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The Boxee has been built with a simple goal in mind. Its creators say that “a lot of your favorite shows and movies are already available on the Internet. Boxee is a device that finds them and puts them on your TV. It’s easy to use and even better, there’s no monthly fee”. That’s the phrase that can be found on Boxee’s homepage. Boxee has been an early player that has generated a lot of buzz in the “Media Center” circle. The project has started as a software platform that can be installed on a PC, Mac or Linux computer. The main downside of that is that this becomes a fairly expensive proposition. The Boxee Box was brought to market to provide a hardware platform capable of running the Boxee software – for $199. Try to beat that by building your own computer. Now the question is: how does it perform, and how can it help you today? Let’s take a look.

Context

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Before we start the review, let me explain how I watch TV: I currently use Comcast Cable with a (crappy) DVR along with other devices to get Web TV: Media Center PC, Apple TV, PS3, Roku, and recently Boxee Box. Each have their specific use, but to make it quick: the PC provides a *real* computer experience. It’s very fast and can run everything (nobody blocks it too), including the Boxee software. But it’s expensive, power-hungry and big. Apple TV is interesting for commercial content and Netflix. The PS3 is there for Blu-Ray obviously. The Boxee Box works well for Web TV.

Content-wise, I tend to watch TV shows, so that’s where most of the action is for me. If you want to get commercial content, on-demand might provide of the benefits already. Ideally, I would like a box that lets me do all that, in a small form-factor, at a low cost. Oh, and I want it to look nice too. Not easy, but fortunately “hope” is cheap – hardware isn’t. Okay, you know what I do, and what I want. Let’s dive.

External Design

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Created by Astro Design for D-Link and Boxee, the external design of the Boxee Box catches the eyes, but you already knew that. It is something that you would actually want to be seen next to the TV, instead of trying to hide it in the cabinet. But of course, good design must also have a purpose beyond the aesthetics. The Boxee Box’s shape has been designed to avoid having the poor box pulled back by the cables. And it works, the box is actually even hard to push back with your hand, thanks to the rubber texture at the bottom. The angle at which the ports have been placed will also let gravity pull all the cables together (I just use power and HDMI, so I’m not a prime example). On the side, there’s an SD card slot that can be used to display photos from your camera.

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Its design prevents it from being pulled back by the weight of cables

Overall, the box feels very solid, much more so than any competing products that we have in the office. The only downside is that if you did want to stick it your TV stand, it might not fit.

Hardware

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Boxee Box is powered by an Intel Atom

Inside the Boxee Box, you will find Intel’s latest Atom for embedded platforms (The CE4100 at 1.2Ghz). The main difference with the Netbook version is that this one can decode 1080p movies. The Boxee Box is basically a PC that runs on Linux, without user storage. There’s not much else to be said, this has been designed from the ground up to be able to stream and decode 1080p content. [photo courtesy of ifixit]

Remote

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The front design is (too?) minimalistic

The Boxee remote has a very interesting design: it’s a very simple remote on one side with three buttons and directional controls. On the other side, you will find a QWERTY keyboard that is very handy when you need to input some text (show name or web address in general). However, that design is not perfect: the “menu” button really acts like a “Back” button, except if you’re at the menu root, in which case, it pops a menu.

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The visual design of the keyboard is excellent, but things could work better

If you wonder, It doesn’t have a “mouse” function. This is important because most web services are built for PCs and expect the user to move the cursor to click on something (like switching to fullscreen, or tweaking the volume). Often, you also need to scroll down to reach that “fullscreen” icon. To do that with the Boxee remote, you need to use the “Down” key and move the cursor until it reaches the bottom, then the screen will scroll down. This is slow and actually pretty annoying.

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This is a typical webpage from which you can watch a show

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to switch to full screen, you need to use the arrow keys to move the cursor over the “fullscreen” icon, and clic. A mouse or a trackpad would have been better.

The keyboard’s keys are very stiff. The good news is that this prevents accidental keying when using the opposite side of the remote (Play/Pause). The bad news is that… its hard to press the keys! Fortunately, I type a few words at a time, so it’s not too bad (especially of you compare it with Apple TV, which has no QWERTY keyboard – ouch).

In the end, the Boxee remote gets the job done, but it could be vastly improved. Right now, I prefer the Logitech Revue’s keyboard, even if it’s bulkier. Boxee could probably solve this problem by using a small trackpad that would also serve as the “OK” button at the center of the remote. That would work like a mouse (smartphones do it).

A motion sensor could also turn the remote into a “magic wand”. As for the keyboard, Boxee could go with a slider to avoid having the super stiff keys — or keep only the QWERTY side. I guess that this is mainly a cost problem though. At $199, there is not much margin for action. At the moment, I mainly use the QWERTY side of the Boxee remote. It has everything that I need, except for a “play/pause” button.

Remote App

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Unfor
tunately, the remote app covers only the most basic things

As it is the case with other TV boxes, Boxee also has a Remote app for iPhone. The app is very simple (like the physical remote) and has two modes: “buttons” or “gestures”. The real downside to the app, is the absence of a QWERTY keyboard (why, why?!!). Because Boxee is a web-based app, you’ll often have to enter a search phrase or maybe a url. At that point, you will need to fall back to the physical remote. Hopefully it’ll get better soon. Just today, we published about the new Tivo App, which goes far beyond a remote.

I’ve also seen an Android app go by, although I don’t have as much experience with it. It might be better, but at the very least, it should do something similar.

Setup

Because it doesn’t communicate to a set-top box or try to replace other remotes (like Google TV does), the setup of the Boxee Box is dead simple: just enter your Boxee credentials and setup your Wireless network (select network + password), and voila — you’re ready to browse.

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Setup is simple and quick

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User Interface

The Boxee user interface is very well designed, agreeable and readable on a large TV display. It is also fairly responsive, especially if you compare it with the average set-top box from your cable or satellite provider.

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The user interface works great on a big screen

Home: the home page is split between several activities: friends, watch later, shows, movies, apps, files. The friends area is a the social media component of Boxee. If you have Boxee friends, you can see what they are watching and it might show you new horizons. I guess that the most practical things to do is to add friends who share your TV taste.

Watch later is like a queue of things that you’ve saved for later. As you browse, you can save everything that is of interest in there and… watch later.

Movies is the section where you find all the movies available via Boxee. From what I can tell, most movies are free (there are 2000+), and are clearly not the recent “blockbuster” type. They are in general fairly (or very) old, which can be nice, but it’s definitely not my first choice for a cool evening.


The Apps section is pretty interesting. There are a ton of apps (133), most of which are TV Channels of some sort, but I only really use a handful: Pandora, YouTube, Ted (excellent), Flickr and TNT. Unfortunately the excellent Vudu isn’t quite finished yet (it should be weeks from now), and there’s no support for Netflix or Hulu, which is a huge hole in the app offering. [ask the boxee guys]. The above video shows all the available apps, so check it to see if there’s something that you like.


Finally, the Files section lets you browse files that are on a local drive (via USB) or shared on the network, either from a computer, or from a server or a network storage device. I had a hard time playing videos over WIFI (1GB .mkv 720p file). It looks like the network slow (it shouldn’t be *that* slow), but I had no issues playing the same file from a USB drive. I’ll get back to local content later, but it’s something that you need to keep in mind: USB is easier to deal with than networks.

TV Usage

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Searching for a show is relatively easy

Find something to watch: finding information on a show is pretty easy, just search for the name and chances are that you’ll find something. The issue is that Networks have started to go to war against all the TV “boxes” that try to stream web content aimed at “computers” to the living room’s TV. Networks sees this as a major threat and are more and more blocking the content at the browser level, or pulling stuff away from the web altogether. And because Boxee doesn’t talk to a cable/sat box, your only source of content is the web.


At the moment, major paid services like Netflix, Hulu or Vudu are not available on Boxee Box (they are available on Boxee for computers), and that’s a bummer because that would radically change the equation and make Boxee much more compelling. Vudu *should* be available by Mid-December, Netflix by late December and Hulu sometime in early 2011.

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Once in fullscreen more, it’s easy to forget that we’re watching a web video

Watch something: once you find something that you want to watch, you will most likely be brought to a web site that contains a flash video. You will have to move the cursor to a “fullscreen” button and switch over to fullscreen mode. That’s not the best integration that you can imagine, but “it works”.

Overall, Boxee Apps are a better than visiting websites on the Boxee Box for watching videos because they start in fullscreen right away don’t have Flash ads in the page that slow everything down.

Content Sources

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Many shows don’t feature full episodes. Burn Notice is one of them

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But others do: you can watch the whole Season 1 of Fringe

Web: As I said above, video content is currently coming from the web as pointers to free web videos hosted by various networks. To give you an idea, I searched for a bunch of shows that I currently wa
tch or watched recently:

  • Burn Notice: Clips only
  • Heroes: [nothing]
  • White Collar: clips only
  • CSI: two recent full episodes
  • Chuck: Season 4 ep7 (Nov 8 2010) available
  • The Event: Clips only
  • Glee: clips only
  • The Office: 1 episode
  • 30 Rock: clips only
  • Fringe: all season 1

As you can see, depending on what you want to watch, this can be a hit or miss. Again, access to Netflix, Hulu, and Vudu will change everything — when it happens.

