Editors' note: On July 31, Google announced that it was delaying the commercial release of the Nexus Q to "work on making it even better." We will update this review when Google releases the new software for the device. In the meantime, the review below is our impression of the Nexus Q as tested with its original software and feature set.
The $300 Nexus Q is Google's first stab at making its own living-room hardware, and it's doing it with style. Sitting on a TV cabinet, the Nexus Q looks like a mysterious, glowing black orb; more RPG power-up than home theater hardware. And as if just to flex its muscles, Google is manufacturing the Nexus Q entirely in the United States, which at least somewhat explains its lofty price.
Once you get past its looks, however, it's shocking how little the Nexus Q does. It can stream content from Google Play Music, Google Play TV & Movies, and YouTube -- that's it. Not even Netflix, which seems to be built into anything with an integrated circuit these days. And while its built-in amplifier can power a pair of speakers, that's not enough to justify its cost over much more functional competitors like the
The Nexus Q is a striking piece of hardware. It's a black, close-to-spherical device, with a flat bottom so it sits on a TV cabinet rather than rolling off. It's a solidly built device, with a heft (2 pounds) to match its shotput shape. The matte black finish is reasonably resistant to fingerprints, although I could see a few smudges even after using it for just a day. Power it up and the mysterious orb comes to life with an illuminated, colorful ring around the center, plus a tiny pinhole light in the center. It's certainly the kind of device that will have guests asking, "What is that?"
Tapping the tiny light mutes it, while you can spin the top half of the sphere forward and back to adjust the volume. It's actually a pretty neat way to interact with the Nexus Q, although most of the time you'll be adjusting volume from your Android device.
Wireless connectivity is comprehensive: dual-band 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and NFC (near-field communication). Inside, the Nexus Q runs a version of Android 4.0 with 16GB of onboard flash memory, 1GB RAM, and a dual-core processor.
On the back are a Micro-HDMI output, an optical audio port, an Ethernet jack, and a Micro-USB port for "general hackability." There's also a set of banana jack speaker outputs, for powering speakers with the built-in amp.
It's a fine set of ports, but they're surprisingly difficult to access. The ports are recessed and even with the included Mini-HDMI adapter cable, which is specially fitted to the Nexus' port, it wasn't easy to just slide the cable in. Plugging an Ethernet cable in is easy enough, but the recessed port makes it difficult to remove. Luckily, once it's set up, you'll rarely need to fiddle with the back panel.
It's surprising to open up the box and find there's no remote. The Nexus Q requires an Android phone or tablet (version 2.3 or higher) to control it. That significantly limits the market of available buyers, although there's nothing stopping Google from rolling out an iOS or Windows Phone app later. And although there's a Micro-HDMI port for connecting to your TV, there's no true user interface. The Nexus Q can display videos, song titles and album art thumbnails, and trippy visualizations for music, but there's no way to navigate the device onscreen; it's all on the screen of your Android phone or tablet.
My first attempt at setting up the Nexus Q was painful. After you plug in the orb and download the app, it's a guided process, but my (Google-supplied)
What does it stream?
The Nexus Q can only stream from three sources: Google Play Music, Google Play TV & Movies, and YouTube. To use any of the services, simply open one of the aforementioned apps on your Android device and press the icon that looks like a play button with sound waves coming out of it. It feels a lot like AirPlay, except it only works with three apps.
Google Play Music is the most natural fit for the Nexus Q, given its built-in amp and focus on audio. You can browse all the music you've uploaded to your Google Music account or purchased from the Google Play Music store. The experience of sitting on the couch, picking songs in your hand and listening to music almost immediately is great. It's not any different from what you can already do with AirPlay or Sonos (although it's more limited; more on that later), but it's a nice implementation for Android. If there are multiple Android devices on your home network, they all can contribute to a universal playlist, although I haven't been able to test that functionality yet. Similarly, if you have multiple Nexus Qs in your home, they can be synced or play different music in different rooms.
Google Play TV & Movies gets you access to Google's video content store. You can buy TV shows and movies, as well as rent movies. The selection seems decent, but it's definitely not as comprehensive as Amazon Instant or iTunes. In my limited searching, "Avatar" (the James Cameron movie) and episodes of "Mad Men" were not available, while only the most recent seasons of "Breaking Bad" and "The Office" were available. Additionally, searching for movies on a phone (rather than on the screen) isn't ideal for the living room, where more than one person may want to weigh in on what to watch.
I'm generally not a fan of watching YouTube content my TV, but the Nexus Q is best implementation I've encountered. The Android YouTube app is excellent for finding videos, and videos start playing quickly through the Nexus Q. Since they're streamed right from YouTube (rather than being routed through the phone), image quality is excellent. I still don't think YouTube is a must-have video service in the living room, but the Nexus Q does it well.
What it doesn't stream
It's hard to imagine that buyers won't be disappointed when they find that their new $300 orb really doesn't do that much. It streams the three aforementioned Google services, but it can't stream anything else: no Netflix, Hulu Plus, MLB.TV, Pandora, Spotify, Vudu, and so on. If you have videos, photos, or music stored on a DLNA server, it can't play them. If you have music that's stored on your phone, but not yet uploaded to Google Play Music, the Nexus Q can't play that either. Even within the Google's cloud services there are exceptions: you can't view photos from Picasa or your Google+ account. It's a $300 device that in many ways is more limited than a $50 Roku box or $100 Apple TV.
That's the deal-breaker for the Nexus Q. For practical purposes, this review could end right now, because until it gains the the power to push content from more apps, I can't imagine many people will be interested in the Nexus Q.
The Nexus Q has a built-in, so-called "audiophile-quality" amplifier, so it can power speakers without the need for a separate AV receiver or amplifier. It's a similar design to a Sonos Connect:Amp ($500), although Sonos is much more flexible for music playback.
I had it set up with a pair of Sony SS-B1000 bookshelf speakers in a medium-sized room. (Google is also selling
The Nexus Q's built-in amp led some early commenters to speculate that it can replace a full-sized AV receiver, but that's really not the case. There aren't any inputs on the back of the Nexus Q, so unless you plan on watching all your media on Google services, you'll need a receiver to power your cable box, game console, and other gear. Sure, it can replace an amp in a secondary room, but most home theater fans still need a receiver in the living room.
The Google Nexus Q isn't an attractive product for consumers. It's too expensive and really doesn't do that much, even if the quirky hardware is nice. And the fact that it requires an Android phone as a controller to work at all limits it as a home theater device -- what if the household member with an Android phone isn't home?
After playing with the box for a while, you do get the impulse to say, "It has potential," which is a familiar phrase to Google fans. But it's harder to give the Nexus Q leeway when Google already has a living-room box that gets the "It has potential" treatment: Google TV. Right now, Google has the worst of both worlds, with two living-room products that don't really work together and neither of which fills consumers' needs. The Nexus Q may be a better direction for Google than the convoluted Google TV, but it has a long way to go before it's a compelling purchase.