Boxee Box Review 
Home Theater Media Servers Home Theater/Media Center PCs
Written by Mike Flacy   
Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Over 2010, there were a plethora of media players released in the consumer electronic space from brands like Western Digital, Apple, Netgear, Roku, etc…  Add in the iterations of digital cable boxes released with similar features as well as new Smart HDTVs with built in apps and the space is already insanely crowded.  In order to appeal to the average CE consumer, you really have to bring something original to the space.

Enter the Boxee Box created by D-Link, a uniquely designed set-top box that brings file functionality and organization to streaming web content.  It’s a result of the evolution of a piece of software called Xbox Media Center, an interface designed for the original Xbox that cataloged all of your media.  This software is still highly popular for the diy home theater PC crowd, but Boxee has taken it a step further with releasing hardware to compliment the software.   The box is priced at an MSRP of $199, arguably high for the set-top crowd but vastly cheaper than the typical HTPC build.  It’s also priced about $100 less than the Logitech Revue, a clearer competitor to the intended use of the device.

Boxee Back

Design:

You will be immediately taken aback by how much the Boxee stands out from other set-top solutions.   It’s definitely designed to be noticed rather than blend into your home theater system.  The unit actually has 7 sides, sits with a corner sticking up at an angle and uses a combination of black with bright green accents for the color palette.  I was surprised at how many of my guests actually complimented the industrial design of the unit as well as the color choices.  While everyone is trying to make their tech blend into the home theater space, it’s really interesting that Boxee has succeeded at the opposite.  If the hardware gets more exposure in brick and mortar stores, I wouldn’t be shocked to see people purchasing it because it’s different rather than using Apple’s strategy of minimalism.

Boxee RemoteOn the top of the unit, you will find the only button visible on the unit; the power button.  Once powered up, the Boxee logo glows in green on the left side of the unit.  On the opposite side, there’s a SD/MMC card slot for cards up to 64GB.  On the back of the unit, you will find the wired 10/100 Ethernet jack (wireless N is included as well), a HDMI 1.3a out, a SPDIF Optical out, a Stereo Out, the power plug connection and two USB ports for expanding out storage to USB drives or an external hard drive.  On the rear of the unit, you will find the ventilation for heat and the bottom is lined with a rubberized green material to avoid sliding around.  The Box is small as well measuring a maximum of 5 inches each way. Internally, the Boxee Box is simply a tiny computer. It’s driven by 1 GB of RAM, an Intel CE4100 SoC and a motherboard that’s about the size of one of the new Apple TVs.

In addition to the main unit, the other items in the packaging include the power adapter and the Boxee Box remote.  The front of the remote has a directional pad for on-screen navigation and three buttons.  The top button plays / pauses content, the middle button selects items on the menus and the bottom button exits you back through the content to the main menu.  My main issue with the remote is that it’s incredibly easy to confuse which side is up and pressing the buttons feels flimsy.  They should take a page out of Apple’s book and design something more similar to the most recent aluminum Apple Tv remote.

On the opposite side of the remote, you will find the full QWERTY keyboard for typing out what you are looking for.  It was a perfect fit for my hands and is definitely bigger than the average cell phone keypad.  However, if you prefer your Apple devices, you can download the Boxee app for your iPhone or iPod Touch to navigate the user interface.  There’s also a Boxee app in the works for the iPad, but it’s not clear if it will include remote features.  There’s no need for line of sight with the remote, so fell free to point is anywhere while typing.

Functionality:

When powering up the Boxee Box for the first time, you will need to register for a Boxee account.  It’s pretty painless and takes less than a couple minutes to complete.  The unit asks you about overscan immediately and you can adjust the corners of the content box if you so choose.  If you aren’t plugged into a wired connection, the unit will also ask which wireless network to use and ask to enter the password if needed.  Like Apple TV, this is the only time the unit will ask you as long as the network name remains the same.  During the setup process, you can also link up social accounts like Facebook and Twitter to share what you are watching as well as see what your friends are watching.

Remote back
From being completely powered off, it takes about a minute to turn on the Boxee Box and have it log you into the service.  Popping back on from sleep mode is incredibly fast though; about a second to turn it back on.  Once you have completed registration, the simple, cartoonish pop up on the screen and you can begin navigating the menu.   Boxee adopted the simplicity of Apple’s U.I. design and only give you a few starting options before drilling down into menus.  You will see icons for Friends, Watch Later, Shows, Movies, Apps and Files.  These options can also be accessed in a mini-pop up menu while watching content by pressing the menu button.  Friends is designed for you to check out what your buds are viewing and Watch Later is similar to Netflix’s queue.  The other four options are directly related to content.

