Asus Cube With Google TV review

The Asus Cube has the easiest, most intuitive Google TV interface we've seen yet, but this media hub is still a few steps behind Roku and Apple TV.
Photo of Asus Cube With Google TV

Google TV has had a rough couple of years. The promising Android-based TV interface appeared on a small handful of media hubs, but never quite caught when compared to, say, the more accessible Roku and Apple TV. Asus has produced a Google TV box it hopes will change this. The Cube has the same selection of apps and services as Google TV devices like the Sony Internet Player NSZ-GS7 and the Vizio Co-Star VAP430, but its intuitive menu system arranges those choices in small, easy-to-navigate chunks. The $139.99 (list) box is inexpensive and full of features, and its interface makes it much smoother to control than other Google TV boxes we’ve reviewed.

Design
Hence the name, the Asus Cube is shaped like a cube. It’s a black plastic block that measures 4.8 inches on each side. It’s covered in diagonal molded stripes that give it a distinct, if unnecessary, texture. A blue indicator light on the front next to an infrared sensor is the only distinguishing feature, besides a small diagonal Asus logo. The back panel houses an HDMI input and output, a USB port, an Ethernet port, a power connector, and an infrared blaster port. A second USB port sits on the right side of the cube. There are no buttons or controls on the device itself; it starts up automatically when you plug it in, and all control is performed through the included remote.

Like all Google TV device remotes we’ve seen, the Asus Cube’s rectangular, double-sided controller combines conventional playback controls, a hardware QWERTY keyboard, and a way to control the on-screen mouse pointer. It also has a motion sensor for playing certain games available on the Google Play store. The touchpad is large and sensitive, letting you move the cursor across the screen with a simple swipe of the thumb. It’s also textured and clicks when pressed, which makes clicking with the mouse pointer more comfortable and lets it double as a navigation pad. By pressing the mouse pointer button on the side of the remote, you can disable the touchpad and turn it into an eight-way navigation pad with four directions, four color buttons (located on the diagonal portions of the pad), and an Enter button in the middle. The four directions and Enter button are also textured so you can click them comfortably without looking at the pad. Additional physical buttons on the remote include television and playback controls, Power buttons for both the Asus Cube and your TV, dedicated buttons for watching live TV, in standard or picture-in-picture mode, and a dedicated Netflix button. A side button above the mouse cursor button activates the Cube’s voice command feature.

The remote isn’t completely well designed, though. The QWERTY keyboard lets you input text, but the buttons are lined up in a grid and while the order of the letters are correct, they’re positioned very awkwardly; the middle row of letters is placed one space to the left to make room for both the Shift and Caps Lock keys, which makes typing difficult when you’re used to the standard QWERTY layout. Removing the Caps Lock key or putting it on the other side, and positioning the letter keys properly would have been a better choice. The Voice Command button on the side is also slightly inconvenient, because it’s easy to press accidentally, and bring up the voice command box, which can slow the interface down until you close it.

The Cube
The interface is as cube-themed as the box itself. While it runs Google TV, the Asus Cube uses its own unique Cube UI to navigate your most commonly used items. The Cube UI uses a flipping cube that takes up half of the menu screen and shows two sides at any given time. One side shows the category you’re browsing, while the other shows six icons for apps or bookmarks.  The cube flips up or down when browsing the categories, which include Home, TV and Movies, Music, Social, News, Sports, Games, Education, and Favorites. The menu system is intuitive and lets you keep your favorite choices organized without drowning you in information on any one screen.

The remote’s integrated mic lets you control the Asus Cube with your voice. Just press either the Microphone button and speak into it when the voice prompt appears on the screen. You can tell it to search, open any installed app, or go to any Web page (though it had some trouble telling that I was saying “pcmag.com” and not “pcmatic.com” or “mag.com”). The search function Googles any term you want, or checks various aggregated content services like Netflix and Amazon Instant Video for movies or television shows you want to find.

Because it’s a Google TV device, the Cube can access thousands of apps through Google Play, which also serves as a portal for accessing music and movies available through Google. The most commonly used media apps, like Netflix, are preinstalled on the Cube, but you can download anything from games to calendar apps. You can also put widgets on your home screen, above the Cube interface; I had no problem adding an analog clock and a music player to the main screen, making the Cube’s menu seem a little more useful.

TV Integration and Performance
Like most Google TV devices, the Asus Cube aims to augment the live TV-watching experience. The HDMI input can accept any device you connect that can play video, and the included IR blaster can control set-top boxes and Blu-ray players as well as the TV itself. Google TV’s PrimeTime feature integrates live television and online content services into one menu system that overlays on top of whatever you’re watching. When I was testing the Cube, I had some difficulty integrating it into our Dish Hopper setup; the device registered and the interface loaded the correct channel lineup, but besides power on and off functions, I couldn’t control the set-top box using the “Basic” integration. “Advanced” integration requires the Cube and the set-top box to be on the same local network, which because of the Dish Network Hopper’s lack of Wi-Fi and our Lab’s wiring was unfeasible. 

Despite its impressive interface design, the Cube feels underpowered. The menus loaded sluggishly when I downloaded, installed, or moved around different apps, and the television remote integration, despite coming with an IR blaster for controlling your devices, was spotty at best. The Cube’s performance seems slightly burdened by just how many things it can do. And while Asus includes a task manager app to manually close apps to free up memory, it’s easy to get too many programs open at once. It’s a stark contrast to the very responsive Roku and Apple TV boxes, which aren’t suited for multitasking or a wide variety of apps, but are both very responsive.

Still, if you want Google TV, the Asus Cube is one of the best ways to get it into your home theater, and its add plenty of functionality thanks to its flexible, screen-friendly menu system and full access to the Web. If you want a lot of power and are willing to deal with a few hiccups, the Asus Cube will likely appeal to you. But if you just want an easy way to access Netflix, Hulu Plus, and other streaming services, get a Roku 3 or Apple TV.

Specifications
Web Browser Yes
External Storage USB GB
Online Content Services Google Play Apps
Blu-ray No
Wi-Fi Compatibility Yes
Smartphone/Tablet Control Yes
USB Ports 2
DLNA Yes

Verdict
The Asus Cube has the easiest, most intuitive Google TV interface we've seen yet, but this media hub is still a few steps behind Roku and Apple TV.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc