Asus Cube Review

Asus Cube - Banner

Let’s be honest. Google TV was a minor failure. Not a major one, it worked well enough, and provided a pleasant enough experience for those that invested in it, but it didn’t really take off either. Google TV became hyped as a cutting edge technology, which it really wasn’t, and so it also became an expensive technology, which people generally couldn’t afford. Though Google TV certainly provided features that the competition didn’t, it also didn’t provide enough to make people pay the high premium to use it. Asus, however, has a reputation for their excellent Android products and a knack for making fast, modern, and inexpensive devices. When I heard that Asus was coming out with a Google TV powered device, I knew I had to give it a try.

The Very Cubic Cube

The Asus Cube is… a cube. I know, I know, it sounds so obvious, but I also know that you’re thinking “a name is just a name”. After all, a cube is hardly an attractive shape, so it’s probably some sleeker smaller rounded box that Asus calls a cube. As it turns out, it’s not. Take a look:

It's so much fun to take pictures of.

It’s so much fun to take pictures of.

This is where you expect me to complain about the size and the shape, and how it’s ugly. In reality though, the device has a stark business aesthetic that I love. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to capture in photos, but the matte finish and textured surface looks very handsome in person. They give you an IR extension so that you can hide it away from sight, but compared to the fingerprint magnets that are the competition, this is one I’m more than happy to leave out and visible.

In the Box

The Cube What's in the box

The Hardware

The back of the CubeThe Cube itself is essentially just an Android powered Google TV device. It’s about seven inches … well, it’s about seven inches any way you measure it. It is a cube after all. It’s got a USB port on one side, an IR receiver on another side, and a bunch of ports including another USB port, HDMI, and so on, on the a third side. I can’t rightly call any of those sides “front” or “back”, but if I had to guess, most people will face it with the IR port forward, making the side with most of the ports the back. Honestly, there’s not much more to say about it, but it is probably a little larger than it needed to be. I suspect Asus could have gotten away with making it half as tall, but it’s sturdy and stacks nicely. As usual with Asus hardware, there are certainly no complaints about build quality or materials.

In many ways, the remote control is actually more important than the Cube itself. Since Google TV is a more featured platform than the usual smart TV fare, it also needs a more serious remote. Asus delivers this with what is easily the most featured remote in its class. One side sports your usual bevy of remote control buttons, but in place of your standard D-pad is a spacious directional touch pad. Turn the remote control over, and you’ll find a full keyboard including arrow keys and the Android shortcut buttons. My only complaint about the remote is that the buttons are all a little on the stiff side, so clicking with the directional pad, and typing on the keyboard takes a little more effort than usual. The keyboard works great with the Cube though, and has perfectly good reception. I know at least one other major review for the device went on and on about how poor the reception is, and I feel confident saying that isn’t true. What is true, is that with the buttons being a little hard to press and Android 3.2 being a little sluggish (more on that later), it is easy to blame the remote and reception on missed button clicks. I strongly suspect that missed or delayed interaction from the remote will be much reduced with a firmware update to the newly announced Google TV 4.2. Speaking of the update to Google TV, let’s move on to software.

The Software

The Cube and RemoteGoogle TV hadn’t been updated in years, which is a shame since I think many manufacturers were hoping to use it to power their devices. Unfortunately, it was mostly abandoned by Google, relatively slow and laggy, and required more expensive chips to run well, leading most manufacturers to go with lighter weight custom solutions. Although Asus has build the Cube to be a pretty powerful device, Android 3.2 shows its age, and often feels a step behind where you want it to be. Luckily, a pretty major update to Google TV was announced to absolutely no fanfare at Google I/O, Google’s major developer conference. Asus has an excellent track record of keeping their whole range of devices up to date, so I feel confident that new firmware will be available for the Cube relatively soon.

When the new firmware is released, I’ll probably revisit my review of the device, because unfortunately, the software is the Cube’s biggest fault. Though Asus tried to make a slick, cube-style launcher, it’s honestly awkward to navigate, and not very efficient. Thanks to being a TV device, you’ll also notice many of the more popular launchers either unavailable from the Play Store or awkward to use, requiring much mushing of the touch pad. In case you were wondering, it doesn’t support tap-and-drag, so if you need to drag anything, you’ll need to actually press down on the pad, and move your finger without lifting it. The TV Guide features require you to tell the device what service you’re using, are are pretty much useless to a cord cutter anyway. Netflix sports the exact same user interface as it does on every other TV-style device, meaning you’ll recognize it from your smart TV or video came console, but it’s different from the version normally offered to Android users. Amazon Instant is not available, many apps are missing from the Play Store, and I have doubts about the usefulness of many of the apps included with the device. The Plex client costs $0.99, and works reasonably’t have any buffering trouble at all.)

The Cube supports on board hardware accelerated video in a variety of formats, but thanks to an utter lack of video players on the Play Store, if it doesn’t support it out of the box, you’re going to have a hard time finding a way to play it. Unfortunately, that means if you do decide to watch Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, like I did, you had better brush up on your Klingon, because the subtitles probably won’t work.

Conclusion

At a very reasonable $135 price point the Asus Cube is by and far the most attractive Google TV offering I’ve come across. The hardware is great, and the software should improve enormously with an update in the near future. I have to rate the device for what it is, however, and not what I hope it will become. For great hardware, a handsome aesthetic, and full featured remote, the Cube gets 4.5/5 for the hardware. For firmware that’s just not ready, and unfortunately, really hampers the experience of the device, the Cube gets 2.5/5 for software. Overall, I award the Cube 7 Cubes out of 10. I’ll end with a plea to Asus; please, update the firmware and make this device awesome, because it has so much potential. I know I’ll be eagerly waiting to review it again and discover all that it’s capable of.

Learn Anything? Share it!