Review: Boxee Box

Hardware A glossy black uniquely angled design certainly generates conversations.. Mission complete. The hardware is well built, D-link have done a great job, while small, the Boxee box actually...

Boxee Box

Hardware
A glossy black uniquely angled design certainly generates conversations.. Mission complete. The hardware is well built, D-link have done a great job, while small, the Boxee box actually is decently weighted, giving a solid feel. The bright green base is rubberised so it doesn’t scratch the surface its placed on. Given some low-line entertainment units have glass tops, this is appreciated. While I normally hide devices away, behind tinted glass doors, Boxee Box demands to be seen. The cube is sliced on an angle at its base, this means nothing will stack on top. To be honest its a square box and the rest of your set-top boxes are rectangular, so you’d be unlikely to place anything on top anyway. Still it does provide a unique visual element to the device, designed to initiate conversation.

The front face of Boxee shows an illuminated Boxee logo when powered on, which conveniently dims when watching a movie. It’s the little things that make the difference. On the back Boxee has some pretty simple connections, power, HDMI, Ethernet, 2xUSB ports, optical and stereo audio out. The side contains an SD slot, so pop a card out of your camera, slide it into Boxee and watch a photos slideshow on your TV.

As well as the Boxee Box, you’ll also get a HDMI cable included, props to Boxee, this is rare. Another nice addition is the inclusion of a D-Link Ethernet over power starter kit, while Boxee comes with 802.11N Wi-Fi built in, this lets you get wired internet to Boxee anywhere in your house. Setup is incredibly simple, plug one end into a power point near your router, then connect an Ethernet cable between your router and Adapter 1. Adapter 2 gets plugged into power near your Boxee box, then add another Ethernet cable between the two to complete the wired connection. Using the copper electricity circuit in your house to push around local media and internet is easy and smart. The D-link kit is good for up to 200Mb/s so HD streams are fine. During testing of both Wi-Fi N and the Ethernet over power, results were similar, this will vary from setup to setup, like if your in a two story house or live in a mansion.

Boxee Box 060Boxee Box 062

Remote
Small, thin and light, the Boxee Box remote is simple and stylish. It’s like someone at Boxee took a look at an Apple TV remote, then improved it.

Text input is becoming an ever increasing problem for connected devices. Wether it be entering search terms, Wi-Fi passwords, or logging into websites, Boxee’s qwerty keyboard on the back of the remote is a great solution to the problem. Not many people are comfortable with having a full sized keyboard in the lounge room, so this is a good substitute.

One downside to the remote doesn’t have backlighting, this means the battery (included) will last longer, but use in the dark is very difficult. Another, larger issue is the lack of a trackpad, when in the browser your only option to control the mouse cursor is the plus pad on the front of the remote, which moves it agonisingly slowly and no real way to make left and right mouse clicks.

The button in the center of the D pad is used to make your selection, whereas the button below is used for backing out. The experienced is marred a little when you attempt to back out of video only to realise your actually in a full screen browser. Seeing a menu option called ‘Leave browser’ isn’t exactly user-friendly when the perception is you were just watching a video.

Mobile apps
While the remote is nice, its not your only option, smart phone owners can download the Boxee remote application. Text entry using this method is even better than the mini-keyboard. The mobile application is prime to solve the cursor control issue discussed above, if only the app changed to a trackpad when your in the browser, it’d be problem solved (assuming you have a smart phone).

If you search the App Store, you’ll also find other 3rd party remote applications to control Boxee, I tried Rowmote and unfortunately it doesn’t work with the Box, only the desktop software, maybe this will change with a future update.

Boxee interface UI 1.0

Software
The Boxee Box is shipping with the 0.9 version of Boxee software we’re used to from the desktop. After a trip to Settings > System > Update, a short download, install and reboot, you’ll be on 1.0. (1.0.1.16125). The UI in the latest version has been revised, simplified and actually had some users asking for way to downgrade. While not loved by all Boxee users, I do actually think 1.0 is a much more approachable interface for non-technical people.

The interface is made up of 6 key menu options – Friends, Watch Later, Shows, Movies, Apps and Files. Below that are 3 content boxes which are really shortcuts to apps. These change dynamically and can even contain tiles for special events like last week Boxee streamed an event live. While that was on, the first tile was a link to watch live. Navigation to the right reveals more tiles. It’s unclear how these tiles are chosen, wether its from your most commonly watched content or completely controlled by Boxee, but there are no options.

There’s a screen saver if you accidently leave it on, which is configurable, as well as a power saving mode if left idle for a set period of time.

Friends
After joining your social accounts – Facebook, Twitter, Google, Digg, Flickr etc on http://boxee.tv, you can hit the Friends menu option on Boxee and see video content shared by any of your friends. YouTube seems to be the main source of these videos, which makes sense given its the biggest video site on the net. Boxee typically grabs the highest quality version available, 1080p looks great, even at 52”.

