It’s taken me a little while to be able to review the Nexus Q social media streamer from Google. Why? Because for some reason, the Q was totally incompatible with my home router, a D-Link DIR-655. Something about the router just would not let me see the Q on my network, leaving me unable to control the Q with my Nexus 7 tablet.
Not an auspicious start for Google’s fledgling Play Store content consumption device. But I was determined to get this thing working and went so far as to buy myself a new router, one of the Linksys variety, since all reports from users with Linksys routers were positive, plus I could use a new router anyway.
A hundred bucks later, I had the Nexus Q up and running with no problems at all and have been using it for the last several days. Is it worth the steep $299 retail price tag? Read on to find out.
What is it?
Ok, so let’s set expectations here first. What exactly is the Nexus Q? In its most basic form, the Q is a device you connect to your home theater system and use to stream your Google Music, Movies, TV Shows, or YouTube videos. In other words, if you are totally bought in to Google’s content ecosystem, you can access it all as the Q pumps it out through your TV. Here’s the catch: that is ALL you have access to out of the box. No Netflix, no Pandora, no Spotify. Just any content you have access to through your Google Play account.
On the one hand, this is sort of understandable since you’d expect Google to want to push their content services. But on the other hand, Google’s content catalog is still lacking when compared to competitors like *cough* Apple. Locking the Q into only allowing Google content currently limits the appeal for many people, especially with the high price tag.
That being said, if you ARE bought into Google’s ecosystem (even partially), the Q does do some things very nicely and provides an interesting social aspect to content consumption. The best way to describe the social side of the Q is by example. Let’s say you are holding a party and you create a playlist of music from your own Google Music collection. Anyone at the party who has an Android device and uses Google Music can install the Nexus Q app and connect to your Q. They can then see your playlist and add to it, even moving their music up the queue. Everyone at the party can essentially play DJ provided the meet the minimum requirements. This could lead to some interesting competitions or discussions at your party.
So now that we know what it is, let’s dive deeper into the details.
Who said Google can’t design an aesthetically pleasing hardware device? The Nexus Q is really a thing of minimalist beauty. The Q is not much more than a two-pound metal ball with a 4.6-inch diameter. It has a flat bottom to keep it from rolling away, and the back of the device contains all the connectors and ports the Q needs to operate.
The sphere is bisected at an angle with a series of 32 multi-color LEDs which light up and change colors during playback. They also serve as a sort of notification system, with different colors meaning different things. For example, if the Q loses internet connectivity, the lights flash yellow. If all is normal, it’s blue.
Rotating the front half of the Q, above the LED ring, adjusts the volume, and tapping the center LED dot on the front mutes or unmutes the sound.
The ports on the back are fairly comprehensive. They include four powered stereo outputs (to connect external speakers with banana plugs), a micro-HDMI output, a micro-USB port (for hacking), an optical audio output port (TOSLINK), and a 10/100 Ethernet jack.
If you opt to plug in speakers, the Nexus Q has a built-in 25-Watt amplifier to power the output. This is arguably one of the features that could have been left out to help keep the costs down since many people will most likely not use them and instead use HDMI or optical audio outputs.
I connected my Q to one of my Onkyo receiver’s HDMI inputs, so my amplifier and speaker ports on the Q remain unused.
If this were a $99 device, I could see buying a couple of Q’s to put around the house and connect them directly to speakers. I actually want to do this to get music into our kitchen. I imagine this was Google’s original intention for adding the amplifier and speaker plugs, but at $299, it’s a tough pill to swallow to add an additional room.
Internally, the Q contains a dual-core TI OMAP processor (same as on the Galaxy Nexus), 16GB of internal flash (not accessible for storing content, unfortunately), Bluetooth, an NFC chip, and supports dual-band 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi. The NFC, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi are used for pairing with Android devices running the Q app, while Wi-Fi and Ethernet are used to stream the content directly from the internet.
