First things first: This is going to be a two-part first look at the Google Nexus Q media streamer for the simple reason that I am not yet able to stream media to the preview hardware handed out at Google I/O. See also Group test: what's the best speaker set?

Why? Although Google's Nexus Q website says you can control the device with a Nexus Q app that will run on any Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) smartphone or tablet, it turns out that the app currently runs only on Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean), which Google also previewed at its developer conference. Google's PDF user guide explains that support for earlier Android devices won't be available until the Nexus Q ships to consumers, which Google says will be "soon"--two to three weeks. See Apple TV (2012) review.

It's interesting, by the way, that the Nexus Q itself is based on Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich). It's downright weird that Google has limited the product's market to Android device owners, and restricted its functionality to playing music you own or have bought from Google Play, as well as YouTube videos plus movies and TV shows you've purchased or rented from Google Play. Even Apple didn't hobble Apple TV thusly.

I had planned to use a couple of older Android phones for my test run (I wanted to verify that several Android users can, if authorized, contribute to a playlist), so at this writing I don't have a Jelly Bean device. I'll update this post once I do, but in the meantime I can share a few impressions based on the setup I was able to complete.

An Attempt to Out-Apple Apple

Unboxing the Q, I couldn't help feeling that Google is trying to out-Apple Apple in its packaging and presentation. You get the same minimalist approach, only in black instead of white. Here's the box, once you remove the sleeve.

After you open the black seals (a second one is on the back of the box), you see the flat bottom of a Magic 8 Ball-sized black sphere--and nothing else.

As with Apple's products, the rest of the box's contents are concealed until you lift a cardboard tab. But there isn't much more to find--just a charging cable and a quick-start guide on a single cardboard square.

The guide explains your cabling options (the Q connects to analog or digital audio systems, or to a TV via a Mini HDMI cable), directs you to download the Nexus Q app from the Google Play store, and provides a URL to visit for additional help. Honestly, it makes Apple's printed manuals look like War and Peace--but I'm not sure less is more in this case. I wound up seeking guidance by clicking through much of the FAQs on the Nexus website.

Anyway, I also snapped a photo showing the ports on the back of the Nexus Q.

Note, by the way, that the Nexus Q doesn't come with AV or ethernet cables (the ethernet hookup is for those users who prefer a wired network to Wi-Fi for media streaming). You must bring your own. That's pretty cheesy for a gizmo that Google expects to sell for $299--and don't forget, it doesn't come with a remote control, either.

I'm also disappointed that the Nexus Q doesn't support 5GHz Wi-Fi--at this point, I believe that a streaming-media product should support dual-band 802.11n wireless, because in neighborhoods with multiple 2.4GHz networks, you really need the additional bandwidth of the 5GHz spectrum.

Swivel Up the Volume

At a full 2 pounds, the Nexus Q is surprisingly heavy for its 4-inch diameter. And when you lift it from the box, you realize that it's not a one-piece sphere: The top half or so is a swiveling dome. The Nexus Q site says that swiveling lets you raise or lower the audio volume on whatever the Q is streaming without having to use the phone or tablet app; tapping the dome can mute audio (this is something I'll test).

I connected the Nexus Q to my HDTV using a Mini HDMI cable, to a HomePlug AV powerline switch using an ethernet cable, and to a power strip with the one cable that did come in the package. Immediately, the edge of the Q's swiveling section lit up in blue--the specs say that the device has 32 perimeter RGB LEDs, and apparently they can change colors and pulsate based on the music you play (looking forward to seeing that!).

A single LED in the middle of the dome also lit up, looking like a blue dot (it's a mute indicator). My TV, meanwhile, displayed a black screen; at the top, "welcome" in several languages cycled through, and the URL of the support site appeared in smaller letters at the bottom.

When I positioned the Nexus Q right in front of the display, a blue outline similar to the shape defined by the Q's LED lighting appeared in the middle of the display. Here's what it looked like.

Although I found the blue lights interesting as a design statement, I also found them somewhat distracting, even without a TV show on the big screen. I'm going to look into whether users can turn off the lights, among other things. Stay tuned.

Part two on next page >>.

Editor's note: This is the second part of a two-part first look at the Google Nexus Q media streamer. You can read about the unboxing and setup experience in the first part.

I finally got hold of one of the new Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean) smartphones capable of running the Nexus Q app you need to operate the preview release of the new Google media streamer--and a PC World colleague armed with a second Jelly Bean handset came by to help me test the device's social networking features.

The verdict: While it has some nice features--it's cool to see a light show when you stream music to an HDTV-- the Nexus Q is at this point too buggy. We were unable to implement guest access despite trying for two hours, and even the primary controlling phone sometimes lost network connectivity.

