Google’s worst hardware flop was presented 10 years ago today


Google's worst hardware flop was presented 10 years ago today

The Nexus Q was such a misguided product that Google decided to pull the plug before the device was ever released to consumers. Exactly ten years to the day since its launch at I/O 2012, the $299 media player positioned as a “social streaming device” remains a unique debacle in Google’s hardware history. Say what you will about Google Glass, but the company’s first foray into wearable technology at least got people talking. The Nexus Q, on the other hand, was an example of what can happen when a company gets lost in its own walled garden.

The Q had promising aspects; With hindsight, you can clearly see the basics and early DNA of Google’s Chromecast in it. But everything about the execution was fundamentally short-sighted — and a little odd. In the following promotional video, released by Google on the day the Nexus Q was announced, someone describes the product as “this living alien object.”

“There’s something in there. It wants out.” Totally normal things. Sixty seconds into the video you still have no idea what this thing is or what the heck it even does. Finally, we learn that the Nexus Q is “a small, Android-powered computer” that can play music or videos from the cloud.

Excessive marketing aside, the Nexus Q hasn’t been well received. David Pogue wrote The New York Times that it was “amazing” and “wildly overbuilt.” We gave it a 5. Reviews of CNET, Engadget, and others all agreed: as impressive as its hardware was, the Q just didn’t do enough to justify a price that much higher than a Roku or Apple TV at the time. A device that only worked with Google services just wasn’t practical or appealing to many people.

The streaming player was supposed to be made in the United States, which no doubt contributed to its amazing price.

Designed by Google, made in the USA

But damn, did it look cool. The Nexus Q gave off real sci-fi vibes (especially with banana plugs and other A/V cables running out of it) thanks to its spherical industrial design and glowing LED ring. That was long before Amazon’s Echo came out, remember. The Q looked like something you could stick in the Matrix. And it was all original. Unlike other Nexus devices, which were collaborations with partners like LG, Samsung, Asus, Huawei and more, the Nexus Q was designed entirely by Google.

It could sounds familiar to me nowbut the Nexus Q had an incredibly cool design for its time.
GIF: Google

Most surprisingly, it was designed and manufactured in the United States. Google never really emphasized or hyped US manufacturing – perhaps to avoid any notion that it would become a trend – but it undoubtedly contributed to the projected $299 price tag for the Q. (The original Moto X was later assembled in the US, but that initiative didn’t last long.)

Inside the sphere was an “audiophile-grade” 25-watt amplifier capable of powering passive speakers – this remains the Q’s most unique piece of hardware – along with connections for optical, micro-HDMI and Ethernet. According to hardware director Matt Hershenson, a micro-USB port was included “to encourage general hackability.” The Nexus Q was powered by the same smartphone chip as the Galaxy Nexus. You can rotate the top half of the ball to control volume or tap to mute playback. All the prerequisites for a great living room furnishing were present. But restrictive software limitations ruined that potential.

The Nexus Q’s built-in amplifier was an unusual inclusion. You won’t find banana jack connections on many streaming players.
Photo by Chris Welch / The Verge

The Nexus Q only supported Google services like Play Music, Play Movies & TV and YouTube. There was no Netflix or Hulu and no Spotify. Google went to the trouble of including an amplifier, but audiophiles had no way of getting lossless audio from the analog ports.

The Q lacked an on-screen user interface and no remote control was included. You can only control it with a dedicated Android app. Some of this will look familiar to Chromecast owners. But there were major differences between the Nexus Q and Chromecast, which launched a year later, that made the $35 streaming dongle such a hit. After learning a hard lesson from stubbornly favoring its own software, Google corrected course and pushed hard for popular third-party apps to adopt casting. And crucially, the Chromecast also supported iOS.

social streaming

Aside from the Nexus Q’s core functionality of playing music and videos, Google also tried to present the product as a social experience. Multiple people could contribute to music playlists without having to pass around someone else’s phone or jostle for control of a Bluetooth speaker. Friends can share YouTube or Play Movies content on the TV screen in a similar way – as long as they’re connected to your Wi-Fi.

It all sounds good in theory, but again, that was before Chromecast. The process for “social” streaming was… shall we say uncomfortable. If you actually wanted to make the “everyone at the party can hang up” scenario come true, all your friends would do it Also must download and install the Nexus Q app before adding songs to the queue. Even back then, reviews complained that the software wasn’t intuitive when it came to managing music playlists. It was too easy to accidentally play a song and blow up the collaborative mix that was in the works.

Fast forward a few years, and at some point the best streaming music services figured out that they could easily fix the problem themselves. Now you can create a shared playlist on Spotify (or YouTube Music) – no special device or random apps needed.

You can twist – or in this case swipe – the top half of the Nexus Q to adjust the volume.
GIF: Google

end of queue

Google heard the negative reviews and “is that all it does?” Criticism of the Nexus Q loud and clear. In late July 2012, just a month after its announcement, the company said it would be delaying the product’s consumer launch “while we work to make it even better.” Early pre-orderers would get the device for free as a thank you for their early interest.

But the Nexus Q never made it onto store shelves. In late 2012, Google quietly removed the product from its website. In 2013, the company’s apps began breaking compatibility with the device altogether. With so few Q devices in the world, Google wasted no time keeping it in the rearview mirror.

At least that disaster led to the Chromecast a year later.
Photo by Chris Welch / The Verge

After Google abandoned the hardware, tinkerers and mod makers spent a few years breathing new life into the Nexus Q. It’s made it onto the CyanogenMod circuit, and one person even managed to turn it into a USB audio device to take advantage of that onboard amp. But there just aren’t many devices around, so those efforts have largely gone down in history.

The Nexus Q was a complete failure of a product, but Google wasn’t wrong with a “third wave of consumer electronics” that would make greater use of the cloud to keep all your entertainment (music, movies, TV) at your fingertips. We see this everywhere today, and now you can add games to the equation. It was an embarrassing misstep, but Google’s canceled $299 media player showed that consumers have high expectations for living room entertainment devices — and not even giant tech companies can afford to do it alone.

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