Boxee Box Review: A Media Device Teetering Between Awesome And Odd

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Short Version
The Boxee Box is here. I unboxed the device yesterday and have spent pretty much every moment since poking around and I’m impressed. It’s not the mind-blowing experience you get from the desktop app, but the dead-simple setup compounded with the clever dual-sided remote makes for a superb user experience.

It’s still Boxee at the core and that’s all that matters. The Boxee Box brings broadcast shows along with web video to your HDTV through the magical Internet tubes. Disney, News Corp, NBC Universal, CBS, they all work – not through Hulu but Fancast, and this is could be a problem (more on this later). People love Boxee because it is one of the best options for watching any sort of video on your computer. The program is the heart of many HTPCs. Sadly, the Boxee Box isn’t a true, ready-made Boxee HTPC. It’s still worth your time, but don’t expect to replicate the same experience of Boxee installed on an HTPC. That said, it is without a doubt the best stand-alone media streamer on the market and will only get better.

Video Review






Features:

  • Intel Atom Platform
  • RF QWERTY remote included
  • 802.11n Wireless built-in
  • Extensive file format support
  • $199 street price
  • Product Page

Pros:

  • Plays all sorts of media file formats
  • Beautiful interface
  • Works with online content (right now at least)

Cons:

  • Sluggish at times
  • A major feature set could be disabled by media companies

The Boxee Box is Boxee in a box

As soon as I turned on the Boxee Box, it hit me. This is different than the PC version. Well, it looks and feels slightly different. The interface is slightly retooled to better fit within the 10-foot interface rules, but the result makes it feel either a bit dumbed down or less cluttered — I have decided which yet. Either way, it feels super-sized in a way. Unlike the desktop version, which is smooth as TCBY yogurt, there’s an itsy-bitsy bit of lag on the Boxee Box. It’s by no means a deal breaker or even annoying, but it’s not nearly as fluid as the PC version.

The difference between the desktop and standalone platforms is very noticeable in the available content area . Hulu’s self-described evil overlords clearly hate consumers and so the Boxee Box is forced to use Comcast’s Fancast site instead. This creates two problems in that there isn’t an HD button on Fancast, meaning the video quality is poo, and two, there simply aren’t as many programing options. But this might not be Fancast’s fault. Select The Office on the Boxee Box and one episode is available. At least it’s the latest one, but there are 11 episodes available through the desktop Boxee. This trend continues with How I Met Your Mother with only two episodes available on the Boxee Box with six on the desktop version. There are three Family Guy episodes to the desktop’s nine and so on. At least Star Trek Enterprise and MacGuyver are available in their entirety on both platforms, but don’t expect to get caught up on any modern show.

The amount of available shows on the platform is impressive even if they only have a few episodes each. Download the Boxee desktop and then imagine the same amount of shows with less episodes each. That’s the Boxee Box. Now, as long as the shows are available on Fancast.com, you can watch them.

Back to The Office example. Clicking on the one available episode launches the Fancast page in the Boxee Box browser where you’re free to navigate to the other available episodes. This says that there’s a good chance more episodes will be added to Boxee interface in time. Navigation is a bit of a pain though, as the Boxee remote doesn’t have a touchpad or any sort of natural controller scheme besides a 4-way navigation pad. It’s a bit hokey, but at least it works. Can’t say that for Google TV although the two platforms could end up in the same sinking boat.

Hulu doesn’t work on the Boxee Box like it does on the desktop platform. Fancast does, but the powers that be could shut off that feed just like they did on the Google TV leaving the Boxee Box somewhat dead in the water. Big media will decide the Boxee Box’s future. The $9.99 a month Hulu Plus service is launching on the platform shortly, but the subscription-based service (with the same video ads) only offers a tiny fraction of the free, ad-supported library. This is the one area that should make potential buyers pause. Will the Boxee Box work the same way in a month that it does today? Even Boxee doesn’t know that.

Long time Boxee users turned Boxee Box owners are screaming right now in the official Boxee Box forums. The latest software update moved the focus from local content to online content. I see their point, too. It’s a few extra steps to reach content storied either locally on an SD card or on a network share. However, the Boxee Box is just a few days old right now and the company is no doubt taking in all the feedback and will likely retool somethings in future releases. The UI could really use some user customization options overall anyway.

Local playback support

Great news, everybody: The Boxee Box plays everything. Well, where everything means the audio and video from every .AVI and .MKV along with a bunch of other files I tried. Boxee always had great file playback support, mainly because it relies on mplayer. I can’t find anything it won’t play, really. MOV, *Check* – FLAC, *Check* – OGG, *Check* – Full ISOs, *Check* – M2TS, *Check*!

The networking is either done through direct network browsing over Samba or through UPnP servers. It can’t be easier. Multiple file locations over a few computers? No problem. You can add them all. Once you select your file sources, the Boxee Box scans and adds the content to the library. It even adds artwork, relevant info and sorts by genre if it can find it. This is a real family-pleaser.

Playback is awesome too. I experienced nearly zero lag or jitters playing even 8GB MKVs wirelessly. Only Blu-ray ISOs and one particular high bit-rate 8GB MKV of A Christmas Carol gave me any issues at all. That very same file crashes my Seagate media streamer during the opening credits though so I’m marking this up as win for the Boxee as the file only stutters a bit. This is where the Boxee Box will make you smile. Not only does it play nearly everything. It does so with ease and zero effort from the user. No searching for codecs or file conversion software. Just select and enjoy.

So with the complete codec support and fancy automatic album artwork, it’s easy to put the Boxee Box at the very top of my recommended streamer list. The pretty UI puts it above even the WD TV in my mind since they have the same file support. No longer as your household’s nerd do you have to install random media jukeboxes on your media streamer so your family isn’t forced to use the ugly list view found on so many media streamers. Plug in the Boxee Box, show it where you store your files, and it does the rest.

Local network playback is gamble, it seems to me lately. Devices either play everything, like a WD TV or Popcorn Hour, but the interface often looks like it was made by a committee — or the interface is slightly better, like with Google TV, but the playback is done through transcoding and DLNA servers. That often means you’re going to spend long hours trying out new servers and transcoding settings only to find you’re missing some random audio codec. There’s none of that mess with the Boxee Box as it does both direct network browsing and DLNA/UPnP through a legit interface. Win Win Win.

Watching web videos on your HDTV is never going to look great. Sorry, the videos are simply compressed and presented with a smaller screen in mind. Still, the content is free, which trumps video quality in my book. Some web videos look better than others, but most of the Fancast-provided videos are subpar.

Content from local sources look great, though. 1080p or 720p files play without hesitation but the color levels seem a bit off. The blacks are a touch grey. Most users probably won’t notice, but load up a favorite video and you’ll probably see what I mean. If you’re savvy, you can set up a color balance preset on your TV to correct for this, but that’s asking a lot when the other parts of the device are so simple and family-friendly.

Yeah, it has apps

Boxee does apps right. Instead of launching directly into the Apps like Google TV, they live in their own little category, relaxing until you call upon them. The Boxee Box ships with 131 ready to be installed, but there are only a few notable ones here. Pandora forces you to activate the service via your computer before it will start-up, but it’s worth the 2 minute hassle. 3D spectrum analyzer visualization, pretty artwork, a clever sidebar interface. It’s about the best implementation of Pandora out there. I’m not a Pandora user — I pay for rdio.com and love it — but this Pandora app is wonderful. You should know about YouTube Leanback. It’s the same thing here, but the QWERTY Boxee Box remote actually makes it useful and fun. Just start typing on the keypad to search and play. HD videos play just fine with no lag or jitters. Flickr forces you to the web where you must activate the service in your user settings. While you’re there, you may as well turn on Facebook, Twitter, and others. Boxee is all about sharing after all. But once the Flickr setting is activated, the app launches and brings your photostream to the Boxee Box. It’s not nearly as fluid as viewing pics off of a local source, but the experience is satisfying enough that users may just log into here rather than locating photos to share on networked devices.

The rest of the apps are standard fare. There’s a Revision 3 app that works a lot like all the others, a channel for The Onion, MLB, Vice, Vimeo, and TED along with over a hundred more. Two biggies are missing right now though: Netflix and Vudu. Both, however are on their way and will only add to the available streaming content on the Boxee Box. Even Hulu Plus should hit the system shortly, but the $9.99 a month service leaves much to be desired in the available content department.

The sinking box






Oh, the form factor. Hate it? No, I don’t hate it, but it annoys me that I can’t stuff it in my office AV rack. I can’t even stick it with my living room equipment controlled remotely through an RF universal remote; the Boxee Box doesn’t have an IR power command for remote powering options. It really doesn’t fit in my whole AV scheme. But I think that’s by design.

The Boxee Box is designed, both inside and out, to be a showcase piece. The glowing Boxee icon, the sinking box design, the lack of IR — it all says, I want to be shown off. The good kids at Boxee created a wonderful device and they want you to display it.

Well, great, but in my house, all of my AV equipment is stored 15 feet below my living room HDTV in a basement room, which keeps everything away from sticky kid’s fingers and prying eyes. It’s wonderful in that there’s zero chance my kids can touch any of the equipment. This setup won’t work with the Boxee Box. I would have to put the Boxee Box on the TV stand, run an HDMI cable to the TV, a TOSLINK cable down to the receiver below and then setup a macro on my universal remote to switch everything. It’s a needless hassle. [Update: see comments below. The Internet somewhat solved this issue although I still feel it's silly that an IR sensor is not simply built-in. Perhaps that will be in version 2]

It’s still an impressive nettop though. Inside is an Intel Atom CE4100, which was selected over the NVIDIA dual -core Tegra T20 for codec support. This platform allows the Boxee Box to process even H.264 1080p60 streams. The front-end isn’t slip-‘n-slide smooth, but it’s still nice and I didn’t experience any issues with media playback, which is the most important thing anyway.

The remote works great, although version two should have some sort of orientation markers to better distinguish the top from the bottom, and backlighting on the tiny QWERTY keypad would be absolutely genius. The RF range is impressive and I can get about 40 feet away and still operate the Boxee Box. The dual-sided form factor sound strange in theory, but it never felt weird using or hold it. The keypad isn’t in the way when you’re using the navigational pad. It’s a good remote.

Should you buy it?

$200 seems about right. Any less and the hardware would be compromised and any more, fully-powered HTPCs start to look attractive. The Boxee Box plays all sorts of locally-storied files, there’s online support through various media sites and hundreds of apps. The family will love the experience.

Post launch, Boxee Box isn’t perfect, but it’s a lot more polished than Google TV and I can’t find any deal breakers or even significant  downsides to delay your purchase. If you’ve never used Boxee before or are coming from a WD TV, Popcorn Hour or even an Apple TV new or old, you’ll absolutely love it and I can’t recommend it enough. However, current Boxee or even XBMC users should probably wait a bit to see if the software matures to the same point as the desktop version.

There is this business with Hulu, Fancast and the media companies though. There’s a good chance that these companies will simply disallow the Boxee Box from reaching their online content like they did for Google TV. However, unlike Google TV, the Boxee Box is a fantastic local media streamer with tons of media apps that are out of reach from big media. The Boxee Box wins in so many segments that my strong buy recommendation holds true even if one like broadcast media streaming gets cut off or restricted. Buy it and you’ll enjoy it. The Boxee Box is one of those rare consumer electronics that’s actually satisfying to use.

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