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PC Stick Showdown: Intel Compute Stick vs Google Chromebit

PC Stick Showdown: Intel Compute Stick vs Google Chromebit

Imagine your PC in your pocket, free to carry it anywhere there’s a screen you can use to get your work done. Sure, a laptop works, but a PC-on-a-stick gives you serious freedom and flexibility, and the Google Chromebit and Intel Compute Stick both sell that dream pretty hard. We took both for a test drive.

The Contenders

Google made waves when it unveiled the Chromebit last year, and finally started selling it a few months ago. By comparison, the Intel Compute Stick has been around for a while, but picked up some steam around the same time. They’re different products (with some big differences), but they’re clearly playing in the same space. Here’s the rundown:

  • The Chromebit ($85 at Amazon): Made by ASUS, the Chromebit runs Google’s Chrome OS, connects to your display (or a TV) via HDMI, connects to a keyboard and mouse over Bluetooth (4.0), and connects to the Internet over Wi-Fi (802.11 a/b/g/n/ac supported.) Once you have it up and running, you can install apps from the Chrome Web Store to get things done, and each Chromebit comes with 100GB of Google Drive space for documents, photos, and other files, since there’s virtually no on-board storage (only 16GB, in fact.) There’s a USB port for external storage or input devices, just in case. It’s powered by a Rockchip RK3288 processor, and packs 2GB of RAM. Since there’s no on-board storage and everything is web-based, you don’t have to worry you’ll lose data if you lose the device, or leave it at work when you want it at home. You can check out the full specs here.
  • The Intel Compute Stick ($146 at Amazon): Intel’s Compute Stick is made by Intel proper. If you’re considering one, make sure you get the 2016 model, because the 2015 model, while approachable, wouldn’t stand up too well to this showdown. The newer version is a far sight better. The new model includes 32GB of onboard storage, has an microSD slot for expandable storage, is powered by an Intel Cherry Trail Atom x5-Z8300 processor and 2GB of RAM, and supports Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac (compared to last year’s /b/g/n-only chipset) and Bluetooth 4.2. There are two USB ports (one of which is USB 3.0) compared to last year’s single USB 2.0 port, which is another great improvement. The Compute Stick also comes with Windows 10 preloaded. Hardware-wise, it’s pretty impressive for its size.

http://gizmodo.com/googles-chrome…

http://gizmodo.com/it-looks-like-…

Those are the basics. Of course, the Compute Stick and the Chromebit aren’t the only PCs-on-a-stick available, but they’re two of the most popular, and two of the most mature. There are tons of Android sticks with ancient version of Android and an HDMI port, many of which use the same chip that the Chromebit uses, but we’re not interested in those. Let’s dive in to our comparison.

The Compute Stick Runs Windows, but the Chromebit is Just Easier to Use

PC Stick Showdown: Intel Compute Stick vs Google Chromebit

Setup and use are two of the first places that the Chromebit and the Compute Stick start to break away from each other. Of course, the Compute Stick runs Windows, which makes it much more usable, and the setup and installation process is probably more familiar for many people, but the Chromebit is pretty plug-and-play.

The Chromebit can also be powered via HDMI if your TV or display supports MHL (aka power over HDMI), which means you just plug in the Chromebit, switch to that HDMI input, and pair your peripherals. Once you’re paired, log in with your Google account, and you’re off and away. it’s worth noting the Chromebit doesn’t have a power button, which means it’s always on and connected, until you unplug it. Either way, the Chromebit is pretty much plug in, log in, and get busy. There are apps in the Chrome web store for just about everything you probably need to do—especially if your work, web browsing, or social life keep you on the web—and even a few light games here or there (more on that later.)

On the other hand, the Intel Compute Stick is clearly the hardware winner here, with more powerful components and a full version of Windows on board that you can use for all of your favorite apps. That’s certainly a benefit, but it’s also a drawback. After your first round of Windows updates that take painfully long to install—not download, just install—you’ll understand why. Plus, while it has 32GB of onboard storage, most of that will be consumed by Windows and its updates. Combined with its updates—even if you use every trick you can to reclaim some space, you’ll get some room to install a few apps, but not enough to store data. You’ll need that microSD slot. Once you muddle through all of the setup, updates, app installations, and more though, you’ll have a fully functional Windows PC, though.

Both Travel Well, but the Chromebit Takes the Portability Prize

Both stick PCs are tiny, and easy to slide into a pocket or a carry all. They’re more or less all you need to get things done, but if we had to deliver a portability prize, the Chromebit would get it. Chrome OS is designed to run without a ton of on-board and connected storage, and the Chromebit, even though it has a USB port, doesn’t need it. It also doesn’t need an additional power adapter to keep the Chromebit powered up, thanks to that MHL support we mentioned, which means that at best, all you’re carrying around is the Chromebit itself. At worst, you’ll need to tote a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse with you.

