posted on July 05, 2012 |
When I first saw Google’s latest media streaming box (err...I should say sphere) named the Nexus Q, I was very impressed. It is aesthetically pleasing - it looks like a satin black softball with a glowing LED light band running around its equator - and the attention to detail and design set it apart from many of the media players competing in the market today. When I found out that the device was made in the USA, and sported a Texas Instruments OMAP 4460, I was hooked. Google’s latest media device aimed at keeping us entertained and fully dependent on the web giants ecosystem, has all the hardware and design ingredients to be a smash hit. But we are all aware that it takes more than just silicon to make a gadget great, as firmware is equally important. When designers don't pair the right hardware with capable software, consumers often punish the device in a competitive market, and it falls out of favour quickly (remember the hit RIM took on it’s Playbook which initially lacked email functionality, and HP's disastrous Touchpad). Is the Nexus Q a big swing-and-a-miss?
On the hardware front, the Q contains a very capable processor in the OMAP 4460 which has a dual core ARM Cortex-A9 with graphics handled by an SGX540 graphics core. Designed at 45nm and clocked at 1.5GHz, the OMAP 4460 is capable of playing 1080p video and has multi-standard video encoding/decoding ability. iFixit shows us the 16GB of Samsung KLMAG4FEJA-A002 Flash and 1GB of LPDDR RAM within the Q which should provide adequate memory. The Q even integrates a 25W audio amplifier, capable of powering a direct speaker connection complete with banana plug connectors on the back. 10/100 Ethernet, WiFi, and a micro HDMI output provide media input/output capability. It is also the first media player that I know of that provides NFC capability, allowing a user to tap the Q with an NFC Android phone or tablet to initiate a media download.
Image source: Google
Now here’s where, in my opinion, things start to go awry. I mentioned that the Q begins a media download initiated by the Android device. The catch is that it doesn't download or even stream media from the Android phone - the purpose of the Android phone is only to act as the graphical interface to the Q. Yup, the Q has no stand-alone interface so without an Android device to wirelessly connect to, the Q is impotent. Remember RIM's PlayBook that required a companion BlackBerry phone to access email?
The Q is also restricted to playing media that originates on the Google Play cloud, in other words you can't play anything from your home video or music library stored on your home network - it must be found on Google Play. It does support YouTube (owned by Google) but won’t play Netflix, Hulu, or any third party video sources. To start a media stream, you have to fiddle with an Android phone or tablet connected to Google Play, and initiate a stream from Play to the Q.
People gnerally dislike restrictions when it comes to entertainment gadgets, and most OEMs have walked a fine line of confining users to a single ecosystem while managing to keep them only mildly pissed off (Sony and Apple have spawned an entire generation of hardware and firmware hackers). I think that Google may have jumped right over that line with the Q and blatantly created an expensive piece of hardware with purposely limited capabilities aimed at supporting its online services.
The Nexus Q is expensive relative to its competitors. At $299 USD, the Q is about 3 times the price of the Apple TV. However the Q can proudly claim that it is made in America which is highly unique among its peers, and I believe that is worth a premium. The construction of the device appears to be solid, with a machined zinc bottom dome and an injection molded upper half mated to the bottom with precision bearings (the top half rotates on the bottom half to provide volume control).
But beautiful design must be matched with desired functionality to appeal to a mass market. Without the ability to stream content from a handheld device (think Apple Airplay), or to access content stored on a home network (Apple TV fails here as well), while lacking a stand-alone user interface, design and functionality are out of sync with the price. I think the Q has potential for a future upgrade, but in its present form it may join the infamous list of hyped gadgets that fail to provide consumers with what they want - functionality at a competitive price.