultra, which supports 4k video playback, which is becoming far more prevalent in 2019 with services like Netflix and Youtube offering a significant amount of content in the higher resolution.

However, even if you have an older 1080p TV, it may make sense to opt for the Ultra just to ensure you are future-proofing your gear for an inevitable TV upgrade down the line.

Finally, there is a consideration for price.  At $35.00 the Chromecast is squarely within “impulse purchase” territory.  Conversely, the Chromecast Ultra at $69.00 may put it out of reach for those who are more budget-conscious.

Aside from the use case and price differences, there are some technical differences between the three Chromecast models, which are addressed below.

Tech Specs

ModelChromecast (3rd Gen)Chromecast UltraChromecast With Google TV
Release DateOctober 10, 2018November 6, 2016September 30, 2020
System on ChipUnknownMarvell Armada 1500 Mini Plus 88DE3009Amlogic S905D3 (1.9 GHz quad-core ARM Cortex-A55) and Mali-G31 MP2 GPU
Display Capability1080p @ 60fps4K Ultra HD   High Dynamic Range (HDR10, Dolby Vision) 4K Ultra HD @ 60fps
High dynamic range (HDR10, HDR10+, Dolby Vision)
Connectivity HDMI (CEC Compatible) Wi-Fi (802.11 b/g/n/ac @ 2.â…˜ GHz) Ethernet (via optional USB power adapter) HDMI (CEC Compatible) Wi-Fi (802.11 b/g/n/ac @ 2.â…˜ GHz) Ethernet (via optional USB power adapter) HDMI (can use CEC)
Wi-Fi (802.11 b/g/n/ac @ 2.4/5 GHz)[45]
Bluetooth 4.2
Ethernet (with Ethernet power adapter)
Dimensions51.81 mm x 51.81 mm x 13.8 mm (2.04 in x 2.04 in x 0.54 in)58.2 mm x 58.2 mm x 13.7 mm (2.29 in x 2.29 in x 0.54 in)162 mm × 61 mm × 12.5 mm (6.38 in × 2.40 in × 0.49 in)
Weight40 g (1.4 oz)47 g (1.66 oz)56.7 g (2.00 oz)

How do I set up the Chromecast?

Now that you have a better idea of how the Chromecast functions, and what the different options are in the Chromecast family of devices, you may also need some help doing the initial setup of the device.  Below are instructions to get you up and running when you first purchase a new Chromecast.

Step 1: Plug in your Chromecast device.  Plug your new Chromecast into your TV and ensure the included USB power cable is plugged in to the device and then to the wall or a powered USB port if your TV supports it.

Step 2: Download the Google Home app.  On your mobile device or tablet, download the Google Home app, which is available on both the Apple App Store and Google Play Store.

Step 3: Connect your Chromecast device.  Launch the Google Home app on your mobile device or tablet and select “setup new device” on the homescreen.  Depending on your device, the Google Home app will either automate the process of connecting the Chromecast to your home network, or ask that you join a network created by your Chromecast.  If the latter, you will need to access the wi-fi settings on your mobile device or tablet and connect to the network created by your Chromecast, the name of which will be displayed on your TV if the Chromecast is properly powered on.

Step 4: Finish setup.  Return to the Google Home app and finish the initial setup, which will include associating the device with your Google account, telling the app which room the Chromecast is in, and giving it a more friendly name, if desired.

Step 5: Cast content.  Once the Chromecast and your mobile device or tablet are on the same network, use compatible apps or other Google Home speaker or Google assistant enabled devices to cast content to the Chromecast, as described earlier in the article.

About the Author: Deacon Hayes is the Editor in Chief at Home Toys and writes about topics from smart home devices to automation.