The Nexus Q was such a deceptive product that Google decided to pull the plug before the device was ever released to consumers. Ten years after its launch at I/O 2012, the $299 media player positioned as a “social streaming device” remains a unique debacle in Google’s hardware story. Say what you will about Google Glass, but at least the company’s first foray into wearable technology has 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.
There were promising aspects to the Q; in retrospect 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 weird. In the promo video below that Google released the day it announced the Nexus Q, someone describes the product as “this living alien object.”
“There’s something in it. It wants out.” Very normal stuff. After sixty seconds into the video you still have no idea what this thing is or what the hell it does. Ultimately, we learn that the Nexus Q is “a small, Android-powered computer” that can play music or videos from the cloud.
Aside from over-the-top marketing, the Nexus Q was not well received. David Pogue wrote in The New York Times that it was “stunning” and “wildly overbuilt”. We gave it a 5. Reviews from CNET† Engadget, and others all shared the same consensus: for as impressive as the hardware was, the Q just didn’t do enough to justify a price so 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.
Designed by Google, Made in the USA
But damn it looked cool. The Nexus Q really radiated sci-fi vibes (especially when banana plugs and other A/V cables were running low) thanks to its spherical industrial design and glowing LED ring. This was long before Amazon’s Echo came along, remember. The Q looked like something you could put in the matrix. And it was all original. Unlike other Nexus devices, which were collaborations with partners such as LG, Samsung, Asus, Huawei and others, the Nexus Q was completely conceptualized by Google.
Most surprising of all, it was designed and manufactured in the United States. Google never really emphasized or played the US production part — perhaps to keep it from becoming a trend — but it undoubtedly contributed to the Q’s planned $299 price. (The original Moto X would later be assembled in the US. , but that initiative did not last long.)
Inside the orb was a 25-watt “audiophile” amplifier that could drive passive speakers – this remains the Q’s most unique hardware component – along with connections for optical, Micro HDMI and Ethernet. According to hardware director Matt Hershenson, a micro-USB port was provided “to encourage general hacking opportunities.” The Nexus Q was powered by the same smartphone chip as the Galaxy Nexus. You could rotate the top half of the orb to control the volume or tap it to mute what was playing. All the ingredients for a great living room appliance were there. But limiting software restrictions ruined that potential.
The Nexus Q only supported Google services, including Play Music, Play Movies & TV, and YouTube. There was no Netflix or Hulu, and no Spotify. Google went to the trouble of putting in an amplifier, but audiophiles had no way of getting lossless audio from the analog connectors.
The Q had no on-screen user interface and didn’t come with a remote; you could only control it with a special android app. Some of that will sound familiar to Chromecast owners. But there were major differences between the Nexus Q and Chromecast, which arrived a year later, which made the $35 streaming dongle such a success. After learning a hard lesson by stubbornly favoring its own software, Google corrected course and strongly pushed for popular third-party apps to use casting. And crucially, the Chromecast also supported iOS.
Aside from the core functionality of the Nexus Q, which is music and video playback, Google also tried to present the product as a social experience. Multiple people could contribute to music playlists without passing someone’s phone or crowding the controls of a Bluetooth speaker. Friends can share YouTube or Play Movies content on the TV screen in the same way, as long as they are on your Wi-Fi network.
That all sounds good in theory, but again, this was pre-Chromecast. The process for “social” streaming was… shall we say, clunky. If you really wanted to realize the “Everyone at the party can DJ” scenario, all your friends would also must download and install the Nexus Q app before they can add songs to the queue. Even then, reviews complained that the software was not 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 eventually the best streaming music services figured out that they could just fix this themselves. Now you can create a collaborative playlist on Spotify (or YouTube Music) – no special device or random apps required.
End of the queue
Google heard the negative reviews and “that’s all it does?” criticize the Nexus Q loud and clear. In late July 2012, just a month after the announcement, the company announced it was delaying a consumer launch of the product “as we work to make it even better”. Early pre-order customers would receive the device for free as a thank you for their early interest.
But the Nexus Q never hit store shelves. Towards the end of 2012, Google quietly removed the product from its website. In 2013, the company’s apps started breaking compatibility with the device altogether. With so few Q units in the world, Google wasted no time leaving it in the rearview mirror.
After Google abandoned the hardware, tinkerers and mod developers spent a few years trying to give the Nexus Q a new lease of life. It made it on the CyanogenMod circuitand one person even managed to turn it into a USB audio device to take advantage of that integrated amplifier. But there just aren’t many devices around, so those efforts have largely disappeared in history†
The Nexus Q was a complete failure of a product, but Google wasn’t wrong about a “third wave of consumer electronics” that would make more use of the cloud to keep all your entertainment (music, movies, TV) at your fingertips. We see that everywhere these days, and now you can add gaming 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 even big tech companies can’t afford to go it alone.