Chromecast or Google Cast? Google’s confusing wireless streaming tech explained

In 2013, Google introduced a nifty gadget called Chromecast, a small device that allowed you to stream audio and video from your smartphone, tablet, or computer to your TV. Back then, when smart TVs were rare and expensive, Chromecast was a more affordable alternative to streaming media devices like Roku and Apple TV.

Initially, you used Chromecast by “casting” content from your other devices. This act of wirelessly sending content was made possible by a technology Google named Google Cast. While Chromecast was the physical device, Google Cast was the technology that made it all work. Pretty straightforward, right?

Chromecast Hardware

Google’s first-gen Chromecast dongle. Chromecast Audio. Bose Smart Ultra Soundbar in white.

  1. Google’s original Chromecast dongle.
  2. Google Chromecast Audio.
  3. The Bose Smart Ultra Soundbar with Chromecast built-in.

The original Chromecast was a small HDMI dongle you plugged into your TV. Once connected to power and Wi-Fi, it allowed you to stream video content from your devices to your TV. Its popularity was due to its low price and ease of use. This led to other versions like the Chromecast Audio for streaming audio and the 4K-capable Chromecast Ultra. All these devices relied on casting content from a source device and didn’t have remotes or built-in apps.

In 2016, Google introduced the “Chromecast built-in” label for third-party devices that could cast content just like a Chromecast. This meant that smart TVs, soundbars, and speakers with this label could receive casted content without needing a separate Chromecast dongle.

Enter Google TV

Google Chromecast with Google TV displayed on a mantle. Caleb Denison / Digital Trends

While Chromecast devices were popular, the lack of an on-screen interface and remote control became a drawback. Competing devices from Roku and Amazon offered these features at lower prices. Google already had a platform called Android TV, used by several manufacturers to create rich, app-driven streaming experiences, but it had not released its own Android TV product.

That changed in 2020 with the launch of Google Chromecast with Google TV, a device that combined the casting capabilities of Chromecast with the functionality of Android TV, enhanced by a special content discovery interface known as Google TV. Today, you can choose between a 4K/HDR version and a cheaper 1080p/HDR model. However, this led to some confusion: a device with “Chromecast built-in” didn’t necessarily offer the full features of Google Chromecast with Google TV.

Back to Google Cast

Evolution of Google Cast/Chromecast built-in. Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

To clarify this, Google rebranded “Chromecast built-in” to “Google Cast” in May 2024. This label indicates that a device can receive casted audio and/or video, depending on whether it has a screen or just a speaker.

How Does Google Cast Work?

Casting uses different techniques depending on the content. If you cast from a streaming service like YouTube or Spotify, your device sends an instruction to the cast-enabled device, which then streams the content directly. Your device acts as a remote control, handling playback functions like play, pause, and rewind.

Not all apps support casting, and some have specific device restrictions. For example, Amazon Prime Video allows casting from Android or iOS devices but not from computers.

For content stored on your device or to mirror your screen, the data is physically streamed over your home network from one device to another, similar to Apple AirPlay. Google Cast supports higher-resolution audio (up to 24-bit/96kHz) compared to AirPlay’s 16-bit/44.1kHz.

Google Cast and Google Home

Devices with Google Cast can be managed through the Google Home app on iOS and Android. This app allows you to control playback and volume, assign devices to different rooms, and create speaker groups for synchronized audio. You can also use Google Assistant to control these devices with voice commands and integrate them into smart home routines.

How to Cast

In your favorite app, look for a rectangular icon with three concentric rings. Tapping this icon will show a list of available Google Cast-compatible devices on your network. Select your desired device to start a casting session. Depending on the app, your content may start playing immediately, or you may need to initiate playback from your casting device. The cast icon changes to indicate an active session, and you can control playback or end the session by tapping the icon again.

With this knowledge, you’re now equipped to be a Google Cast/Chromecast expert, ready to stream your favorite content effortlessly.