I’ve been a Boxee user for a long time now, it’s a great piece of software that brings together a lot for you and works great with setups like mine. The Boxee software is available for Mac, Linux, Windows, Apple TV, and a few other devices. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a media center application that allows you to pull together all kinds of content. You can pull in video from any computers on your network, as well as streaming media from ALL over the internet. You can even pull in Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube. There are also social aspects of it that allow it to pull in videos shared by your friends on Twitter and Facebook.
But this is not a review of the Boxee software, this a review of their new set-top box, aptly named the Boxee Box. It’s a little black dealy that plugs into your TV and runs a slightly modified version of the same Boxee software that you can download from their site. I’ve been waiting for this thing for a long time. For the last 6 or 7 years, I’ve had a HTPC (home theater PC) setup going in my living room. Since I have hundreds of movies on my server, this was almost necessary for me to be able to actually enjoy all of that content. However, this was a cumbersome setup, even running Boxee. Since I didn’t use the computer everyday, I didn’t keep it on. So the library was never up to date and I’d always have to wait for it to boot up. Because of this, I rarely even used it. Once the Boxee Box was announced, I knew this was for me and I waited and waited while ignoring decent offerings from other companies. Finally, about a month and a half after finally becoming available, I’ve got one in my living room.
The box is surprisingly small. When I first saw the design of it, an oddly cube shaped device that is oriented at an angle so you couldn’t possibly put anything on top of it, I thought it would be much bigger. However, even though it’s shaped weird, it fits nicely next to my Wii and it has a nice bright green rubbery bottom for an added touch. On the outside, my favorite part is the cute glowing green Boxee logo that almost seems to be smiling at you.
The box comes with a really nice remote. There are only a handful of buttons on the top: play/pause, menu/back, enter, and a d-pad. The cool thing though, is that if you flip the remote over, you get a full QWERTY keypad. This is nice. You don’t spend a ton of time typing and generally only need a few letters, but this is a big plus over something on screen. It’s also a big plus over the large keyboards being offered by some competing products like most of the Google TV offerings. You can actually hold this in your hand and use it like a regular remote. The remote does come with one love/hate thing though, it’s an RF remote so you can’t use it with a universal remote, but that does bring some convenience of not having to have the remote pointed at the TV.
Getting the box up and running is simple, just power and HDMI. When you turn it on, you get asked for your Boxee account (you can make one if you don’t have one) and then you’re off to go. When I turned mine on, there was an update ready for it so I went ahead and installed that right away. After it was ready, I spent some time going through the settings and then I set it to pull in the video content from my server which didn’t take too long. Just like the Boxee software that you can download, it will try to find all the DVD covers for your movies and TV shows. Boxee wasn’t able to get everything, but it got a lot.
Navigating around is simple and intuitive and, if you’ve used Boxee before, you’ll feel right at home. There are a lot of changes to the software for the Boxee Box, but you’ll figure it out. The box is very responsive and it’s a lot of fun to use.
For playing your own media, Boxee is great. It really is. Things play smoothly and quickly and it’s a much better experience than a PS3 or even Boxee on an HTPC–the difference is your library seems to stay updated better without having to leave it on all the time. This thing plays just about anything you throw at it. Where the box falters though, is streaming media. Things stream fine, but there’s no Netflix or Hulu support yet. The DIY downloadable software has it, but it’s not here on the Boxee Box. Netflix is said to be coming REALLY SOON. Boxee said by the end of the year, but clearly, that didn’t happen. Hulu shouldn’t be far away either, but it will only be Hulu Plus which sucks. I mean, Hulu Plus is fine, but I’m not willing to pay yet another monthly bill so that’s out. I expect that the Netflix integration will work just like it does on any other device so I’m excited about that coming soon. As for Hulu, I don’t use it that often, only every now and again, so I’ll survive without it. Since this was a Hulu decision, not a Boxee one, it ‘s made me a little sour on the site. Honestly, it makes me want to just download shows instead. That’s actually less of a hassle.
Other streaming sites are a mixed bag. Some have apps which is nice, but when you click the video, you’re taken to a clunky browser which is a pain to navigate with a d-pad (you can use an iPhone as a remote too which should work better). Once in the browser, the video starts to play and sometimes it goes right to fullscreen for you. When it doesn’t, you can just move over to the fullscreen button and click it. Oddly, I did this once and couldn’t get it out. Nothing I did got the video off the screen and I ended up having to turn off the box. I’m not sure what the deal is, but this is definitely a bug that should get fixed soon.
To be honest, being shuttled off to a browser for much of the streaming content is really disappointing. It’s just not a good experience at all and it really takes away from the box. If the browser were better and easier to move around in, this wouldn’t be quite so bad, but that’s not the case. If the box could pull in the video without leaving it’s own interface, this would be a much more cohesive experience. Even if the ads were still pulled in, this would be better.
Overall, I’m pretty happy with the Boxee Box, despite some big faults. I like it a lot for playing my own video, so much so that I actually spent some time the other day just hunting my server for stuff to watch just because I wanted to keep using it. Unfortunately, streaming sucks and while my usage of streaming video on the Boxee Box still wouldn’t amount to more than like a third of my overall usage, this is very disappointing. It’ll get you by for the occasional video, but right now, this box is not a good buy for anyone that is looking for more streaming content to their TV. If you want to play local content though, friggin’ go for it. I’m just hoping that some future firmware updates make the streaming experience a little better…and that they come soon.