The Boxee Box first snared our interest at CES in January. Almost a year has passed since then, and yet it’s held our fickle affections remarkably well. That’s partly down to its odd design, but mostly due to the chipper folks at Boxee itself.
Begun as a media centre-style app for desktop PCs and Macs, Boxee gained notoriety as an Apple TV hack, finally making Apple’s set top companion able to play files beyond the reach of iTunes. Now, it’s at home inside a box of its own, how does it measure up? Read our full Boxee Box review and we’ll spill the beans.
The Boxee Box is beautiful. Not in a classic way, and certainly not in an Apple way. This isn’t a minimalist shell with selective ports stuffed in its rear. It’s awkward angled shape is actually a bit of a pain. It won’t stack with other A/V kit. It won’t be neatly tucked into a standard square TV unit’s shelves. And then there’s the softly glowing green logo. The Boxee Box is designed to be seen, but not gawped at.
We parked it next to our TV in pride of place. Everyone who spotted it was interested in its weird design, and wanting to know why it looked do different. “Because it is different” we explained, and we weren’t lying.
Web TV done right
The Boxee Box is more than a media streamer. If you’ve read our Boxee Box review roundup you’ll know it can suck music, photos and movies from shared libraries on your network, and it’ll swallow pretty much any codec you can throw at it (except RealMedia files, it hates those). But while most reviews fixate on the Boxee Box as a set-top box for files at home (which it does exceptionally well), they’re missing the point.
The Boxee Box is the first TV companion to really bring the web to your TV. Fire it up, and it’ll show a list of TV shows that’re available online. There’s no fuss, no bother, and no hint of the hard work that’s going on behind the scenes to bring that list to your eyeballs.
It’s immediately filled with high profile shows: The IT Crowd, Black Books, The Mentalist. This isn’t “Web TV” but rather proper TV delivered via the web. Boxee scours the likes of 4OD and Demand Five, bringing the broadcasters’ online streams to your decidedly offline TV. In the case of 4OD, the video content actually comes in a YouTube wrapper, complete with adverts inserted into it.
It’s a system that works well, but not flawlessly thanks mostly to the specter of Adobe Flash hanging over most content providers’ feeds.
By heading online to pluck video from major TV stations, the Boxee Box has tied itself inextricably to Flash, but it’s an unhappy marriage. Whereas the Boxee Box’s menus and interface are slick, simple and designed for the big screen, the moment a Flash video is called up, you’re faced with the same interface as your PC. It’s tiny on the TV screen, and almost unusable.
Boxee has attempted to counter problematic flash interfaces with its own controls. They work well, with overlaid play and pause buttons, as well as volume controls and the ability to skip backward and foward through videos. However, all too often they break down. Flash video just doesn’t like to be manhandled, and often we were left with a frozen video which needed to be completely re-started in order to continue.
Instead of a true lean-back web TV experience, what you’re left with is a lean-forward shaking a fist at the TV experience, and regardless of whose fault the bugs are, whether laid at the door of Adobe or Boxee, the irksome result is the same.
Flash video, even churned by the respectable D-Link hardware inside the Boxee Box is a repetitive headache. Not only is there a risk that TV streams will stall mid-programme, as happened numerous times during our test, but depending on the TV you set up the Boxee Box with, you might experience display problems to boot.
We tried the Boxee Box with a 46 inch JVC TV and it automatically detected it as a 1080i screen, displaying everything beautifully… except Flash video. We could hear sound, but couldn’t coax a picture out of it. Eventually, we fixed our Flash-related problem by lowering the Boxee Box’s resolution to 720p, but it took us an hour or so of head-scratching beforehand.
When tested with a 32 inch Sony Bravia however, everything went swimmingly at full HD resolutions. We can only assume there’s some wonkiness between the D-Link hardware and Boxee Box’s Flash output.
When it works, Boxee’s web-scouring software is simply wonderful, but wonky Flash implementation means it’s sometimes a hit and miss afair.
