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Is the Google Nexus Q Subtraction by Subtraction? 128

Once upon a time, it was easy to characterize Google’s domain and business model: they provided well-organized internet search results through a simple, friendly interface, and made money through targeted advertising. Over the years, the company has grown more complex even faster than has the — still admirably spare — Google home page, as it’s either assimilated or originated all kinds of adjuncts to pure search. The Nexus Q, as the company’s first-ever fully home-grown consumer electronics product (as opposed to Google-branded but jointly developed phones and tablets) shows just how far that path has led, and hints at cooler things to come. By default, though, the device is severely limited, intended basically as an overqualified gateway to content stored at Google’s Play media store, or at (Google-controlled) YouTube. And if that weren’t constrained enough, it requires another Android device (phone or tablet, say) as a remote control. The Q is equipped with impressive hardware internally, though, which might soon be exploited with software more flexible than that which comes loaded.
The Q was announced at the recent Google I/O conference, and instantly drew both admiring gasps and dismissive chortling. The case is distinctively odd: it looks a bit like a Death Star the size of a Magic 8 Ball, with an equator lit by a string of 32 LEDs, with a bit sliced off to provide a base. You can link it to an HDMI-equipped screen with a longer cable, if you’d like, but you won’t be stacking anything on top. It combines a fast processor, a 1GB chunk of RAM, and 16GB of solid-state storage with an integrated power supply (which means no wall wart) and — probably the most interesting of its hardware features — a built-in stereo amplifier, described as 12.5 watts per channel, or (a bit coyly) as “25W.”

Aside: Since stereo amps are commonly described by their per-channel rating (so a “100 watt stereo amp” doesn’t typically mean 50 watts per *channel* but rather “100 watts per channel), I’m glad the specs at least call this out in the same size of typeface. They should also specify the total harmonic distortion when driven at their rated power; that’s one place that other class D amps especially tend toward misleading figures. (I’ve asked Google to supply this information.) On the other hand, it’s worth mentioning that a decent 12.5W/channel isn’t necessarily something to sneeze at. Just because some receivers have 7 or more channels and behemoth claimed power ratings, with efficient speakers just a few watts can fill any less-than-cavernous room with decent sound, especially if it won’t be pushing giant bass drivers. Google recommends bookshelf speakers as a good match, which makes sense both because they tend toward efficiency and small-to-medium rooms and because users with more complex systems probably don’t want to be tied to the internal amplifier anyhow.

With a dual-core Cortex A9 and a full gig of RAM, this is severalfold more capable than a mere gadget needs to be — or, rather, it *could* be more capable. Which brings me to this: biggest problem I see with the Q isn’t the price, even though a lower price would no doubt bring it closer to an impulse buy for more people.

No, The real drawback to an eccentrically shaped, limited purpose, $300 piece of home entertainment gear is that it’s got to overcome a raft of competitive alternatives as well as wallet friction. This is the electronics version of “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” The total worth of owning it has to compensate (and then some) for not using the same money on other stuff — or simply saving it, and particularly for the risk that for all its potential the Q will end up orphaned. (See also, Chumby.)

By restricting the feature set to Google’s own media store, Google is placing a bet that users (enough of them, at least) will be satisfied with that as their sole source, and guaranteeing a revenue stream. They’ve also bet at least some small piece of the farm that users will appreciate what strikes me as a hyper-specific music-sharing scenario. As demonstrated on the I/O stage, multiple users with Android devices as controllers can each add items to the device’s playlist, and take advantage of predictive search to find more items that might appeal. This “social streaming” is nifty, but requires a fiddly involvement in the “play music over speakers” process than typical users might find tiresome and twee, and it limits the in group with control of the device to Android users. That cuts out the huge chunk of smartphone users with some version of That Other Phone. It’s hard to know to predict sometimes what will become popular enough to spawn massive sales (cf Pet Rocks, hula hoops, and Scientology), but based on that demo this seems like a feature likely to be disproportionately enjoyed by Silicon-Valley style tech-heads rather than typical (“mere”) users.

It looks flexible with that collection of parts and ports, though, and Google’s explicitly announced that hacking is encouraged, which sounds impressive and provides hope that the 16GB of storage will have a use more interesting than as a giant cache. It’s easy to come up with cool scenarios for a tiny computer-with-amplifier, from zone controller for a flexible home audio system to the brains of a lightweight browsing station (perhaps with a purpose-built version of Cyanogen Mod?) or a home-control infobot like 3com's short-lived Audrey. A security system or weather app (think of a display for weather sensors mounted outside the house, coupled with a crowdsourced alert system for severe weather, and grabbing data from Weather Underground, too) would make it more appealing to me. The multicolor LED band could serve the same function that Ambient Devices pushed for its connected gadgets that used color and other indicators to convey information based on data streams from stock tickers to holiday calendars. Liliputing reports on some partial success in loading Android apps, but heavy on the partial: getting a game to appear on screen isn’t the same as being able to play it.

Why so difficult? Besides the lack of a touch-screen input, the version of Android 4.0 on the Q isn’t the does-everything Ice Cream Sandwich that many users are used to. The Nexus series of phones and tablets has first-class access to a collection of hundreds of thousands of apps; for the Q, exactly three apps are listed in the specs: Google Play Music; Google Play Movies and TV; and YouTube.

Until a greater selection of apps appears (whether from outside developers or from Google), the Q’s software is pared down to a degree likely to frustrate users who are used to playing all kinds of media from other devices — including smartphones that aren’t even as musically gifted on the hardware side.

In some ways, and especially with the intentionally sparse software set, Google will be competing with itself with this device, especially for users who’d rather employ separate sound amplification: the current generation of Chromebook plays streaming video just fine (and has a screen and a keyboard), and does a lot more besides. If you want to hook up to a larger screen permanently and thus don’t need a smaller one at all, the Samsung-made Chromebox costs only about 10 percent more, and seems a more flexible choice, since besides being a full-featured web-centric smart client, the Chromebox outputs video via a (full sized, no less!) HDMI port, and will play content from providers other than Google’s Play, like Netflix and Vimeo — and that’s just for video sources — as well as from locally stored media. Similarly, Google TV hardware fills much of the same niche, and it comes with a browser.

Also in competition, of course, are dedicated network media players from Boxee, Roku, and Apple, and (at prices that start a touch lower, thanks to the subsidize-then-sell-games business model) consoles like Microsoft’s Xbox 360. All of these offer a mature interface for streaming music and movies that might be less state of the art and exotic than the Q’s, but more accessible and more flexible.

I do have an Android phone, and have been considering a Roku box; now, I’m planning to set up the Q with a set of bookshelf speakers to see how livable (or frustrating) it turns out to be. I hope that the touted hackability means that its capabilities really do get a boost soon from tinkerers: for this Death Star, that may be the only hope.
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Is the Google Nexus Q Subtraction by Subtraction?

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