The Intel Compute Stick on the other hand is just as portable, even a little smaller. It has a power button (which the Chromebit does not) and two USB ports, which are nice to have for connected devices. However, the Compute Stick still needs an AC adapter for power, no matter what you do. However, considering the fact that additional storage is more critical for the Compute Stick, that means that at best, you’ll wind up carrying the stick itself, an AC adapter, and your microSD card everywhere you go. At worst, you add either a combo keyboard/mouse to that, or Bluetooth peripherals. There’s a cap for the HDMI end of the Compute Stick, but your microSD card is kind of slipped into the slot, and while it’s secure for most uses, I wouldn’t want to carry it in my pocket or anything.

Either way, as far as portability goes, if you’re traveling with either, your bag is much lighter than if you carried even the lightest ultrabook, so it may be nitpicky to compare the two this way. Where the Chromebit stands apart a bit more is in how its OS handles being portable. Google built Chrome OS to be completely portable, even between devices. Since all of your data is stored in Google Drive and the only things your Chromebit remembers are the apps you have installed—and even those are just Chrome Web Apps—you can plug this thing in anywhere you have a display, input devices, and an internet connection, and you’re ready to go. If you lose it, it’s not a big loss, and you don’t lose a ton of data, which is huge in a portable device. The Compute Stick on the other hand is still Windows, and while Windows is in many ways just as portable, it’s less of a connected, web-centric experience, and if you lose your microSD card, you lose your apps and data too. Hardware is great, but consider the portability of your data as well.

The Compute Stick Has the Edge on Paper, but Both Are On Par in Practice

PC Stick Showdown: Intel Compute Stick vs Google Chromebit

If you’re just reading the specs, the Compute Stick—especially the more recent 2016 model—has the edge, clearly. It packs a more powerful processor, more storage, better RAM (both the Compute Stick and the Chromebit have 2GB, but the Compute Stick has 1600Mhz DDR3 RAM, while the Chromebit gets by with 1066Mhz DDR3 RAM. The Compute Stick’s extra USB port is great, especially considering it’s USB 3.0, and expandable storage is great too (even if it’s necessary), but once you put all of those features into use, the end result is one that doesn’t feel as much like the powerhouse it sounds like. In fact, the Chromebit feels a bit more smooth and snappy to use.

If it sounds crazy, it is—using both felt odd. I kept thinking that the Chromebit shouldn’t be as smooth as it was, even if it was limiting by its very nature. You play in Google’s Chrome OS garden when you use the Chromebit, and the synergy between hardware, software, and the apps available is something that Google tries to manage. You wind up with a less useful experience, but one that works better, especially if your needs don’t outstrip the walls of the garden. Over on the Compute Stick however, you have Intel’s hardware and Windows as the software, and that synergy just isn’t there. Windows does as Windows does, and the cracks in the hardware show pretty quickly. 1600Mhz DDR3 RAM doesn’t save the Compute Stick from the fact that there’s still only 2GB for Windows 10 to use. 32GB of onboard RAM doesn’t save the Compute Stick from the fact that Windows can easily eat up 20+ GB on its own, and once you install a few applications, you’re struggling with low space warnings.

Don’t just take my word for it, either. PC World has some great benchmarks on the Compute Stick here, and Engadget felt the limitations of the hardware, impressive as it is in a tiny stick, pretty quickly as they buckled under the strain of Windows—and under using Windows like most users would. When it comes to performance, the difference in specs makes the Compute Stick look like it’s worth the money. The performance delta in use challenges that notion, and makes you wonder if you should just pick up the Chromebit and save the fifty bucks.

The Verdict: Chromebit Today, See What Intel Does Tomorrow

The video above, from YouTuber Austin Evans, compares the last generation Intel Compute Stick with the Chromebit, and comes to pretty much the same conclusions I have. In short, they both have their pros and cons, but the Chromebit does pretty much the same thing in a slicker and cheaper package than the Compute Stick, and unless you need Windows—like you’re a devotee of Microsoft Office or you need to run something heavy like PhotoShop (which crawled on the Compute Stick, by the way,) you can probably get away with the Chromebit for everything you need to do.

If you have to have Windows though—and you know who you are—the choice was made for you 1000 words ago. If you need Windows because you’re a gamer, well, you probably aren’t considering one of these anyway, but if you are, steer clear. They’re way too underpowered for anything intensive, especially games or anything graphically heavy. 1080p video is fine (4K video not so much), so Netflix, Hulu, and all the rest are fine—but anything heavier? Avoid it.

