Aside from TV shows and movies, you can also send whatever's on your Chrome browser to your Chromecast-enabled TV just as before. Although it's currently in experimental mode, you're also able to mirror your entire desktop screen on your TV, not just your browser. If you'd rather play music instead of video, popular streaming apps like Rdio, Spotify and Google Music are supported as well. However, you might consider Google's new Chromecast Audio instead if you're more of an audiophile who'd rather play songs through a pair of good speakers than your TV. And if you feel like sharing vacation photos with your friends instead, the new Google Photos app now supports Chromecast too.
It's worth noting here that because the Chromecast has no remote control, you'll have to use your phone or tablet to control playback and volume levels. That isn't a problem most of the time, but when I'm home, I usually prefer to have my devices sitting in the charger rather than on my living room table. The Chromecast does support an HDMI-CEC protocol that lets you use any TV remote with it, but this capability varies from TV to TV.
Other noteworthy features include a guest PIN so that your visitors can control the Chromecast without having to log onto the network, plus a Fast Play mode that automatically queues up the next video in the playlist as you're finishing the last one. Fast Play wasn't available for testing at the time of this review, although Google tells us that third-party apps should start supporting it before the end of the year.
There's really not much different between the old and new Chromecast in terms of functionality. The feature set is identical, and the setup is the same as well. The biggest difference is that the new Chromecast promises faster speeds. I compared both the old and new devices by loading videos from Netflix, Hulu and YouTube and found that the new Chromecast is indeed faster overall. On the old model, Netflix videos loaded in about nine to 10 seconds while they appeared in just five or so seconds with the new Chromecast. Hulu videos displayed about eight seconds faster while YouTube videos loaded about seven seconds faster. Obviously, the speeds will vary depending on the video quality and your network at home, but the new Chromecast's hardware updates do appear to have improved performance.
That said, I don't think the difference of a few seconds is that important. The load time on the old Chromecast never really bothered me, and I don't care much if a video loads seven seconds faster. The difference would really be if you live in an apartment building or neighborhood where the 2.4GHz frequency is congested, and thereby likely to slow down your WiFi connection. With the new Chromecast's support for the lesser-used 5GHz frequency, that should free up a lot more bandwidth for your video-watching needs.
In the increasingly crowded field of media streamers, the Chromecast has plenty of competition. Its biggest rivals are arguably Roku, Apple and Amazon. Both Roku and Amazon offer HDMI stick versions of their streamers, which go up directly against the Chromecast. The Roku Streaming Stick is $50 and comes with a remote control. The Amazon Fire TV Stick, on the other hand, is $40 and also comes with a remote, although there's also a voice remote version of the Fire TV Stick that is $50. Both have their own TV-centric UI so smartphone/tablet apps aren't necessary, and both also have native support for Amazon's Instant Video, which the Chromecast lacks. Unlike the new Chromecast however, they only support 802.11a/b/g/n and not the faster 802.11ac.
But if you're willing to cough up more money, Roku's and Amazon's more expensive set-top offerings pack in a lot more features. They all have remote controls and Ethernet ports, which is handy for when WiFi is too unreliable. The newly released Roku 4 supports 4K video, dual-band 802.11ac and voice search, plus a remote-finder ability. The new Amazon Fire TV also supports 4K video, dual-band 802.11ac and it even has a microSD card slot for external storage. Of course, the Roku 4 and Amazon Fire TV are much more expensive at $130 and $100, respectively (you can also still get the older Roku 3 for $100), but that much added functionality is certainly worth it. And, of course, if you're an iTunes die-hard, Apple's latest TV offering is really your only option at $149.
Alternatively, you could also opt for the Nexus Player or the NVIDIA Shield TV, both of which use Google's new Android TV interface. The former is just $99 while the latter is $200. Both have dual-band 802.11ac, but the Shield TV is certainly the better of the two thanks to its 4K support and beefier Tegra X1 processor.
In the end, the new Chromecast is really less of a 2.0 product and more of a 1.1. Yes, the new internals are improved and the support for dual-band 802.11ac makes it better for those who want a faster and more reliable signal. The new circular design with the attached cable makes it easier to fit in the rear of most TVs and it's also a lot cuter. But it's otherwise not too different from the original Chromecast. If you were satisfied with the WiFi performance of the old one, then I see no reason to upgrade at all. The real differentiator is the new Chromecast app for search and discovery, and as that's available on both versions of the hardware, I would simply stick with the old one.
But if you somehow haven't picked up a Chromecast yet, then you should certainly look into one. Although it lacks the bells and whistles of the competition, its bargain-basement price bundled in with its plethora of features makes it the best deal in entertainment-media streamers today. Certainly, don't feel like you should get one if you can afford a beefier set-top option, but if you simply want to dip your toe in cord-cutter waters without spending a lot of money, the Chromecast is definitely the way to go.