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Watch it later
As the name suggests this allows you to watch content later. Great if you internet connection isn’t all that flash and you get sick of the buffering. There is also a browser
shortcut you can use when browsing the web on the desktop, just drag a link to the Watch it later shortcut and it’ll show up in your Watch it later cue on Boxee. A pretty nice feature, just wish mobile apps supported it as well. There’s often times where I come across video in RSS feeds that I’d like to watch later. Might have to wait for the Boxee Phone to get that one.

Apps
One of Boxee’s true strengths is its ability to deliver content from online to your TV. Applications are a great way that content providers can make their video available to Boxee users. Online networks like TWiT, cNet and Revision 3 are all there, as well as dedicated applications for services like Flickr, YouTube (Leanback) and many more. The Apps don’t stop there, there are apps for TED Talks, apps for website like FailBlog and The Onion, and lots more with more coming online each day. Application interfaces are completely designed by the developers so there’s no restrictions or guidelines by Boxee. This is a mixed blessing, it allows for apps to have their own uniqueness but also mean users have to get used to how to use each one. As a general rule most make use of the typical up down, left right navigation style.

There is a Boxee browser, but as mentioned in the keyboard section, its use is not polished. It does support flash though, so that’s a plus. If your serious about using the Boxee browser, then you’re probably going to need a wireless mouse.

Off by default, but adult apps are also allowed by Boxee, this setting can be locked out with a passcode to prevent young eyes. Its an interesting decision to allow adult content on the platform, one that stems from Boxee’s roots of openness.

When launching applications, Boxee checks to see if there’s a new version available, if so it will be installed, then the app runs. Unfortunately the Boxee Box really doesn’t like being turned off, if you do, then launching an app again and you’ll be forced to wait around 5 seconds for it to install again. This becomes very frustrating, hopefully something that will be fixed in 1.1.

Online content
Other Boxee menu options include Movies and TV shows. One of the big questions from Australian Boxee fans was what the local content offerings would be available down under. The answer right now is very little. There’s some random, very select TV shows that are scraped from online sources like ABC’s iView. During testing I actually had an issue with any iView content, it wouldn’t load past 84%, I’m not sure how widespread this issue is, if you’ve experienced please leave a comment.

Movies are made up of indie offerings and while you may be able to track down something you enjoy, but people want mainstream content. At Boxee’s launch they said international content partnerships are being worked on with an estimated ‘early 2011’ timeframe. When this occurs and you can buy / rent / stream TV shows and Movies, Boxee will become infinitely more valuable. Right now its a big omission, something our US friends with Hulu Premium and Netflix don’t have to wait for.

Music videos are available on Boxee via a great partnership deal with Vevo. This app lets you view the latest video clips, quality does seem to vary. There’s a view count, charts and whole heap more, but Vevo is definitely a great addition to Boxee.

Local content
Regardless of where it comes from, most of us have always searched for ways to get content off our computers and to the biggest screen in the house. Another one of Boxee’s biggest strength is its ability to solve this issue. As a Windows Home Server owner I have pictures, videos, tv shows, music all waiting to make it to the TV, after defining the network locations for each media type, I now my watch content on my TV, the way it was intended.

There is one big issue with the way Boxee builds its thumbnails for your content. This hasn’t gone un-noticed by others either, the Boxee forums are full of complaints about how long the thumbnails take to load as well as the fact that you start from scratch if you turned Boxee off. It feels like there’s no local storage on the box as there is also an issue with storing thumbnails. Boxee has acknowledged the issue and is likely to address it via an update.

Boxee Box 055

Price
Boxee Box will leave you out of pocket A$299. Remember there’s one sweetener for that price, a purchase of a Boxee Box includes that D-link Ethernet over power kit, something that sells on its own for $A169.

Overall
While I’d love to say Boxee is the solution that every household needs, truth is, it still feels like an early adopter product. Boxee Box is more about the promise of good things to come than being 100% of awesome right now. The navigation needs work, but most of all, Australian content deals need to be struck.

The end result of getting a Boxee box is that while I have a great conversation piece, but can’t eliminate any existing set-top boxes from my entertainment system, instead I need a bigger power board and a HDMI switcher now.

I hope the issues I’ve identified are resolved quickly and the platform is iterated quickly. If there’s one thing Boxee is good at as a company, its listening to its community, so don’t be shy in letting them know what’s wrong.

If you decided to get a Boxee Box, feel free to add me as a friend and share great content.

More @ Boxee and D-Link

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Creator of techAU, Jason has spent the dozen+ years covering technology in Australia and around the world. Bringing a background in multimedia and passion for technology to the job, Cartwright delivers detailed product reviews, event coverage and industry news on a daily basis.
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