One of Google's surprises yesterday was the Nexus Q media streamer, a product that sees the company expanding into the living room with its own branded hardware. The Nexus Q differs from competing devices in that it only serves as a conduit. It has no UI of its own; you control the Q with your Android smartphone or tablet, and the sphere then streams audio and video content down from the Google Play Store (it can also be used to route YouTube content to your television). We spent some time with the device today, and while there are some nice stylistic touches, we did find the device to be somewhat lacking in its feature set and ease of use.
The Q comes in a two-piece cardboard box, packed with a thin instruction pamphlet and a power cable. The device itself is smaller than you might expect from the photographs — it's about the size of a grapefruit — with a heavy weighted base. Its matte black finish is attractive, but the Q picks up oils from your fingers all too easily. With the top of the sphere essentially one giant volume control knob, we could see this quickly becoming an annoyance.
Set-up is almost as easy as advertised
Initial set-up was almost as easy as Google advertised: we plugged the device into our TV via the micro HDMI port, the Q's ring of LEDs lit up, and an image of the Q itself appeared on our television screen. We tapped a Samsung Galaxy Nexus to the top of the Q, which launched the Google Play Store and prompted us to download the Nexus Q app itself. After launching the app, we entered the password for our Wi-Fi network, and were good to go. We were able to stream music from the phone's Music app, toggling the output between the phone and the Q with a quick icon shortcut at the top of the app, similar to how Apple's AirPlay works.
Video was another matter. We were able to stream YouTube video through the Q without concern, but television shows and movies had considerable issues. There were noticeable video artifacts when watching an episode of The Walking Dead, and the Q repeatedly halted playback to buffer the video stream (all on a 35 Mbps connection here in our west coast offices). The same stream playing back on a Galaxy Nexus demonstrated none of the issues. It's worth noting that the Q streams directly from Google Play and not through the handset or tablet, so Google clearly has some tweaking to do here.
Then we decided to use a second device with the Q.
Several hard resets were required to get things running
One of Google's selling points this morning was the Q as a "social" media streamer, allowing multiple people to stream music to the Q to partake in the fun. Unfortunately, we weren't able to utilize this functionality initially. Additional Jelly Bean devices refused to pair with the Q until we'd hard reset all involved devices several times. Eventually, however, everything decided to play nice. One user started music playback, while a second added their own music selection, with the person running the show through the Nexus Q app able to rearrange, reorder, and remove tracks from the playback queue. It was undeniably fun, but the problems with set-up definitely took away from the "it just works" promises made during yesterday's keynote.
Even without the connectivity hiccups, the lack of an UI or interface of its own makes the Q more difficult to use — and arguably less useful — than its most logical counterpart, the iOS and Apple TV combo. There's also the issue of price. The Q is a stylish piece of hardware, but it costs $299, and simply serves whatever media you have stored in Google's cloud. Without an Android device it's simply a gorgeous doorstop, and while the included 25-watt amplifier — not to mention its made-in-the-US bona fides — may explain the cost, it doesn't change the fact that the Q is a pricey proposition with relatively limited functionality.
Google wants to "encourage hackability"
What remains most interesting, however, is the device's untapped potential. It runs Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich and features a micro USB connector — specifically to allow people to tinker with the device. Google said during its presentation this morning that it wants to "encourage general hackability," and given that the Q runs the same chipset as the Galaxy Nexus, there's definitely some heft there to be utilized should developers jump aboard. Until that happens, however, the Q seems to be nothing more than — if you'll excuse the comparison — a hobby rather than a device that brings innovative functionality. That said, if it fits your needs, it's a handsome piece of gear. The Nexus Q is currently available for pre-order for US customers through the Google Play Store, and will be shipping next month.
Dieter Bohn contributed to this report.