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 Apple TV ($100) and Roku LT ($50). Google seems to be reaching to create a counterpart to Apple's killer AirPlay and Apple TV combo, but the Nexus Q isn't even close yet.
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) Samsung Galaxy Nexus phone couldn't make the initial Bluetooth connection to the Nexus Q. After tons of trial and error, it eventually connected, but then after the rest of the guided setup it refused to let me play back music or videos on the Nexus Q. After a couple of hours of total troubleshooting, I finally performed a factory reset of the device, and then the setup took less than 5 minutes. There's no way to know whether the initial difficulties were due to my testing environment or the fact that my colleagues had paired the Q with a different phone a day earlier, but fair warning to anyone who's thinking of buying one.