If you like a Google-centric life, using Hangouts for chat, use Facebook and Twitter to keep up with friends, and even webapps like Feedly to read the news, you’ll be just fine on the Chromebit. You’ll have less to keep track of when you move around, and less to lose if something goes missing. Even if you’re looking for a cheap way to turn an old display into a PC, or get something more robust for your TV than a Chromecast, the Chromebit is a nice compromise between the simplicity of a set-top and the power of an HTPC.

That said, it’s impressive what Intel’s managed to cram into that tiny stick-sized PC, and with a few small tweaks that they inexplicably decided against with this year’s freshly-introduced version (upping the built-in RAM to 4GB and adding MHL support), they could have a near-perfect PC-on-a-stick. Sadly, the fact that they didn’t do those things means you can save yourself some money and get the same (or better) experience with the Chromebit.

PC Stick Showdown: Intel Compute Stick vs Google Chromebit

PC Stick Showdown: Intel Compute Stick vs Google Chromebit

Imagine your PC in your pocket, free to carry it anywhere there’s a screen you can use to get your work done. Sure, a laptop works, but a PC-on-a-stick gives you serious freedom and flexibility, and the Google Chromebit and Intel Compute Stick both sell that dream pretty hard. We took both for a test drive.

The Contenders

Google made waves when it unveiled the Chromebit last year, and finally started selling it a few months ago. By comparison, the Intel Compute Stick has been around for a while, but picked up some steam around the same time. They’re different products (with some big differences), but they’re clearly playing in the same space. Here’s the rundown:

  • The Chromebit ($85 at Amazon): Made by ASUS, the Chromebit runs Google’s Chrome OS, connects to your display (or a TV) via HDMI, connects to a keyboard and mouse over Bluetooth (4.0), and connects to the Internet over Wi-Fi (802.11 a/b/g/n/ac supported.) Once you have it up and running, you can install apps from the Chrome Web Store to get things done, and each Chromebit comes with 100GB of Google Drive space for documents, photos, and other files, since there’s virtually no on-board storage (only 16GB, in fact.) There’s a USB port for external storage or input devices, just in case. It’s powered by a Rockchip RK3288 processor, and packs 2GB of RAM. Since there’s no on-board storage and everything is web-based, you don’t have to worry you’ll lose data if you lose the device, or leave it at work when you want it at home. You can check out the full specs here.
  • The Intel Compute Stick ($146 at Amazon): Intel’s Compute Stick is made by Intel proper. If you’re considering one, make sure you get the 2016 model, because the 2015 model, while approachable, wouldn’t stand up too well to this showdown. The newer version is a far sight better. The new model includes 32GB of onboard storage, has an microSD slot for expandable storage, is powered by an Intel Cherry Trail Atom x5-Z8300 processor and 2GB of RAM, and supports Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac (compared to last year’s /b/g/n-only chipset) and Bluetooth 4.2. There are two USB ports (one of which is USB 3.0) compared to last year’s single USB 2.0 port, which is another great improvement. The Compute Stick also comes with Windows 10 preloaded. Hardware-wise, it’s pretty impressive for its size.

http://gizmodo.com/googles-chrome…

http://gizmodo.com/it-looks-like-…

Those are the basics. Of course, the Compute Stick and the Chromebit aren’t the only PCs-on-a-stick available, but they’re two of the most popular, and two of the most mature. There are tons of Android sticks with ancient version of Android and an HDMI port, many of which use the same chip that the Chromebit uses, but we’re not interested in those. Let’s dive in to our comparison.

The Compute Stick Runs Windows, but the Chromebit is Just Easier to Use

PC Stick Showdown: Intel Compute Stick vs Google Chromebit

Setup and use are two of the first places that the Chromebit and the Compute Stick start to break away from each other. Of course, the Compute Stick runs Windows, which makes it much more usable, and the setup and installation process is probably more familiar for many people, but the Chromebit is pretty plug-and-play.

The Chromebit can also be powered via HDMI if your TV or display supports MHL (aka power over HDMI), which means you just plug in the Chromebit, switch to that HDMI input, and pair your peripherals. Once you’re paired, log in with your Google account, and you’re off and away. it’s worth noting the Chromebit doesn’t have a power button, which means it’s always on and connected, until you unplug it. Either way, the Chromebit is pretty much plug in, log in, and get busy. There are apps in the Chrome web store for just about everything you probably need to do—especially if your work, web browsing, or social life keep you on the web—and even a few light games here or there (more on that later.)

