Google's Nexus Q takes on Microsoft, Apple in the living room

Google's Nexus Q is expensive and odd-looking, and it doesn't play well with devices outside of the Android world. It's a pretty weak competitor to Microsoft's Xbox 360, Apple TV, or even Sonos. Here's what's wrong.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

The Nexus Q is certainly not for everyone's taste. For starters, it's ... well, let's call it distinctive in appearance. It is most certainly made to be seen as well as heard.

It's also pricey, at $299 without speakers or cables, and it works only with Android devices.

Put those pieces together and you have to wonder whether Google is deliberately trying to limit the market for this product to diehard Google loyalists.

In the industrial design of its new media player, Google has broken out of the box, quite literally. The Nexus Q is a black orb, 4.6 inches in diameter, with a ring of 32 LEDs that "shift and change color in time to your music," Google says. I guess that makes it a 21st Century lava lamp.

It also has its own 12.5 watt/channel amplifier and ports to connect to a living-room audio system or an HDTV. (If you want even more details, read the full specs.)

The odd thing about the Nexus Q is that it doesn't include a remote control. Instead, you must control it with an Android phone or an Android tablet using the Google Play and YouTube apps for Android. Nothing else will work.

The new $199/$249 Nexus 7 tablets will fill that role quite nicely, but when you add in that cost you're up to at least $500. Add in Google's $300 Triad Bookshelf speakers and $49 speaker cables with banana plugs, plus sales tax, and your total is over a grand.

But hey, you can watch YouTube videos and stream your music collection on that setup.

These design and pricing decisions are very odd indeed.

Microsoft's Xbox 360 already owns the living room, having sold roughly 70 million units. It has announced and demonstrated its Xbox SmartGlass controller app, which will "work with Windows 8 PCs and tablets, and iPads, iPhones, and Android devices." At Amazon, the Xbox 360 with Kinect costs 5 bucks less than that odd-looking little Google orb.

Apple TV might still be a "hobby" in Cupertino, but at $99 it's actually a great deal if you're an Apple loyalist. You can use any iOS device, including iPhones and iPads, to push content to an Apple TV via AirPlay. Or you can buy music and stream TV shows directly from iTunes. It doesn't have its own amplifier, like the Nexus Q, but if you already have a decent audio system it's an easy addition. And you just know that someday, probably soon, Apple is going to deliver a big, big upgrade to Apple TV that will make Google's offering instantly obsolete.

The Xbox 360 and Apple TV also have other advantages that the Nexus Q can't match. You can run both boxes using a remote control or an app. They have access to impressively large ecosystems of content and apps (and games, in the case of the Xbox 360). With years of experience, Microsoft and Apple have mastered the supply-chain and manufacturing issues, unlike Google, which is a newcomer to the large-scale hardware business.

Google TV, of course, is the logical competitor to both Microsoft and Apple here, but it appears to have been left behind in favor of the newer, hotter Nexus Q.

In fact, the Nexus Q in its current incarnation looks like more of an answer to Sonos, which offers wireless audio systems that you can control with iPads and iPhones and Android devices and via apps on a PC or a Mac. The Sonos 3, which is the same price as the Nexus Q, includes a more-than-adequate speaker and appeals to all sorts of people who don't want to be locked into an all-Android environment.

There's no question that Google has created a pretty device in the Nexus Q. The fact that it's made in the USA is admirable and justifies at least part of the premium price. But it's hard to imagine that anyone but Android diehards will find it worth buying.

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