Initial setup on the first phone went fairly smoothly. I had already hooked up the Nexus Q to my HDTV and to my home network using an ethernet cable connecting to a powerline switch, so when I downloaded and installed the free Nexus Q app from the Google Play store, it immediately found the device and established a link by having me log in to my Google account.

Because the Android app can control multiple Q's on the same network--much like the Sonos system--you have to give each one a name; the app proposes several common household rooms (e.g. kitchen, living room, media center) in a menu that also has a custom entry option.

The app by default sets My Home as the name for your Nexus Q collection--the term it uses to denote your entire Nexus Q network (each Q appears as an entry in the collection). But you can change this name in the settings.

Sound and Light Show

After that, when I went to Play Music and tapped a streaming media icon on the top of the screen, I was presented with the option of streaming to my phone or the Nexus name I'd just created. Because I was hooked up to an HDTV, when I played music, Nexus Q created pretty dancing visuals on the screen--and the LEDs on the edges of the Q's dome also pulsed in color and in time to the music. You can change the look of the light show by choosing one of half a dozen themes (e.g. warm, cold, blue), make it brighter or dimmer, or eliminate it completely from the settings menu in the Q app.

You can add songs to the Q's queue (pun unavoidable) or play them immediately by tapping on options in a menu that appears when you tap a track listing. You can fiddle with the queue, moving or deleting tracks, by tapping an option in Play Music.

To play YouTube videos, you go through much the same routine after tapping the Android's YouTube app. You are already signed in to your Google account, so accessing favorites and new videos on channels you've subscribed to is a breeze. Quality was good, at least while the Nexus Q was connected to the network using the ethernet cable and powerline switch. I didn't download any movies or TV shows to check out how well the device works with the Google Play movie and TV app.

Guest Access Proves Elusive

So far, so good, but it was all downhill from there. I'm not sure what the issues are, but my colleague Mike was never able to put his Google Play music in the queue--and when we disconnected the ethernet cable to try connecting the Q via Wi-Fi, things really went south.

Here's how it's supposed to work. In the Nexus Q app, I made sure a setting authorizing guest access was set to On, then tapped a link that created an e-mail message inviting Mike (using his Google account address) to play his music on my network.

Mike got the message, which instructed him to download and install the Nexus Q app on his Android 4.1 phone. He then ran the app, which searches for existing Nexus Q devices. Once you find a Q that has granted you access, you can go to Play Music to add tracks to the queue via a pop-up menu and a streaming media icon, the same way I could from my phone.

But the Nexus Q never showed up as a streaming device on Mike's phone. He also got repeated messages saying the My Home collection and/or the Q itself was unavailable.

And while we were doing the testing, my own ability to stream music was intermittently impaired. A troubleshooting guide suggested connecting the Q to the network via its built-in Wi-Fi, so I disconnected the ethernet cable and rebooted the Q to start from scratch.

But while I was able to restore its factory settings, setting up my 802.11n Wi-Fi network as the Q's connection proved difficult. I rebooted several times and reinstalled the app a couple of times before the Q mysteriously began streaming the same music it had effortlessly played with the ethernet connection. Even after that, the app intermittently would show the Q as being unavailable one minute and available the next.

I live next to several high-rise apartment buildings in downtown San Francisco, and my guess is that the difficulties I encountered relate to 2.4GHz network overcrowding. You also need a router that can handle Wi-Fi multicasting so that the Q can connect to your router while other devices can connect to the Q; Google's documentation already shows several incompatible routers. Mine wasn't among them, but I suspect that it was too difficult for the network to sustain the multiple Wi-Fi connections required. I'll repeat what I said in my earlier post: Google should have included 5GHz 802.11n support.

Still, Mike and I were at a loss to explain why he couldn't play any of his music on the Q--even when my collection and the Q both showed up as available, the Play Music app never displayed the Q as a streaming destination.

Hopefully Google will work on these issues before it begins selling the Nexus Q to the general public. But even if you're an Android fan willing to spend the $299 on a device with fairly limited functionality (it could at least have supported streaming media from other local network devices), I wouldn't recommend the Q to anyone who is planning on Wi-Fi only connections in a city or a neighborhood with lots of Wi-Fi networks in range. That's just asking for trouble.

Google Nexus Q: Specs

  • 16GB internal storage
  • Dual ARM Cortex-A9 processor
  • 1GB RAM
  • Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich
  • Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, NFC
  • 117mm, 923g
  • 16GB internal storage
  • Dual ARM Cortex-A9 processor
  • 1GB RAM
  • Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich
  • Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, NFC
  • 117mm, 923g

OUR VERDICT

The Nexus Q has some pretty neat media streaming features, but is way too expensive--and the preview release is just plain buggy.

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