As I stated at the beginning of this review, the setup for me was basically impossible with my old router. It would act like it was working, then give an error that the Q could not be found. I tried everything their troubleshooting guide suggested, even doing a factory reset on my router, to no avail. The D-Link DIR-655 simply would not work with the Q. As a matter of fact, inside the Q’s box was a little note saying that we should not try to connect the Q to a hotel network since their wireless networks tend to not be setup properly for the Q to work. Just what does the Q need to work? Apparently, your network cannot be running in guest mode (like most hotels) and might even need to have multicasting enabled.
After struggling for a few days with the setup, I decided to simply try an old Belkin router I had laying around. Sure enough, it worked immediately. So I ran right out and bought a more modern Linksys router and the setup went smoothly with that router as well. So beware, D-Link users.
Router issues behind me, the setup of the Q was very simple. I connected an HDMI cable (that came with the Q, thankfully) to an HDMI input on my receiver, and plugged it in to give it power. Once I did that, I could see the Q’s pulsing lights as it booted up, and my TV showed the welcome screen.
At this point, you need to install the Nexus Q app on your phone or tablet. This app currently only works for devices running Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, but will be updated to run on any Android device running Gingerbread or higher when the Q finally launches. Luckily, I had my Nexus 7 tablet on hand and by tapping the tablet onto the Q, the tablet loads up the Nexus Q app page in the Google Play Store through the magic of NFC.
Once installed and running, the app immediately finds the Q on my network and lets me set the name. I chose one of the defaults: Living Room.
Done. To send content to the Q I now have to simply run my content apps on my tablet and choose Living Room as the output. For example, I can load up Google Music and click the little triangle “beaming” icon in the top right corner to send my music to my living room rather than to play it locally on my tablet. All the Google content apps (Music, Movies, YouTube) now have this beaming icon. I’d like to see third party apps like Netflix start supporting it at some point, as long as Google opens up an API for that.
It’s important to note that you are not actually beaming content from your tablet to the Q. You are simply sending the Q instructions to play a specific song or video, and the Q goes out to the internet and streams the file itself. This is great in the sense that you don’t have to worry about sending large files from device to device, but it would have been nice to be able to do that for locally stored files without having to send them to the cloud first.
The performance of the Nexus Q can vary greatly depending on your network. Since this device is totally dependent on being connected to the cloud, a solid internet connection is mandatory. Originally I had it set up to use Wi-Fi to stream content. But what I noticed was a lot of buffering being done for videos (even though the videos stream fine on other devices I own). So I hard wired the Q using the Ethernet port and things are a lot better now. The Wi-Fi performance, however, should have worked better considering how well all my other Wi-Fi devices work.
Now that it’s connected with a cable, the Q feels pretty quick to start streaming content. Immediately after I tell my tablet to send a YouTube video to the Q, for example, I see the spinning cursor as the video buffers for a couple of seconds before it starts playing. Music starts almost instantly and has never skipped once.
Video quality is as expected in YouTube, though HD movies from Google Play Movies don’t seem quite as sharp as I’ve seen from other sources and is just a tad bit jerky during action scenes. Still pretty good, but could be much better from my experience. Of course, your mileage may vary. It’s possible a software update could improve video quality in the future with improved codecs and rendering.
Audio sounds great from all sources through the Q. I have not tested the built-in amplifier since I don’t own any bookshelf speakers to connect to it, but I suspect the sound quality should be adequate.
Social Media Streaming
One of the big features of the Nexus Q is its social features, as I mentioned above. Letting everyone play DJ is a fun concept, but I can’t help but feel it’s still in its nascent stage. Right now, Google Music is the only app that allows you to create a shared playlist. Here’s what the playlist looks like in the Google Music app on the tablet while it’s in “Q” streaming mode.
Movies and YouTube videos can only be played one at a time, à la carte. Anyone can take over and start playing their own videos, immediately overriding the currently playing video. YouTube parties could be fun, where everyone shows their favorite videos, but without some sort of priority controls or playlist support, it could turn into a power struggle for those with access.
