We've finally reached the a la carte television utopia that we've dreamed of since the first cable TV companies invented bundling. And it turns out it's still kind of a nightmare. You've got a half-dozen streaming subscriptions, your shows and movies are all over the place, and there's no good way to organize them all. Well, until now. If you picked up one of Google’s new Chromecasts, there’s finally a decent way to keep track of everything you want to watch, no matter where it’s streaming.
What's New About the New Chromecast
Google's newest Chromecast marks a departure from the company's previous smart TV offerings, but re-entry into a crowded market. Now the dongle comes with an interface and remote control, allowing you to use it even without a phone, unlike previous Chromecast devices. You can still cast media to it from your phone like any other Chromecast, but it's not mandatory.
It also comes with a new interface called Google TV. This is based on Android TV, only some of which will be updated to Google TV, which means things will be confusing for a bit. If you've used existing Android TV devices like Nvidia's Shield TV, it should be pretty familiar. There are apps for Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, HBO Max, YouTube, and plenty more. Like Android TV, you can use the Google Assistant to search for movies and shows.
Unlike Android TV, though, Google TV has a Library tab. This is where you can find movies and TV shows you've bought or rented through the Google TV store (formerly Google Play Movies & TV) or YouTube. It also has a section for your Watchlist. And it's this feature that we're going to focus on today, because it ties into a system Google has had for a while, but that wasn't very useful until now.
The Google Watchlist
In April of 2020, Google added a feature to it's search results called Watchlist. When searching for a movie or TV show, you could tap the Watchlist bookmark icon to add it to a list you could pull up later by searching for "my watchlist" or "what to watch." This was okay for remembering a movie you thought was interesting, but not much else.
Now, you can find your Watchlist in the Library tab on Google TV. Click on the movie or show and Google TV will suggest a way to watch it. And adding items to your watchlist is fast. In one test, I searched for a movie on my phone, tapped the Watchlist button, and by the time I looked up, it was already in my library on the Google TV.
You can also search for shows using the Google Assistant, which, anecdotally, works a lot better on the new Chromecast. Instead of simply pressing the button, you now have to hold down the Assistant button while speaking. This makes it a bit easier to know when Google starts listening and it responds much quicker than on older Android TV devices I've used. In my experience, older versions of the voice assistant were too clunky to really be worth it most of the time, but now it is. Especially when paired with how Google handles streaming selection.
Finding the Best Way to Stream
If a show in your Library is free to stream on one of the supported services you pay for (and most major services are supported), then Google will suggest that service to watch it first. If not, Google will suggest buying or renting it from the company's digital store, which will add it to your library.
This feature isn't entirely new, but it's a little more intuitive in the new version of Google TV. Instead of showing a list of several services and prices, one main button will be highlighted by default as the best way to watch. Any other methods can be found under a "More ways to watch" button.
This handles pretty well when a show is available in more than one library. For example, The Simpsons is available on both Disney+ and Hulu. However, only a few episodes are on Hulu, while the full library is on Disney+. Additionally, I've been watching it on Disney+ recently, so Google recommends the latter when I ask to watch it. You can also use a voice command with a Google Home to start playing a show or movie, though I found this to be a little spotty at times.
Paired with the Watchlist feature, this approach to organizing a streaming library makes it much easier to find what you want to watch. You don't have to keep track of where you watched which show, or maintain separate watchlists on different services. Unfortunately, Google can't import your watchlists from any other service, but it's fairly easy to add new shows to your list now.
Especially with the new Google TV app.
The New Google TV App Is Good, Actually
Google has updated its Play Movies & TV app to the much more simply named but still no less confusing Google TV. Rather than just being a storefront for Google's own movies, it functions as a library for all of your libraries. Open the app up and you'll see suggestions for movies and shows, most of which come from your various subscription services. Tap on a movie or show and you'll see the same simplified streaming selection you'd find on the Chromecast. The best place to watch the show will be selected, but you can pick from a drop down to search for another way to watch.
You can also easily add movies or shows to your Watchlist from here. While browsing, you'll see a small title that says where a show is available, or a price if it's not available via streaming.
Now that most companies have their own streaming service, it's gotten harder than ever to find where to watch a particular show and pull it up on TV than it's been since cable packages ruled the day. Google's solution isn't perfect—for example, it would be nice if the Watchlist feature was more than a single row on the Library tab—but this is the first time I've felt confident that using Google's TV features to find something to watch would be easier than the alternative I was already using. Granted, Google TV still isn't quite as intuitive and easy-to-use as our favorite Roku streaming devices, and it can be a little clunky and glitchy sometimes (some WIRED staffers report difficulty running out of storage space and apps freezing), but it's an improvement.
Given that Google's been trying to solve this problem for a decade, that's welcome progress.