On the other hand, the Intel Compute Stick is clearly the hardware winner here, with more powerful components and a full version of Windows on board that you can use for all of your favorite apps. That’s certainly a benefit, but it’s also a drawback. After your first round of Windows updates that take painfully long to install—not download, just install—you’ll understand why. Plus, while it has 32GB of onboard storage, most of that will be consumed by Windows and its updates. Combined with its updates—even if you use every trick you can to reclaim some space, you’ll get some room to install a few apps, but not enough to store data. You’ll need that microSD slot. Once you muddle through all of the setup, updates, app installations, and more though, you’ll have a fully functional Windows PC, though.

Both Travel Well, but the Chromebit Takes the Portability Prize

Both stick PCs are tiny, and easy to slide into a pocket or a carry all. They’re more or less all you need to get things done, but if we had to deliver a portability prize, the Chromebit would get it. Chrome OS is designed to run without a ton of on-board and connected storage, and the Chromebit, even though it has a USB port, doesn’t need it. It also doesn’t need an additional power adapter to keep the Chromebit powered up, thanks to that MHL support we mentioned, which means that at best, all you’re carrying around is the Chromebit itself. At worst, you’ll need to tote a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse with you.

The Intel Compute Stick on the other hand is just as portable, even a little smaller. It has a power button (which the Chromebit does not) and two USB ports, which are nice to have for connected devices. However, the Compute Stick still needs an AC adapter for power, no matter what you do. However, considering the fact that additional storage is more critical for the Compute Stick, that means that at best, you’ll wind up carrying the stick itself, an AC adapter, and your microSD card everywhere you go. At worst, you add either a combo keyboard/mouse to that, or Bluetooth peripherals. There’s a cap for the HDMI end of the Compute Stick, but your microSD card is kind of slipped into the slot, and while it’s secure for most uses, I wouldn’t want to carry it in my pocket or anything.

Either way, as far as portability goes, if you’re traveling with either, your bag is much lighter than if you carried even the lightest ultrabook, so it may be nitpicky to compare the two this way. Where the Chromebit stands apart a bit more is in how its OS handles being portable. Google built Chrome OS to be completely portable, even between devices. Since all of your data is stored in Google Drive and the only things your Chromebit remembers are the apps you have installed—and even those are just Chrome Web Apps—you can plug this thing in anywhere you have a display, input devices, and an internet connection, and you’re ready to go. If you lose it, it’s not a big loss, and you don’t lose a ton of data, which is huge in a portable device. The Compute Stick on the other hand is still Windows, and while Windows is in many ways just as portable, it’s less of a connected, web-centric experience, and if you lose your microSD card, you lose your apps and data too. Hardware is great, but consider the portability of your data as well.

The Compute Stick Has the Edge on Paper, but Both Are On Par in Practice

PC Stick Showdown: Intel Compute Stick vs Google Chromebit

If you’re just reading the specs, the Compute Stick—especially the more recent 2016 model—has the edge, clearly. It packs a more powerful processor, more storage, better RAM (both the Compute Stick and the Chromebit have 2GB, but the Compute Stick has 1600Mhz DDR3 RAM, while the Chromebit gets by with 1066Mhz DDR3 RAM. The Compute Stick’s extra USB port is great, especially considering it’s USB 3.0, and expandable storage is great too (even if it’s necessary), but once you put all of those features into use, the end result is one that doesn’t feel as much like the powerhouse it sounds like. In fact, the Chromebit feels a bit more smooth and snappy to use.

If it sounds crazy, it is—using both felt odd. I kept thinking that the Chromebit shouldn’t be as smooth as it was, even if it was limiting by its very nature. You play in Google’s Chrome OS garden when you use the Chromebit, and the synergy between hardware, software, and the apps available is something that Google tries to manage. You wind up with a less useful experience, but one that works better, especially if your needs don’t outstrip the walls of the garden. Over on the Compute Stick however, you have Intel’s hardware and Windows as the software, and that synergy just isn’t there. Windows does as Windows does, and the cracks in the hardware show pretty quickly. 1600Mhz DDR3 RAM doesn’t save the Compute Stick from the fact that there’s still only 2GB for Windows 10 to use. 32GB of storage doesn’t save the Compute Stick from the fact that Windows can easily eat up 20+ GB on its own, and once you install a few applications, you’re struggling with low space warnings.

Don’t just take my word for it, either. PC World has some great benchmarks on the Compute Stick here, and Engadget felt the limitations of the hardware, impressive as it is in a tiny stick, pretty quickly as they buckled under the strain of Windows—and under using Windows like most users would. When it comes to performance, the difference in specs makes the Compute Stick look like it’s worth the money. The performance delta in use challenges that notion, and makes you wonder if you should just pick up the Chromebit and save the fifty bucks.

