Google's Android media play: the Nexus Q

About a week and a half ago at the Google I/O conference, everyone was anticipating that Google would announce a Nexus-branded tablet during the show, and they did just that with the unveiling of the Nexus 7. But Google surprised a lot of folks by announcing a new Android-based media-streaming device, the Nexus Q, hot on the heels of the tablet. And while the Nexus 7 seems to offer great value for the money, the Nexus Q is a bit harder to figure out.

Designed to be controlled from your Android
smartphone or tablet, the Android-powered media-streaming device is more or less a hardware-based front end to access audio and video content from Google Play.

You can hook it up directly to a pair of speakers (thanks to the built-in 25 watt amplifier) or you can use the digital connections to hook it up to a receiver (via optical) or your television (via micro HDMI). It connects to the outside world using Ethernet or WiFi.

That seems straightforward, but it’s a bit hard to consider the Nexus Q’s place when you look at its $299 US price point. That’s $200 more than the Apple TV, which comes with its own remote. It’s also a full $100 more than the Boxee Box, which also comes with its own remote and the ability to play nearly any type of content you want to throw at it.

To be fair, the Nexus Q has a few features that separate it from these two more affordable (and admittedly only moderately successful) media-streaming boxes.

First up is the ability to play content on more than one Nexus Q at the same time, which is something more commonly associated with the Sonos line of audio-streaming devices. This is something that’s very, very hard to do – Sonos had to create their own mesh network in order to ensure synchronous play – so it’ll be interesting to see how well this works in practice over regular WiFi connections.

The other key differentiator that Google stressed during the keynote is the social aspect of the Nexus Q. While the Boxee can link into your Facebook feed to show you the content your friends are recommending, the Nexus Q has a much more hands-on application: when your friends come over, they can use their Android devices to play content from their own Google Play accounts directly to your Nexus Q…supposedly without a lot of obstacles.

While it sounds like it could be fun having your friends adding to your current playlist during the middle of a get-together, it could also be a big disaster. The reason: in addition to adding to the playlist, friends can also bump what’s currently playing in favour of their own choice. Just imagine trying to watch TV when everyone in the room has a remote and you’ll see how this might end badly.

One nice touch is that the Nexus Q will have a micro-USB port on the back for future accessories and updates, as well as to “encourage general hackability”. So maybe that’s the real selling feature of the Nexus Q: they’re not only cool with you trying to hack it to add other features, they seem to be actively encouraging it.

The downside is that, unlike the Nexus 7 tablet, the Nexus Q doesn’t yet have a Canadian launch date. So at this point, whether or not you think the Q’s features are sufficient to justify the $299 price point, it’s still a bit moot.

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