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Saturday, July 21, 2012 - Page updated at 06:30 p.m.
Google's media player device, Nexus Q, not ready for prime time
By Troy Wolverton
San Jose Mercury News
Google built its new Nexus Q around some good ideas, but the digital media player is a pricey half-baked product.
The Nexus Q represents the company's first attempt at its own digital living-room device. Consumers can use it to stream movies, TV shows or music to their living-room entertainment systems.
What makes the $300 Nexus Q different from other digital media players is that Google designed it to work specifically with smartphones and tablets running its Android operating system. The Nexus Q doesn't ship with a remote control; instead, you have to use your Android device to control it.
And the Nexus Q doesn't have any kind of user interface of its own. Instead of navigating a menu of apps or channels on your TV screen, as you would with an Apple TV or Roku box, you select media to be played on the Nexus Q through the screen of your Android phone or tablet.
That's why Google representatives consider the Nexus Q to be an Android accessory, rather than a stand-alone device. But calling it a mere "accessory" understates its potential. The Q is a bona fide computer; its specifications are on par with what you'd find in many smartphones or tablets.
One way the Q already takes advantage of its capabilities is in how it plays back movies and music. When you tell the Q to play a movie using your smartphone, it appears that you are "beaming" the movie from your phone. But you're not; instead, Google routes the movie directly to the Q. That means you don't have to worry about draining your phone's battery or losing your movie stream because someone or something is blocking the "beamed" signal.
Another thing to like about the Nexus Q is that it's easy to set up. A special app you download from the Google Play store to your Android device automatically detects the Q and allows you to start configuring it without having to first get the media player onto your network. So you can enter your Wi-Fi password using the touch-screen keyboard on your phone rather than having to painfully navigate an on-screen keyboard on your TV with a four-button remote control. In all, it took me about 5 minutes to set up the Q.
Unlike many other media players, the Q has a built-in amplifier, so you can use it as a music player by just plugging in speakers, rather than connecting it to a stereo system. One other cool thing you can do with the Q is create a sort-of crowd-sourced music playlist. The owner can allow multiple devices to connect to the Q and add music to its queue of upcoming songs.
But such features aren't enough to save the Nexus Q from being a severely limited device.
The Q plays media only from YouTube or the Google Play store. You can't watch movies from Netflix, TV shows from Hulu or user videos from Vimeo. You can't listen to music from Pandora, Spotify or Last.fm. You can't view pictures from Flickr, Facebook or even Google+. You can't watch any sports games from Major League Baseball or the National Basketball Association. And you can't play any games.
It's incredible to me that Google thinks it could launch without support for Netflix at least, much less these other providers. With Netflix available on seemingly every other digital media device on the market, access to the service is expected at this point, and most consumers interested in digital media wouldn't buy a device without it.
Google representatives say the company plans to open up the Q to content from other providers, but they haven't said when.
Access to media isn't the only thing the Q lacks. There's no way to send your personal content directly from your phone or tablet to the device. Want to watch a video of your kids you took on your phone on your big-screen TV? You'll have to upload it to YouTube first. Want to view a slideshow on your TV of pictures you took on your phone from your latest trip? You can't do it on the Q.
You can also forget trying to view any Web content other than YouTube on the device. You can't view Web pages as you can on a gadget running Google's unrelated Google TV software. And you can't beam videos embedded in a Web page to the Q as you can with Apple TV.
Some of those limitations might be more palatable if Google Play offered a robust selection of movies and TV shows. But Google's movie and TV offerings are spotty at best.
Oh, and did I mention you have to have an Android device to use the Q? If you're like a good chunk of the populace and have neither an Android tablet nor smartphone, forget buying the Q, because it will be useless to you.
All those limitations are particularly galling considering the Q's cost. You can do much more with an Apple TV, whose $100 price tag is one-third that of the Q's. And you can access lots more content through Roku's line of players, which cost as little as $50. Heck, you'll soon be able to get a Google TV device from Vizio that gives you access to everything you'll find on the Q — and a lot more — for just $100.
With all its potential, the Nexus Q will likely improve considerably in the future. But Google would have benefited by baking it a bit longer. Because given all it lacks, its cost is really hard to swallow.
Copyright © The Seattle Times Company
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