The Verdict: Chromebit Today, See What Intel Does Tomorrow

The video above, from YouTuber Austin Evans, compares the last generation Intel Compute Stick with the Chromebit, and comes to pretty much the same conclusions I have. In short, they both have their pros and cons, but the Chromebit does pretty much the same thing in a slicker and cheaper package than the Compute Stick, and unless you need Windows—like you’re a devotee of Microsoft Office or you need to run something heavy like PhotoShop (which crawled on the Compute Stick, by the way,) you can probably get away with the Chromebit for everything you need to do.

If you have to have Windows though—and you know who you are—the choice was made for you 1000 words ago. If you need Windows because you’re a gamer, well, you probably aren’t considering one of these anyway, but if you are, steer clear. They’re way too underpowered for anything intensive, especially games or anything graphically heavy. 1080p video is fine (4K video not so much), so Netflix, Hulu, and all the rest are fine—but anything heavier? Avoid it.

If you like a Google-centric life, using Hangouts for chat, use Facebook and Twitter to keep up with friends, and even webapps like Feedly to read the news, you’ll be just fine on the Chromebit. You’ll have less to keep track of when you move around, and less to lose if something goes missing. Even if you’re looking for a cheap way to turn an old display into a PC, or get something more robust for your TV than a Chromecast, the Chromebit is a nice compromise between the simplicity of a set-top and the power of an HTPC.

That said, it’s impressive what Intel’s managed to cram into that tiny stick-sized PC, and with a few small tweaks that they inexplicably decided against with this year’s freshly-introduced version (upping the built-in RAM to 4GB and adding MHL support), they could have a near-perfect PC-on-a-stick. Sadly, the fact that they didn’t do those things means you can save yourself some money and get the same (or better) experience with the Chromebit.

You can now pre-order an Oculus PC bundle for $1,500

I you've been holding off ordering an Oculus Rift because you don't have a PC that's good enough, you can now buy one of the VR headsets bundled with a PC. From today Best Buy, Amazon and the Microsoft Store are all selling discounted packages that i…

Review: Asus’ excellent midrange laptop gets much better with Skylake

It’s easy to find cheap PCs and it’s easy to find good PCs, but it can be difficult to find a PC in between those two poles that gives you a really great value for your money. Too often, you’ll find PCs in the $600-700 range that aren’t portable enough, or that use bad LCD panels, or that give you too-small SSDs or too-slow HDDs.

That’s one reason we liked Asus’ Zenbook UX305 laptop so much. It was never the best laptop you could buy, but it gave you a whole lot for $700. There are some odd design touches, and its trackpad, like so many Windows PC trackpads, is mediocre at best. It doesn’t include a touchscreen. But the keyboard is good, the screen is good, and it’s as fast as it needs to be. In other words, Asus made most of the right compromises, and the Skylake version of the laptop delivers the same stuff with improved performance.

Look and feel

Asus didn’t change a thing about the way the Skylake version of the UX305 looks, which is mostly a good thing. It’s still a mostly metal laptop with a burgundy or dark purple finish (it looks different depending on the way the light hits it), with a smooth matte texture on the palm rest and bottom of the laptop and a brushed metal texture on the lid.

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Asus and Google’s Chromebit turns any monitor into a Chrome OS device

Earlier this year, we heard of the partnership between Google and Asus to miniaturize Chrome OS in the form of an HDMI stick. Now the resulting device, dubbed the Chromebit, is available for $85.

The 2.6-ounce stick looks like a slimmer version of the original Chromecast and comes in “tangerine orange” and “cacao black” (there’s no word yet on the blue model shown in the press image above). Its small size limits its capabilities somewhat: the stick contains 2GB of RAM and 16GB of storage, supports 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0, and runs on a Rockchip ARM processor. It also has a single USB port, so while you can opt for Bluetooth-connected keyboards and mice to pair with the Chromebit, USB is available for one physically connected peripheral.

As Chromebooks continuously improve their specs—with many featuring Intel processors and at least 4GB of RAM—the Chromebit won’t provide anywhere near the fastest Chrome OS experience you can get. However, what it lacks in power, it makes up in flexibility. Its purpose is to turn any monitor with a standard HDMI port into a makeshift Chromebook. You’ll be able to access all things Google, including Drive and Docs, and any Web apps from the Chrome Web Store that a regular Chromebook or Chromebox could download. That includes things like Netflix and Hulu, which means the Chromebit has the potential to be an ultra-low-power, ultra-portable media system.

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Windows 10 didn’t stop PC sales from dropping this summer

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ASUS’ ZenWatch 2 launches in the Google Store

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The Ars Windows laptop guide: Spring 2015

Driven by Moore’s law, Dennard scaling, and other material advances, technology continues to push for ever greater miniaturisation. As such, the standard workhorse computer of the day has repeatedly slimmed down over time. First it was the room-sized mainframe, then the minicomputer, then the desktop PC.

