The Chromecast has been out long enough to have several generations of hardware. But what’s the difference between them, and should you upgrade to the newer versions?
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Originally released in 2013, the original $35 Chromecast flew off the shelves thanks to its ease of use, excellent app support, and the dead simple way it allowed people to sling YouTube, Netflix, and other popular video sources to their HDTV. We loved the Chromecast then and we still love it now.
In 2015, Google released an updated version of the Chromecast as well as the Chromecast Audio (an equally easy to use tool that turns your dumb speakers smart). Then, a year after that in 2016, Google released the Chromecast Ultra, which isn’t a third generation Chromecast but a whole new Chromecast line altogether that costs $69 instead of $35.
With all those versions and the amount of years between releases, you may be wondering if you should upgrade your first generation Chromecast. Or, if you’re a first time buyer, you may wonder if it’s worth buying the Ultra over the second generation Chromecast.
Let’s take a look at the specs and features of each device and then highlight when, specifically, it’s worth choosing the newer models.
The Difference Between the First Gen, Second Gen, and Ultra
Rather than dive into the minute details between the models (like the trivially important differences between which System-On-a-Chip processors the different models use), let’s focus on the practical features that actually change your user experience.
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All three Chromecast models can play 1080p content, and all three support HDMI CEC (which means you can easily control things like Netflix playback on your regular TV remote if your TV supports it). All three use the exact same Google Cast protocol, and can access the exact same apps.
In addition, all three are powered by a Micro USB adapter. However, the USB adapter that comes with the Chromecast Ultra supports Ethernet connectivity. You can purchase the same upgraded power-plus-networking adapter for the first and second generation Chromecasts, but it will cost you $15.
Speaking of networking, that’s one of the biggest differences between the two generations: the second generation Chromecast and the Chromecast Ultra both support Wi-Fi b/g/n/ac on the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. The original Chromecast, however, does not support Wireless AC, and only broadcasts on the 2.4GHz band.
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Finally, the Ultra is the only Chromecast that supports 4K and HDR video playback.
One thing you’ll note that we didn’t emphasize at all was the difference in raw hardware specs. In our experience, the speed difference between the different Chromecast releases is small to non-existent. Whether it takes 2 seconds or 1.5 seconds to load up a stream from Netflix is truly irrelevant when you’re sitting down to watch a TV show or movie for the next hour or two.
With those feature differences in mind, let’s look at whether or not it’s worth upgrading your Chromecast or buying up in the product line.
When You Should (and Should Not) Upgrade
There are a few clear cut situations where you should consider upgrading your Chromecast. If any of the following statements apply to you, you’re a candidate for a bigger better model.
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I want to use Wi-Fi but the 2.4GHz coverage where my TV is located is bad. If you want to use your Chromecast in a location where the 2.4GHz band is congested and you want to keep the Chromecast wireless, then it’s worth upgrading to a model, like the second generation and Ultra, that supports 5GHz Wi-Fi. Not sure if that’s your issue? Read more about the difference between 2.4GHz and 5GHz here, as well as how to troubleshoot Chromecast-specific issues.
I have, or plan to purchase in the near future, a 4K-capable television. While the vast majority of content is still 1080p, if you have a 4K television and you want to get in on some of the early better-than-1080 content (like some of Netflix’s 4K shows), you’ll need a Chromecast Ultra.
Even if you don’t have a 4K HDTV at the moment, if you’re seriously considering getting one, it’s still reasonable to purchase the $70 Chromecast Ultra over the $35 second-gen Chromecast, as you’ll likely upgrade the regular Chromecast in short order.
Barring those two situations, there’s no reason to trade out your first generation Chromecast for a second generation Chromecast, or upgrade from the second generation to the Ultra–both the first-gen and second-gen Chromecasts still have plenty of life in them for the millions of people who haven’t made the jump to 4K TV.