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Entertainment orb: Google’s Nexus Q looks good but has very limited video- and music-streaming capabilities, especially considering its $299 price tag.

The small black orb sitting next to my TV is the Nexus Q—a new music- and video-streaming device from Google. Its combination of quirky styling, extremely limited functionality, and a $299 price tag has me completely mystified.

Set to start shipping this month, the Nexus Q can stream music or videos that you have purchased from the company’s online store, Google Play, or uploaded to Google’s servers, as well as videos from YouTube. You can only set up and truly control it using certain Android smartphones and tablets. [Related: “Google Would Like to Sell You a Tablet.”]

Why would you pay $299 for this when there are much cheaper, more full-featured media streaming devices like Roku ($50 to $100) and Apple TV ($99)? The answer is simple: You wouldn’t. Admittedly, the Nexus Q looks pretty cool. It’s a matte black ball, somewhat larger than a softball, tipping the scales at about two pounds. A split across its middle is accentuated by a ring of 32 glowing LEDs that can change color in time to tunes. Twisting the top half of the ball controls the volume of whatever you’re watching or listening to; tapping a little LED dot in the center of the ball’s top will mute it. Its numerous ports—optical audio, Ethernet, micro HDMI and micro USB, banana jacks for analog audio—are neatly arrayed on the back, and a flat bottom keeps the Nexus Q from rolling away.

The Nexus Q also boasts some impressive innards, like a 25-watt amplifier, which is needed if you want to plug it right into some speakers. There’s also a dual-core A9 processor running the Ice Cream Sandwich iteration of Google’s Android software (the version preceding Jelly Bean, which is included on the also-new Nexus 7 tablet and coming soon to the Galaxy Nexus smartphone). [Related: “Review: Google’s Nexus 7 Tablet”.] 

And the orb does what it is supposed to do quite well. It was easy to set it up using the Nexus Q Android app on a Nexus 7 tablet so I could stream music and videos through my flat-screen TV, which I connected with an included HDMI cable. To stream music or video using the Nexus Q, you tap a little icon that appears on the screen of your Android device.

The content started streaming quickly, and worked almost flawlessly in my tests. After streaming a few songs and videos, the tablet seemed to default to playing things through the Nexus Q, which was convenient. It was definitely more satisfying to watch a drunk guy serenade his cat with Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose” on my TV than on the tablet’s seven-inch screen. One potentially cool feature of the Nexus Q is the way it functions as a social device: Friends with an Android smartphone or tablet running the Android Gingerbread software or later can, in theory, download the Nexus Q app and choose their own songs to add to the queue or choose a video that the Nexus Q will play. I had to try this out with my party of one, though, since at the time of my testing the software was not yet compatible with any software below Android Jelly Bean.

I had no problem controlling the device from a Galaxy Nexus phone that had the Jelly Bean software—adding songs to the queue, skipping tunes, playing YouTube videos. Beyond being able to make a collaborative playlist, I’m not convinced it would really enhance social gatherings, though, unless you’re holding a party exclusively for Android smartphone owners.

Despite the ease of use and some nice features, the Nexus Q was a disappointment. There’s a whole world of content beyond the device’s streaming capabilities, and much more of it should be available if you’re paying $299 for a streaming device. I felt a pang of sadness opening up the Pandora and Netflix apps, then quickly remembering that they wouldn’t stream through the Nexus Q. I tried streaming a song I had downloaded to the device that wasn’t purchased from Google Play, and the Nexus 7 ordered me to first upload it to my Google Play music library. I rolled my eyes, and eventually just turned it off.

As it turns out, even the Nexus Q itself isn’t convinced that users will get enough bang for their buck. I know because I asked it.

A hidden feature within the Q allows it to act like a Magic 8 Ball—tapping repeatedly on the Nexus Q icon in the settings for your Nexus Q within the accompanying app (rather than the settings for the app itself) brings up a page that says “Have a dilemma? Ask the Q.”

“Do you honestly believe you’re worth $299?” I asked.

“I am not sure right now,” was its slightly feminized, robotic-sounding reply.

I hope that Google has a bigger vision in mind for the Nexus Q, like adding many more streaming options, which could eventually make it a more worthwhile purchase. The device itself is hopeful, too. When I asked my unofficial spokes-orb if Google has greater ambitions for it, it said yes.

“Are you sure?” I persisted.

“You betcha,” it replied.

We’ll see. For now, though, it’s way too limited to be worth the money.

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Credit: Rachel Metz/Technology Review

Tagged: Web, Google

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