Today, the laptop reigns supreme. It represents a solid blend of price, performance, battery life, and features. For heavy lifting or in situations where mobility simply isn’t required, you can always turn to a desktop PC. And in fact, we have now witnessed the beginnings of a shift towards form factors that are even more mobile than laptops, as tablets and convertibles each offer almost-laptop-level performance in a more portable package.

The vast majority of users and usage scenarios still find a decent laptop is more than enough, however. And currently discussing laptops means navigating the vast array of third-parties offering such machines running Windows. That’s where this Spring 2015 guide comes in. We looked at new laptops from the major Windows OEMs—Dell, HP, Lenovo, Asus—plus Microsoft itself. Know up front this is not fully exhaustive: there are thousands of different laptops on the market today, and it would be impossible to test them all. But this exercise provides a useful snapshot of the current landscape much like our 2014 smartphone guide. (If we have missed a laptop that should absolutely be on this list, let us know and we’ll do our best to obtain a review unit for later inclusion.)

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Nexus Player Review: Android TV Isn’t Ready For Primetime

Nexus Player Review: Android TV Isn't Ready For Primetime

Android TV is exciting. It’s beautiful. The idea makes sense. And you should probably steer clear till Google gets its shit together. Until it does, the $100 Nexus Player just isn’t a good buy.

What is it?

The $100 Nexus Player is the first set-top-box to run Android TV, a new fork of the Android operating system designed for your living room’s big screen. It runs Android apps, plays Android games, and streams your Netflix and Hulu too. Plus, it doubles as a Chromecast, so you can sling things to your TV (or even share your screen) from a laptop, tablet, or phone.

The Asus-built box is about the size and shape of a hockey puck, and houses a quad-core 1.8GHz Intel Atom processor to shoulder the load. But the Nexus Player’s problems have nothing to do with horsepower.

Who’s it for?

Nexus Player Review: Android TV Isn't Ready For Primetime

People who would normally buy a Roku or Chromecast for their streaming media fix, but now want apps and games too. People who are considering Amazon’s $100 Fire TV, which also does apps, games, and streaming—but without Google’s seal of approval, or access to its wide world of downloadables.

Setup

Easy. Just plug in power, an HDMI cable (not included), and stick the Nexus Player anywhere you want. Then, spend the next five minutes wrestling with one of the world’s most uncomfortable pack-in remote controls.

Nexus Player Review: Android TV Isn't Ready For Primetime

There are two nice things about the pack-in remote: 1.) technically, it works, and 2.) it uses Bluetooth so you don’t need a line of sight to the set-top. The not-so-nice things involve the horrendous amount of effort it takes to click its five primary buttons, and the sudden stop your thumb encounters each time you press down. Not to mention the way the remote rotates in your hand when you try to press, unless you’re holding firmly. I lovingly decided to name my remote "Carpal Tunnel" after my first 26-character marathon. (I have a long Wi-Fi password.)

I haven’t spent much time with the Fire TV remote for comparison, but it’d be hard for me to believe that there’s a worse one out there than this chinzty hollow thing. The Apple TV remote, by comparison, feels like a finely crafted dream.

Mercifully, you don’t actually need the Google TV’s remote to type in your Google ID and activate streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, as you can do those with a smartphone instead. (You can do everything with a smartphone once you download the Android TV Remote app.) And once that’s taken care of, you’re in business.

What kind of business? I’m glad you asked.

Android TV

Android TV looks brilliant. The layout is about as intuitive and powerful as could be. You start on a home row of videos that Google recommends for you, ostensibly using fancy algorithms. Scroll to any one of them, and beautiful cover art fills the background of your screen. Click on any one of them, and they’ll instantly start playing, with surprisingly little buffering.

Nexus Player Review: Android TV Isn't Ready For Primetime

Want to search for something instead? It’s one click upwards, or you can even just press the Voice Search button on your remote to ask for what you need. Want to open an app or play a game? Just a click or three downward to scroll through the rows of wonderfully spaced colorful icons representing each application. As you add more apps, new rows automatically form, 10 apps to a row. It’s quick enough to get around that I can almost forgive the terrible remote.

There are just three jaw-dropping problems with this system: 1.) The home row recommendations are broken, 2.) Voice search won’t get you anywhere, and 3.) The app selection is dismal.

Let’s start with door number three.

The Bad

Ready for some bad news? Android TV has a cut-rate, tightly curated version of the Google Play app store instead of the real McCoy. Right now there are just 74 apps and games, combined, and you can’t even play 35 of those games without an optional Bluetooth gamepad at your side.

