The Asus Cube delivers Google TV features at an affordable price, but suffers from scattered bugs and hardware shortcomings that make it difficult to recommend for non-techies.
Previewed at the 2013 CES (then called the Qube), the Asus Cube is a set-top box that delivers the Google TV experience—a combination media streamer, advanced program guide, and application bundle—for a modest $140. But in my tests, its many admirable features weren’t always easy to use.
Physically, the Asus Cube looks a lot like a Boxee Box made whole (the Boxee Box being a cube with a corner lopped off). Measuring about five inches on each side and weighing in at less 15 ounces, the Cube sits between your usual TV video source—typically, a cable or satellite box—and your HDTV, with HDMI cables making the connections both ways.
In addition to the HDMI in and out ports, the Cube has an ethernet port for connecting to a broadband network, an IR blaster port for an included cable to transmit commands from its remote to the cable or satellite box, and a couple of USB 2.0 ports for hooking up drives with media content for playback.
Asus does skimp a bit on networking components: The Cube only supports 10/100 ethernet, and if you can’t use a wired network connection, you’re limited to 802.11n Wi-Fi on the 2.4GHz band. In crowded environments, the 2.4GHz band is highly subject to interference, making it less than ideal for streaming media. Support for the roomier 5GHz band would have been nice, and in its absence a wired network connection is highly recommended.
The Cube’s somewhat thick candy-bar remote is one of the more unusual Google TV remotes I’ve seen, combining not only fairly standard navigation and playback buttons on one side and a QWERTY keyboard on the other, but also a hybrid touch-sensitive and mechanical navigation pad, plus support for voice searches and a dedicated Netflix button.
You initiate voice searches by pressing one of the remote’s two microphone buttons—one located on the navigation side of the remote, the other set into the bottom edge of the remote when you’re holding it for typing on the QWERTY keyboard. Unfortunately, the button on the edge is too easy to press inadvertently when you’re using the navigation side of the remote. I also found the keyboard’s smallish, rubbery keys uncomfortable for touch typing: It was difficult to tap them head-on and I found myself using the edges of my fingertips.
The hybrid touch-mechanical keypad, which takes up about the top third of the remote in navigation (portrait) mode, works quite well, however. I found the touchpad to be sensitive, and the mechanical up, down, left, right and OK/select buttons were also responsive. The remote also has colored diagonal bars, which you use for various functions much the way other remotes provide colored context-sensitive buttons.
Once you’ve connected all the cables and the AC adapter, you power on the Cube with another button on the remote, which launches a brief setup routine, during which you adjust the resolution and screen size of the interface, verify Internet access, specify your TV service provider, and set up control of your cable/satellite box, TV, and AV gear. However, the remote has only one power-on button for an external device, and you have to choose between using it for your TV and the cable/satellite box.
I also had a lot trouble setting up the IR blaster with my cable box. Usually I can place an IR transmitter pretty much anywhere on the box, but it took a lot of tries for me to finally locate a sweet spot on my Comcast Motorola box. And from that location, I was never able to get the remote to control the volume on my AV receiver.
Once setup was complete, the main user interface appears—and it’s a cube. Rotating it up and down essentially scrolls through its main menu options, which include screens for accessing various media types, games, social networks, and so on. ‘Turning’ the cube sideways brings up the options for each category—channels, players, or apps. Alternatively, you can access most functions by pressing the home key on the remote, scrolling to the right, and then selecting the All Apps icon. You can customize the home screen by moving, adding, or deleting apps and widgets using the remote. If that all sounds a tad confusing and not that intuitive, that’s because both are true.
You can download apps from the Google Play store to the Cube’s 4GB of internal memory. Asus also offers access to 50GB of free cloud storage via a pre-installed Asus WebStorage app. And you can download an app that lets your Android smartphone or tablet access Cube content and apps.
The Cube supports playback of media stored on a plugged-in USB drive as well as UPnP servers on your home network in several dozen popular file formats for unprotected content. USB playback worked as expected. However, while I was able to navigate to a couple of servers on my home network, the Cube never recognized media stored in folders on those servers. (Asus says it was unable to replicate my problem.)
Also preinstalled is a full-featured version of the Chrome browser, allowing you to browse the Web on your TV. You activate the cursor using the cursor key that’s next to the microphone key on the bottom edge, after which the navigation touchpad functions like a regular touchpad. But several other buttons are disabled when you’ve activated the cursor, including some of the colored diagonals on the touchpad. Browsing with Chrome went smoothly for the most part, although I sometimes ran into problems trying to use scrollbars. Typing in URLs on the aforementioned remote keyboard wasn’t much fun, though. For example, for a product that relies heavily on the Web, it’s odd that there’s no dedicated . button for entering URLs (you have to press the Fn and M keys at the same time to get the dot).
Also, I’m not convinced normal users really want to access the Web on their TVs. One of the reasons Roku and Apple TV products are so successful is that they provide a consistent, non-browser experience as much as possible instead of kicking people out into the greater Web to fend for themselves.
Another glitch involved trying to set up Facebook in the Accounts Manager. It turns out that the Cube doesn’t come with a working Facebook app (one may eventually come via a firmware update), so trying to set it up using Account Manager produced a page that hangs. Asus says Facebook users should instead access Facebook via Chrome.
I don’t want to make it sound like the Cube is defined by its bugs. Google TV has some very appealing features—for example, I like the way the program guide, accessible via a dedicated button on the remote, lets you browse through categories of content (movies, reality and game shows, comedy, and the like) with programs displayed as thumbnails, and then tune to your choice with a single click. If a show you’re interested in is in progress, the guide tells you how much time is remaining—and it even let me tune to an upcoming episode of Perry Mason a few minutes before it began. But in part because of its hardware limitations and in part because of the way Google TV itself works, the Cube at this point still feels more like a product for techies than a consumer electronics device for the masses.