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This is Vudu on Boxee for Windows

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This is Netflix on Boxee for Windows

Apps: Outside the networks, you can get content from many Boxee apps. In practice, I’ve been using only YouTube and Ted. YouTube has as excellent video quality (720p and beyond) although the app user-interface is great for “zapping” from video to video, but no so much for searching something by category, for example. Ted’s video quality is average, but I find the content to be excellent.

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Apps are the best way to browse and watch videos.

If you have a Flickr account, you can browse and display your images and slideshows. The app works very well, and it is easy to setup a slideshow on the TV.

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Local content: if you have content on the local network, or on a hard drive / USB disk, boxee can be a very player. So far it has played all the videos that I had in store in wmv (720p) and .mkv (720p) formats. I did not have a 1080p file on hand, but in theory, Boxee Box should be able to handle it.

Photos and music files can be read by Boxee, although you’ll have to be mindful of the size of the content. I have a lot of high-definition photos and videos, and going into a directory seems to trigger a read of all the files to create thumbnails, and that can be a very slow process over the network.

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The music player is basic

Music files are use much less data and should play without any issues over the network. Songs can be played file by file, but if you want a playlist, Boxee does support .pls and .m3u playlist formats. I haven’t tried it, but I’ll assume that it should work as long as the music does not have any DRM (digital rights management).

If you are curious, here are the supported formats:

Video: Adobe Flash 10.1, FLV/On2 VP6 (FLV/FV4/M4V), H.264 AVC (TS/AVI/MKV/MOV/M2TS/MP4), VC-1 (TS/AVI/MKV/WMV), MPEG-1 (DAT/MPG/MPEG), MPEG-2 (MPG/MPEG/VOB/TS/TP/ISO/IFO), MPEG-4 (MP4/AVI/MOV), DivX 3/4/5/6 (AVI/MKV), Xvid (AVI/MKV), and WMV9 (WMV/ASF/DVR-MS).

Audio: MP3, WAV/PCM/LPCM, WMA, AIF/AIFF, AC3/AAC, OGG, FLAC, DTS, and Dolby Digital/Dolby True HD

Photos: JPEG, PNG, GIF, BMP, TIFF.

Non-U.S residents: if you live abroad and read this site, you know that most web videos can’t be accessed from foreign countries. It stinks for us too when we travel, and we share your pain. At the moment, your options are limited, and this is true for every web-tv platforms out there. You can either watch the little that is available from your country… or you can subscribe to a VPN service that will give you a U.S IP address. I won’t name any service here because I haven’t experimented enough with them (and some are frankly shady). If you have a very good friend living in the U.S, you can also ask that person to use OpenVPN and give you some bandwidth…

New Usages

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Pandora is nicely implemented in Boxee Box

Boxee Box also lets you do things that your TV typically doesn’t do like play web music. For that, there’s Pandora, the popular Internet music service. The user-interface look great and this is the best “non-PC” implementation of the service that I’ve seen so far.

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Browsing the web is faster than on Google TV, but be careful, the text isn’t always readable from your couch

Web Browsing: obviously you can browse the web. Boxee has a good browser which is faster than most “TV box” browsers that I’ve played with – and that includes the Logitech Revue. However, the Boxee browser doesn’t use big characters, so reading on a TV from a couple of yards can be difficult. The good side of not using larger fonts is that websites build for computers (the bulk of the Boxee content) often don’t look as expected with the bigger fonts. It’s a trade off and given that most people mainly use their TV for watching videos, it’s probably OK.

Performance

Although it is built on a hardware that is very similar to the Logitech Revue Google TV, the Boxee Box reacts faster and the web browser is much more responsive. But even then, you should think of this box as a Netbook with 1080p video decoding from a performance standpoint. The difference of speed between Google TV and Boxee comes down to the software. Google’s stuff is simply not as optimized.

Conclusion

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Boxee Box is a player that deserves your attention

The Boxee box is remarkable in many ways: from its design to its overall performance, it is a device that holds a lot of potential. It has a nicely designed user interface, it can be extended by apps/channels and it plays a ton of popular file formats. What else could you ask for?

Right now, content. The premium content is a little scarce and we really wished that it could talk to a cable/sat box. But things should get better in a n imminent future when Netflix and Vudu appear on the Boxee Box. It will then feature one of the most popular streaming service (already available everywhere else…) and a great video-on-demand service. And with Hulu on the horizon, the final package would pack a lot of punch.

If you already have Cable or Satellite, you are probably mainly interested by Netflix. Vudu could be a nice complement, because movies are sometime cheaper. If you don’t have a TV subscription, it’s probably best to wait for Hulu to show up early next year. We’ll revisit Boxee as these services appe
ar in the coming weeks.

Links

Don’t miss these reviews:

Official links:Boxee Box,Boxee, Boxee FAQs

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