The tiny, dongle-like Chromecast streamer is Google’s most successful hardware product to date. It’s sold more than 30 million units and accounts for about 35 percent of the streaming-device market.
That makes it a really important device in the bigger picture of Google’s aspirations. The overarching theme of today’s cluster of Google announcements is that Google is a Serious Hardware Brand now. This isn’t an entirely new concept, as any owner of a Chromecast, a Chromebook Pixel, or, uhh, Google Glass will tell you.
But today serves as a launching pad for a concerted push to evolve beyond perceptions as a company that makes software and services and search engines. Even in existing Google-branded hardware products, Google The Hardware Brand is bumping up its placement on the marquee.
Take the new all-black Chromecast Ultra streaming dongle. Specs-wise, it has exactly the improvements you’d think it would: It now supports 4K content in both Dolby Vision and HDR10 formats. It’s designed to stream Ultra HD content from Netflix, Vudu, YouTube, and the new tack-sharp coffers of Google Play Movies, which will start bulking up its 4K offerings in November.
The Chromecast Ultra also has beefed-up connectivity options. Google says its streaming speeds are about two times faster than its predecessor, and it has an Ethernet port in addition to Wi-Fi connectivity. That’s essential for 4K and HDR video, as there are extra bits and bytes involved.
Perhaps the coolest feature is the new streamer’s integration with the Google Home speaker. You can request movies and shows to stream just by asking for them, and the Google Home speaker sends the request over to the Chromecast Ultra.
Of course, you’ll need a capable 4K HDR TV to get the most of its upgraded streaming skills. It’ll work as a normal (but conceivably more stable) Chromecast on HDTVs, but you won’t magically see more pixels or more contrast just because it’s hooked up to one. You’ll also pay double the price for it as previous Chromecasts: At $69, it’s a significant bump from the $35 you may be used to.
But the biggest change for Google is printed right there on the all-black HDMI puck. It used to be embossed with a Chrome logo, which has now been replaced by a Google “G.” It’s a clear signifier that this is now Official Google Hardware, even if the Chromecast always was.
The bigger picture? Google just took the first step toward its ultimate vision. It hopes a day comes in which you stroll into one of thousands of Google Stores, pick up a Google Cast 16K and a Google Router, and make your purchase via a quick Google Pay scan. Then you’ll fire up Google Assistant on your Pixel phone and ask for a ride home in a Google self-driving car.