Google Nexus Q: Fight For Living Room On

Google's Nexus Q home media device lets Android phone and tablet users push content from their handhelds to a TV or stereo system.
The Nexus Q is one of the weirder products to come to light at Google I/O. It is a go-between device that makes pushing content from an Android smartphone or tablet to a television set or entertainment system much easier. It's an Apple TV competitor, of sorts, but lacks some of the Apple TV's functionality. Just what is this thing?

The Nexus Q is a black sphere with an equatorial light strip and a bunch of wires that dangle out the back. In order to see it, Android devices need to be running Android 2.3 Gingerbread or higher. The Nexus Q may not have a user interface of its own, but it still runs Android 4.0 Jelly Bean.

Looking quickly at the specs, it has a diameter of 4.6 inches and weighs 2 pounds. The equatorial light strip is composed of 32 RGB LEDs. It has a Texas Instruments OMAP4460 (dual-core ARM Cortex-A9 CPU and SGX540 graphics core), accompanied by 1 GB of RAM and 16 GB of flash memory. It supports Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n, Bluetooth, and NFC radios, and includes microHDMI, TOSLink Optical audio, 10/100BASE-T Ethernet, microUSB and banana jack speaker outputs. There's a 25W amplifier built in, and it can power a small set of speakers without an additional receiver.

Android devices can see it when they are used on the same Wi-Fi network. The Nexus Q itself can't act alone. Unlike the Apple TV, it doesn't have its own user interface, nor does it offer access to the Google Play Store. Instead, it has to be used with a compatible Android smartphone or tablet. The smartphone/tablet is used to control all the content via the Google Play Store app.

[ What is Google up to in the hardware market? Read Google Nexus 7 Tablet Aims For Amazon, Not Apple. ]

Have a movie on your phone? Push it to the Q. Have some music in Google Play Music? Stream it to the Q. Want to watch some YouTube? Push it to the Q. (These are features offered with the Apple TV, iPhone, and iPad via the AirPlay app.)

What's interesting is the social nature of the Nexus Q. It can be accessed or used by more than one Android device at a time. In fact, during the on-stage demonstration, they played a scenario in which several party-goers were adding to the playlist on the fly each from his or her own phone. In fact, Android device users can reorganize the playlist (probably to other party-goers vexation) and put their song at the top of the list. Google says this feature makes the Nexus Q "social."

The idea is that consumers will place this orb on or near their entertainment centers and make sharing a snap. Instead of worrying about offloading photos or videos from Android smartphones, they can simply be streamed directly to the TV via the Nexus Q. Make it easier to share, and that's what (Google hopes) people will do. The appeal is there. The last thing I want to do upon returning from a vacation is take my phone, connect it to my PC, download pictures, assemble some sort of photo album, and then forward them in some fashion to my TV. Being able to beam them directly without the hassle of offloading is a major bonus.

That's an easy business model to understand, but it puts Google in direct competition with many of its hardware partners. For example, HTC sells a new device called MediaLink for its One series smartphones. MediaLink isn't as fully featured as the Nexus Q, but it lets HTC One S, One X, and One V owners easily link their device to their HDMI-enabled TV set for viewing movies and photos. Same goes for Motorola, which has a number of media docks for its Android smartphones and tablets.

What are the downsides? No Netflix or Amazon support, let alone Hulu+ support. No Rdio or Spotify support. No mirroring. It only supports YouTube and the Google Play Store apps from Android.

Also, the price kind of stinks. It costs $299.99. That's three times what Apple charges for the Apple TV, and about three times what HTC and Motorola charge for their media-linking devices.

That makes the appeal of the Nexus Q questionable. It's an interesting device, no doubt, and I look forward to playing with it. But it feels like something the well-to-do Google engineers cooked up simply to be able to use a Google-made piece of hardware for interfacing with their entertainment centers.

Room-based systems don't connect to desktops, new and old systems don't integrate, and almost nothing connects to Skype. Can't we do better? Also in the Videoconference Disconnect digital issue of InformationWeek: The cloud and mobility will transform videoconferencing. (Free with registration.)