In general, I love the social aspects of the Q, but unless you have a lot of friends who are Android users, it’s not currently all that useful yet. As the Q software evolves, I hope to see more controls around social features, including user priorities and more robust playlist support.
There’s a lot to love and a lot to hope for with the Nexus Q. If you are a Google Play content consumer, the Q could be a useful device for you. As of this writing, Google TV doesn’t have a Google Movies/TV Show app available (though it is promised soon) so the Q might be the only way to view videos you’ve purchased from Google’s Play Store on the big screen unless you physically connect your phone or tablet to your entertainment center through HDMI. The simplicity of the Q’s setup (if your router is supported) makes it an easy sell, at least in concept, to any Android fan.
The quality of the music streaming is excellent, and the video streams are overall fairly good (but could be better). Right now, the Nexus Q is the simplest and best way to get all your Play Store content on the big screen and on the big speakers.
Looks-wise, the Q is hard to beat. It is elegantly simple in design, and the pulsing multi-colored lights add an air of fun to any party. The build quality (made in the USA) is second to none. This thing feels solid and made to last.
The limited feature-set is the biggest negative here. Right now, Android fans only need apply. It won’t do anyone else any good. Even Android fans will have a hard time seeing all the benefits if they aren’t totally bought into the Google ecosystem. I get all my streaming movies through Netflix, not Google Movies (at least not yet). Netflix has a better selection, and the monthly all-you-can-eat subscription plan works better for my lifestyle, so it’s difficult for me to spend any money elsewhere for movies or TV shows right now. I’m sure many other Android users are in the same boat. Why would I pay for a movie I can already stream for free from Netflix?
YouTube streaming is cool, but I can already do that on my Sony Google TV set top box, or from my Tivo HD. Also, I am a huge Google Music fan, and the Nexus Q’s social playlist support is nice, but again, my Google TV can already stream my Google Music.
In other words, there’s not much the Q provides that I can’t get elsewhere somehow, even if it’s not as elegant a solution.
Only one thing belongs in this section: the $299 price tag. There is no question this is the biggest barrier to entry this device has. The limited feature-set mentioned above, coupled with the large expense will stall the Nexus Q right out of the gate. All the brilliant hardware design and ease of setup will not make up for the fact that you can get devices at one-third the price that can do much more.
Hopes For The Future
One thing the Nexus Q has going for it is its hackability. It is a Nexus, after all. It is made to be hacked and improved upon. Google even encourages hackers to play with it, which is why they gave every Google I/O attendee a Nexus Q.
We’re already starting to see some interesting things from devs playing with the Q, and eventually we hope to see full-on replacement ROMs that turn this thing into a full multimedia streaming device with support for 3rd party media apps. You know, like Google TV.
Personally, I hope Google updates the Q themselves with more features right out of the box since as it is, I do not see this selling very well at all. But if Google keeps adding more and more over the coming months, it could eventually become something useful to more than just us Android fanboys like me.
I said a lot of things that sound like the Q is not a great device, but I have to admit, I kinda love mine. Sure, I don’t have many Google Movies to play through it, but the music integration is excellent, and I love being able to quickly load up a YouTube video to show my wife without having to browse for it on my Google TV.
Right now, I think the Nexus Q is a bit ahead of its time, believe it or not. They’re releasing a device before the content it is meant to handle has matured. I could see the Q being more popular if Google had a much larger content catalog to pull from, which will most likely come in the future. Perhaps in a year or two the Q will mature and will need a second look.
The price point is obviously way too high to encourage wide adoption, but the hope is that the dev community can bring more value to the device over time. You know, like being able to play Pong. The device and software is made to support multiple Q’s in one household, but at this price point, that will not happen.
So even though I am enjoying my Q, it should bear the label “Android Enthusiasts and Hackers Only”. At least for now.