Review: Google Nexus Q

The Google Nexus Q is a device most of us can ignore for the time being.

It does generate a lot of curiosity, which is deserved, as it’s a gorgeous product that demonstrates Google is getting more serious about two things: selling digital content, and making Android devices without touchscreens.

The Q is an austere, matte black sphere that streams music and videos from the cloud. The entire top hemisphere is an endlessly rotating volume knob that’s also touch-sensitive. (Tap it to mute the audio.) Around the equator is a ring of bright, colorful LEDs that dance to the music. The lower hemisphere is a die-cast zinc base with a number of ports — micro HDMI, micro USB, optical audio, Ethernet, and analog speaker connections — machined into the back. Inside are the guts of an Android smartphone and a 25-watt amp for powering a pair of speakers. The whole thing is made in the United States, and it represents a huge milestone for Google, as it’s the company’s first consumer product developed and manufactured entirely in-house.

The Q is an austere, matte black sphere that streams music and videos from the cloud.

It’s a visual and tactile joy, and a marvel of engineering. But beauty is only skin-deep, and the Nexus Q’s functionality is so severely limited out of the box, it’s difficult for all but the most hardcore audio gadget fanatics to justify the $300 price tag.

You heard me: $300. But the eyebrow raising doesn’t stop there. It’s only capable of streaming content from Google Play and YouTube. Confoundingly, you can’t use it to play any of the MP3s on your local network, nor can you stream music from Rdio, Spotify or Pandora. It requires an Android phone or tablet running a special app to control it. There’s no support for iOS or Windows Phone. It forgoes regular analog speaker posts in favor of banana plug sockets.

So, it’s an enticing device — if you’re fully committed to buying and renting stuff from Google’s music and movie store, if you’ve bothered to upload all of your music to Google’s cloud service, if you have an Android phone or tablet, and if you have a pair of speakers sitting around that happen to be able to accept banana plugs. That’s a lot of ifs.

I hooked the Q up to a television (using the included HDMI cable) and my surround-sound system (using a $10 S/PDIF cable), and things got less rosy. Setup was easy at the get-gadget office, but took around 20 minutes when I hooked it up at home and required a factory reset. The three HD movies I rented played fine and looked great, with totally accurate colors and no perceptible artifacts. Shopping in Google’s online store within the Movies & TV app is a messy experience, though. The app’s inscrutable navigation makes casual browsing a head-spinner, and title categories are muddled — J. Edgar is a documentary? Once you find a movie, the controls for pausing and rewinding during playback are frustratingly poor. YouTube videos are served through the YouTube app, which is better. But the streams don’t look as good, and I experienced multiple hiccups during playback on both of the Wi-Fi networks I used for testing. One other frustration: You’d expect the video to pause when you get up and tap the Q, but instead, a tap just mutes it.

I’m guessing the majority of the people buying a Q are going to plug it straight into their televisions and surround-sound receivers. So it’s a shame the video experience is weaker than the audio experience, and that the sweet-sounding amp goes unused unless you hook up a pair of speakers.

So, who will buy this thing? Android nerds.

The Q doesn’t compete with Roku or Apple TV — it only plays music and videos stored within your Google Play account, and you can’t throw video or audio from any apps other than YouTube. So no iTunes content, no Netflix, no Pandora, no Hulu, no MLB. It doesn’t really square with AirPlay or DLNA devices either, as those also allow far more streaming options than just Google Play and YouTube. A Sonos Connect Amp? Maybe, but the Q also plays video and allows your friends to stream their Google Play music while they’re on your Wi-Fi network, neither of which Sonos does. But if you hook up multiple Qs on one network, they can all only play the same track — unlike Sonos, which lets you send different tracks to different speakers.

So, what does the Nexus Q compete with? Nothing, really. At least nothing that’s available on the shelves right now. It’s an entirely unique product made for a very narrow audience, and its limitations will likely prevent it from succeeding as a consumer device.

There’s no way people are going to run out and snatch these up at the same rate they’re buying Jamboxes, Apple TVs and Sonos speakers. Audiophiles probably won’t bother, either — there are other 25-watt Class D amps out there that don’t cost $300 and don’t limit you to 320k MP3 streams, which is as high-fidelity as Google Play gets.

So, who will buy this thing? Android nerds. Developers truly excited about hardware design, platform extensibility and embedded software. The types of people who will immediately hook it to their PC instead of their TV, and fire up adb instead of The Muppets. Google has made the device easily accessible, and it has the ports to accept hardware controllers and external displays. Hackers have already gotten it to load games, and we’ll surely continue to see video demos of marvelous experiments bubble up from the developer forums.

So what if we see it as a snooze? To them, it’s a dream.

UPDATED July 2, 4:04pm PDT: The original version of this review inaccurately described the functionality of iTunes DJ.

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