Content:

Obviously, a device that’s made for consuming content is only as good as the content provided.  This is currently the ‘Achillies Heel’ of the Boxee Box platform.  As a set-top box, it’s failed to provide access to two of the most popular online streaming services since launch, Netflix and Hulu.  You can find Netflix support in boxes that cost half as much.  On the main Boxee blog, they have promised Netflix by the end of January, so that solves half of the problem.  As of an update that rolled out today, they also released Vudu support opening up the Boxee Box to the vast library of HD rentals at Vudu.  But to really bolster their TV show support they need Hulu Plus as well.

The current selection of streaming television shows and movies boils down to the sources and their overall quality.  It’s tough to find high quality high definition content as well as getting it to play quickly and smoothly.  Comedy Central seemed to be able to handle it pretty well and new episodes of South Park, for instance, played flawlessly.  Much of this content is advertising supported, but it’s a far cry from the 8 to 17 minutes worth of ads in a typical 30 to 60 minute television show.  One main problem with accessing this streaming web content is that it’s prone to service hiccups, thus forcing you to reload the entire video, try to find the spot where you were and wait for endless buffering.  It also likes to crash the Boxee box from time to time, incredibly annoying when compared to the reliability of a box like the Apple TV.

Boxee Screen

Granted, this is the fault of the content provider rather than Boxee, but it would behoove Boxee to warn people about these problems.  Television support is currently much strongly on the Boxee platform than searching for a movie, likely because the TV studios are more advanced at rolling out support for the web than the movie studios.  Currently, the majority of the web video are simply indie films.  However, once Vudu and Netflix are rolled into that section, I can imagine that it will be filled with recent flicks.

One really fantastic aspect of the Boxee Box is its ability to seek out content by category, mostly when it’s searching your library of media.  It automatically searches all the sources on the network to find your ripped music, movies, etc…  It’s also smart enough to find the corresponding cover art and information to go with the media.  If you have tons of movies all over the place on different computers, the Boxee Box can organize it for you like a digital librarian of sorts.  Playing the digital content is really quite simple and will work well, assuming you have upgraded your wireless network to handle HD media streaming around the house.

Beyond video content, you will also find a smattering of apps at your disposal like Pandora, Flickr, Vevo or simply anything that uses an RSS feed to syndicate content.  Music on Pandora will continue to play while you navigate around the menus, a nice touch.   You can choose through all of Boxee’s apps as well as create your own based on site.

Boxee Front

Three Reasons to Buy Boxee Box:
  • A form factor that impresses in size and style.  You will be hard pressed to find a gadget that’s as uniquely designed for home theaters as this one.  It’s also less than half the size of the huge Logitech Revue, a device that has similar features.
  • Compatibility with an enormous amount of file formats.  I rarely had a problem with any of my DVD or Blu-ray rips from my personal collection of discs.  The problems that I did have were a result of poor encoding choices on my part.
  • Excellent audio and video quality.  The user interface looks well polished and darn good on a high-def screen.  HD content also looked fantastic and I has no handshake issues with HDMI running from the Boxee into my receiver for 5.1 sound and out to the HD projector.   
Three Reason Not to Buy Boxee Box:
  • The lack of compelling web content....for now.  This can hardly be laid squarely at the feet of Boxee, but rather the studios and other organizations that provide web content.  But if I can’t buy the Boxee Box and cancel my overpriced Time Warner cable bill, then what’s the point?
  • Social can’t survive with Boxee’s small user base.  I love that Facebook support is baked into the software, but I don’t have any FB or Twitter friends that use Boxee.  I also don’t want to share everything I’m watching with my friends, so you need to give me a compelling reason to share that information.
  • It’s still too confusing for the average home theater owner.  They will be frustrated by the complexity of the interface and inability to play certain types of web content.  Furthermore, it’s an extremely tough sell to the significant other that already can’t handle the current home theater setup.

Conclusion:

As a piece of hardware, I love the fact that I can run giant Blu-ray rips through the box without any problems.  However, I can do the same on other set-top boxes that are more than half the price.  If order to differentiate itself, it needs to provide more robust access to content, a better-thought out approach to social and a more streamlined interface for the basic user.  Based on the current state of the hardware & interface, I can’t recommend the Boxee Box to the average home theater owner.  There are far too many unknowns at this point.  If the miserable launch of Google TV is any indication, accessing a wealth of Internet TV from your home theater is still at least a year or two from fruition. 

However, if you are the type of cutting edge consumer that rips / catalogs all their media and is looking for a way to consume that media in the living room along with streaming Internet video, the Boxee Box is probably right up your alley.  It’s also a safe bet for continued hardware support as updates roll out fairly frequently.  More information can be found on the Boxee Blog .  






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