Nexus Player Review: Android TV Isn't Ready For Primetime

When you start up the Nexus Player, it comes pre-installed with Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube, Songza, and Google Play Movies & TV. Not bad, I guess, and there’s more where those came from. My personal favorites, Pandora and TuneIn Radio, are easily downloadable for your listening pleasure. You can even keep they playing in the background while you play games or surf YouTube for your next video.

There’s also comedy to be found on DailyMotion, music videos via Vevo, and both PBS Kids and TED can educate and entertain. Crackle and iHeartRadio too, if you want. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some major gaps. Gaps like any kind of sports programming at all, unless you count Red Bull, no Twitch or UStream, and no premium cord-hopping apps like HBO Go or Showtime Anywhere.

To some degree, the siloed app collection makes sense. People are going to expect entertainment apps to work with that crummy little remote, and that means you can’t just expect an app designed for touchscreens to work. But it’s less of an excuse when the Amazon Fire TV has a practically identical remote and fills in many of these holes.

Nexus Player Review: Android TV Isn't Ready For Primetime

And when you get to the game section and realize that Google is currently only promoting a tiny fraction of the games that support game controllers—not even all of the best ones, like Minecraft, Grand Theft Auto, Sonic the Hedgehog, Dead Trigger, not to mention classic console emulators—it feels arbitrary. Why can Android TV buyers play Modern Combat 4, but not the newer Modern Combat 5? And the way the Google Play Store is set up on Android TV, as tightly curated lists, it doesn’t feel like there’s room to browse a larger catalog even if one existed.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t great games on Android TV, including ones you can play with just the tiny remote. I got lost in Badlands and Riptide GP2 for a while, and games like those might be a particularly nice surprise for people who think they’re just getting a streaming box. But a microconsole this is not. I wouldn’t dare spend $40 on a Bluetooth game controller, even the fairly nice one that Google’s offering, unless I knew without a shadow of a doubt that games would thrive on this box.

And though it worked fine for games likethe single-button Badlands or the five-button Riptide GP2, you still won’t want to play anything fancy with the crappy bundled remote.

Nexus Player Review: Android TV Isn't Ready For Primetime

Of course, availability might be a moot point because the Nexus Player only has 5.8GB of storage, and games like The Walking Dead can easily fill up a gigabyte each. I filled up that entire capacity in a single afternoon, and the entire UI slowed down substantially until I freed up space again.

The Bad

Believe it or not, apps and games weren’t the main reason I wanted an Android TV. I was most looking forward to having Google predict what I’d like to watch next. So over the course of the weekend, I watched and listened to a variety of programs across Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, Google Play Movies & TV, Vevo, and more to see how the stream would respond to my choices.

Nexus Player Review: Android TV Isn't Ready For Primetime

Most of the time, it didn’t. It turns out that Netflix doesn’t integrate with that system at all. No recommendations whatsoever. Hulu Plus and a few other apps threw up recommendations after I installed them or ran them for the first time, but none of them seemed to have anything to do with my clearly stated interests. Hulu knows full-well how much I love Nathan Fillion and Stana Katic’s chemistry in Castle. It’s on my Hulu watch list. So why wouldn’t it recommend the next episode? Instead, Hulu seemed to think I might like seeing the second episode of a show I’ve never watched before. That’s just dumb.

So I fired up an episode of Castle manually… only to find Android TV wasn’t keeping track of what I was actively watching, either. No cards popped up in the suggestions tray to let me resume watching my show. Or the YouTube video I watched next. Or the Google Play movie after that. The pick-up-and-resume functionality that works so wonderfully on Chromecast doesn’t apply to the Android TV interface as of today. Only dedicated music apps get their own "Now Playing" card on the home row.

Nexus Player Review: Android TV Isn't Ready For Primetime

YouTube was the one app that did clearly pay attention to my interests, but only in the most useless of ways: One seemingly harmless vid of Emma Stone on Jimmy Fallon filled my feed with a cascade of popular actresses taking on ridiculous challenges on late-night television. Thanks, Android TV.

With my feed now full of movies I didn’t want to buy, shows I didn’t want to watch, and Jennifer Lawrence viral videos I didn’t have time to see, I figured it was time to start dismissing some of Google’s recommendations and choosing my next selections more carefully. That’s when it hit me that there’s no way to do any such thing. You either give Google positive reinforcement to keep handing you shit you don’t want… or else the recommendations just stay there. You can’t get rid of them at all.

