Google unveiled its media-streaming glowing orb to many oohs and ahhs, followed by head-scratches. The thing looks cool. And it sounds good, both in concept and fidelity. But three major questions remain: Who is it for; how well does it work, and will the UK ever actually see it?
It matters because this is the first product like this that we've seen out of Google. The Nexus Q is a ball of multimedia hardware that's supposed to enhance the lives of the legions of Android users. It's a slick and easy way to play movies, music, and YouTube videos through your TV and home stereo setup, and it gives you a reason to buy stuff from the Google Play store instead of its competitors.
This isn't a device for streaming media off of your phone, like HTC's MediaLink. The Nexus Q pulls content directly from the internet via Wi-Fi or ethernet, and you use your phone or tablet to control it. The Q is rife with audiophile-grade features. Aside from HDMI, it has an optical audio out for connecting to a receiver, but it also has a built-in amp, so you can drive a pair of speakers rated 15 watts RMS or higher at 8 ohms. At Google I/O last week, the Q drove a pair of Triad Bookshelf Speakers (which Google is also selling, for £255), and they did indeed sound very good.
Setting up should be pretty easy, in theory. You plug the Q into an outlet, then connect it to your TV via micro HDMI to HDMI cable (and/or to your sound system through your preferred means). If you haven't already downloaded the Nexus Q app on your phone, you can tap your phone onto the Q (if your phone has NFC), and it will take you right to the Google Play store to download it. It supposedly works with any Android phone or tablet running Gingerbread (Android 2.3 and above), but in its pre-release form it seems to only be working with the newest Nexus devices. You need Bluetooth to be on the first time you set up your Q, and then you punch your Wi-Fi password into the Q, via your phone, name it...and that's it! From there you should be able to stream content from Play Movies/TV, Play Music, and YouTube.
Music has the most robust feature set. Basically you just start playing what you want and it creates a playlist on the fly. You can add and remove stuff to it and move things around easily. The cool thing is, though, that multiple phones can connect to the same Q, and everyone can add to the playlist. Tested on a phone and tablet, the changes were reflected instantly. This could be fun for a party—you'd build a playlist beforehand, and then just add the whole thing to the queue. The orb's 32 LEDs light up in sync with the visualisation on the screen, and you can change both to different themes. It's nice to watch YouTube videos on a big screen, but unfortunately, you can't create an on-the-fly playlist like you can with music.
It's not for everyone, but you could dig the design of this thing. Look at the picture above—doesn't it look like a sentinel from The Matrix? Bad ass. Build quality on the orb is very solid. Setup was very easy (when it worked). Audio quality and picture quality (in movies and HD YouTube videos) are both excellent. The visualisation for music recalls the fondly missed Winamp days. The social playlist thing definitely has potential.
If you already have a lot of music uploaded to (or purchased at) Google Play Music, then this is a very convenient way to get your music into your home audio system. In fact, if you have multiple Nexus Q's you can choose to group them, so you can have the same music playing in-sync in different rooms of your house—kind of like a cheaper, more limited Sonos system.
There are so many bugs in the system, it's hard to know where to begin. First off, the Q sometimes has trouble staying linked with the phone. Tested on two separate Qs, a phone, and a tablet, it had issues with every setup. The testing required factory-resetting each Q at least once, then setting them up again. If you pause a movie for a while, and then you come back to it, it often won't start up again. You try to pair and unpair, you pull plugs—it's very frustrating. Also it's hard to scrub to the right timestamp in the movie. There are major delays when it starts up again. And while it's great that Google Play has updated the movies to stream in 1080p, that requires some serious bandwidth. If you don't have it (and a home connection at 10Mbps really struggled) it will start and stop a lot. Hyper annoying.
In Music, adding your first song adds the entire album to the playlist, which is not always what you want. So you have to go in there and remove all of the songs one by one except for the one you wanted. Then, navigating to the Now Playing list is not totally intuitive. All that said, when it works, it works well, but that leads to the question, "Who is it for?" There's no easy answer.
First off, it's only for Android users, as there's been no talk about a forthcoming Nexus Q app for iOS, and it's a longshot. But it's also for Android users who are heavily invested in Google's ecosystem, as in, they've got a lot of music in Play Music, and they want to rent/buy movies through Play Movies. The Q's hardware is capable of pumping out some audiophile grade sound, and indeed, Play Music supports music at up to 320kbps, but here's the thing: hardcore audiophiles listen to their music in the lossless FLAC format. If you upload a FLAC file to Google Music, it transcodes it into a 320kbps MP3. Now, many audiophiles will settle for a 320kbps mp3, but no one will argue that it sounds just as good. Add to that the $300 (UK price to be confirmed, if it ever launches here) price tag for a device that can only stream content from three sources (all within Google's ecosystem), and you have a device for a niche within a niche.
No. Well, if 320kbps is just what you like, you have all of you music on Google Play, a fast internet connection, and $300 doesn't sound like much money for you, then sure. For everybody else, this would be a cool novelty item (or it will be if once the bugs are worked out), but most people aren't going to pay that much for a novelty item. Roku boxes, which stream content from so many sources, are less than a hundred bucks. Hell, you can get a super awesome Nexus 7 tablet for £160. If Google can add more features and cut the price down, then it just might be impulse-buyable. Until then, this is a pass.
Google Nexus Q Specs
OS: Works with phone running Android 2.3 and up
Screen: None, 32 RGB LEDs on a ring
Processor and RAM: OMAP 4460 dual-core ARM Cortex-A9 CPU / 1GB RAM
Storage: 16 GB
Weight: 2 pounds
Price: $300 (UK price TBC)
Giz Rank: 2.5 Stars
Video by Michael Hession.