Add your own sources
As well as offering local playback and a host of TV shows the Boxee Box has found on the web there’s the option to add ‘apps’ or your own content feeds. It’s a neat addition, although calling the mini programs hosted by the Boxee Box ‘apps’ is a little misleading.
More accurate would be to call them “content areas” although we’re the first to admit that’s not as catchy. They’re neatly coded to avoid looking like web pages, and designed to work with a remote control, but in most cases the content they pull in is simply repurposed from the web.
There are podcast ‘apps’ offering a quick route to the latest video or audio content, and in a few cases broadcasters have offered up ‘app’ versions of their own sites: BBC iPlayer, for instance is present and correct (although very obviously a re-worked version of the standard web page).
What’s really special is Boxee’s “Watch Later” function. Head to Boxee.tv on your computer, and drag a small bookmarklet into your browser’s toolbar and you’ll be able to instantly tag online videos for later consumption on your TV at home.
It’s a stroke of pure brilliance on Boxee’s part. We found ourselves tagging tons of videos from friends and around the web at work, before chowing down later that evening at home. Think of it as Instapaper for video, and you’ll be along the right lines.
Social TV? Not quite
Another string to Boxee’s ‘not just a media player’ bow is its built-in social abilities. There are shortcuts to share programmes through Facebook and Twitter, as well as being able to broadcast your viewing habits to friends.
On the surface that sounds interesting, but in practice it’s really not. Despite having few friends who use Boxee, we soon tired of seeing their viewing habits on our browser, and disabled the function quick sharp when using the Boxee Box.
What’s more, with our own fairly dubious viewing habits in mind (not to mention the prospect of adult material being available through Boxee) we’d rather not spam our friends and inflict our televisual stream of consciousness upon them.
If Boxee can dream up a smarter way to use social networks in TV, we’ll dip our toes: A list of most popular web TV from around the globe might help, or recommendations from the most trusted friends in our social media circle… as long as we don’t find out each time they’ve sat down to Eastenders.
By now it should be clear that the Boxee Box is revolutionary. That revolution might not be polished, have rough edges and leave more questions than answered, but it’s a solid step in the right direction and by far the most revolutionary aspect of the Boxee experience lies in the palm of your hand: the Boxee Box remote.
Designed to be minimalist on one side, and with a full QWERTY keyboard on the other, it really does offer the best of both worlds. Having lived with an Apple TV, and despised its clunky text entry mechanism, the Boxee Box remote is a dream come true. It’s also RF rather than IF controlled, so doesn’t have to be pointed at the Boxee Box to work.
In practice we found ourselves using the QWERTY functions less than expected, but on the odd occasion they were needed (logging in, searching for content) those teeny buttons were a bonafide godsend. Apple could learn a lot here: when it comes to TV interaction there’s a genuine case for more buttons on a remote, as long as you can be rid of them when necessary.
The future of TV?
There’s little doubt the Boxee Box has changed the way we watch TV. Not only are we streaming more video around our home network, from networked storage boxes, PCs and Macs, we’re watching more web TV too. This angular little box sets out an absurdly ambitious store, but largely speaking delivers on every promise.
Sure, web video playback is a hit and miss experience. The set-up could be more reliable (although not much simpler), and we’ve heard tales of wonky Wi-Fi connections impacting some reviewers’ experiences.
In our time with the Boxee Box however, we had relatively few hiccups. We approached it with high expectations, and with a few caveats the plucky upstart delivered the goods. There’s a question of value here though, since the Boxee Box costs around the same price as a nettop computer you could easily load with Boxee software and usher under the TV. You’d get more storage for your money, and the flexibility to play games on it too, if you fancied. That said, Boxee’s remote and eye-widening design make it a hard trade off to make.
It’s ousted the Apple TV from beneath our living room screen, and with the folks at Boxee promising regular software updates, we’re hoping its quirks, especially that janky Flash playback, are eventually ironed out.
Go in with your eyes open, don’t expect too much from Flash at first, and if you’re looking for a bullet-proof media player with eye-popping web TV abilities to boot, the Boxee Box is guaranteed to impress.