Nexus Player Review: Android TV Isn't Ready For Primetime

It’s particularly frustrating when Google’s choices are ones you’ve already seen or own. "Okay, Google, I liked X-Men: Days of Future Past. Sure, I’ll watch the trailer again. I’ll even add it to my wishlist. But I’m not going to spend $5 on movie I just saw in theaters. Why is it still taking up a slot on my TV screen? Oh, I see: you take up six of the best slots on my home row to advertise whatever your best-selling films and shows are on Google Movies & TV? Great. And if I search for a movie, you’ll only show me results from Google Movies, even if I can stream free with my Hulu or Netflix subscription? Fantastic."

At least you can turn off recommendations on a per-app basis if you dig deep in a settings page.

The Ugly

Nexus Player Review: Android TV Isn't Ready For Primetime

If I haven’t convinced you yet that Android TV is a half-baked product, I’m not sure what else to say, but I should probably let you know that there could be more serious issues under the hood as of today. One of our review units never managed to connect to Wi-Fi at all, and mine was spotty too. Several times over the weekend, it lost connection even when other devices in my house were working fine, and I needed to pull the plug to get it to connect again after it stopped in the middle of a movie.

Several apps also froze or outright crashed while I was watching, including one during a long, successful jet skiing session in Riptide GP2. You can force close apps from a settings page, unless they totally lock up the entire system and cause it to reboot—which happened to me once as well.

Oh, and I had the damnest time keeping the optional $40 Bluetooth game controller actually connected to the Player. It kept unpairing itself.

Like

The interface looks and feels great. I really want the promise of Android TV to be realized, because there’s a lot of potential here.

It’s pretty damn cool that you can voice search for any actor, director, series (or even more esoteric requests) and get a list of films and their cast, complete with pictures of each person, from Google’s Knowledge Graph. It’s even cooler that you can jump straight to YouTube video clips of those folks in action. Did you know Xander Berkeley was the secret bad guy in Air Force One? I found out the best possible way: watching Harrison Ford punch him out.

Nexus Player Review: Android TV Isn't Ready For Primetime

5GHz Wi-Fi makes the $100 Nexus Player less choppy than the $35 Chromecast dongle for screen sharing in particular. The Wi-Fi performance isn’t noticeably different otherwise.

You can actually sideload apps onto the Nexus Player if you set it to developer mode (tap on the build number seven times in a row) and hook up to a computer over USB, but I haven’t had a chance to thoroughly test that yet.

You can also lock down the whole Android TV interface in a "restricted mode" so kids only get access to the apps you choose, which is super easy to do, but the whole interface gets sluggish and parts of it start breaking (the recommendations queue and voice search) as soon as I launched into that mode.

No Like

Google didn’t get it together before launch. The software doesn’t feel remotely complete. It didn’t get partners to properly integrate their apps with the platform’s most intriguing features, like recommendations and voice search. It didn’t do a great job with its own apps, either.

Without working recommendations or universal search, Android TV feels like it’s designed to sell movie and TV rentals. That’s an issue that plagues Fire TV as well, and it totally turns me off.

Volume was often way too loud or way too quiet, because it’s not normalized across applications, and there are no volume keys on the remote to quickly fix that. Which means you’ve always got to have two remotes handy. Which doesn’t make a lot of sense, since Google already figured out how to let you control volume with your phone on the Chromecast dongle. Why not Android TV too?

The Nexus Player is actually worse for casting Netflix than the original Chromecast, at least right now. Instead of using the Player as a dumb receiver with your smartphone as the controller, the Netflix app tries to let you use the shitty pack-in remote instead. The result, for me, was that my phone was no longer able to pick up and resume the stream, nor change the volume.

No multi-user support means no way for my friends and family to share their purchases on the big screen.

Should I buy it?

Nexus Player Review: Android TV Isn't Ready For Primetime

Do you like being on the bleeding edge of technology so much that you will pay for something that’s broken and hope that it improves? Even then, the Nexus Player is a hard sell. The software is so clearly unfinished, with references to missing features here and there, that I can’t help but think Google will fix it at some point down the road. According to Google, updates are easy: Google and app developers can seamlessly push updates to the software without requiring you to approve them one by one.

But I don’t know that the Asus hardware is sound, either, given the technical issues, and 5.8GB of storage with no microSD expansion is painfully small.

And if you aren’t a fan of beta testing Google products, you should definitely wait, or move on. The box I have under my TV set isn’t remotely ready for primetime. I wouldn’t dream of giving one to a parent or grandparent right now. If you really want a simple box with Google Movies + TV, you can now get that on a $50 Roku. The Chromecast is still a great deal at $35 if you don’t mind using your smartphone. And the Amazon Fire TV already does most of what the Nexus Player set out to do at $100.

I genuinely had some fun watching movies and playing games on the Nexus Player, and I would genuinely buy an Android TV that had access to anything close to the full bounty of the Google Play store. Maybe by the time Sony and Sharp build it into televisions, it’ll actually be smart.