Following its announcement at CES 2010, anticipation of the Boxee Box’s release has been high amongst the many media lovers in the world. It’s unique external design, powerful hardware which promises to play anything you can throw at it, as well as software that many will have used before make this accessory the one to beat on paper, but how does it work in practice? And can it stay ahead of its competition with a relatively small team of developers? Let’s take a look!
The design of the Boxee Box is best described as ‘quirky’. If you’re looking for another modular, black box to hide discreetly next to your TV, then you may have to look past this particular one! That’s not at all a bad thing, though. Looking at the press shots of the box, you’d think it was a mile high, but it fits nicely underneath my TV without any problems.
Compared to a device such as the Apple TV, the Boxee Box has an abundance of ports to choose from, allowing you to connect external storage via the SD card slot on the site, or through the two USB 2.0 ports which you’ll find on the back of the box with all of the other ports.
If you’re placing the box near to a router, you may want to take advantage of the 100Mbps ethernet port that’s present and save some wireless bandwidth for your other devices, but it’s just as convenient connecting to a Wi-Fi network thanks to the QWERTY keyboard on the back of the included remote (more on that in a little while).
The included remote looks deceptively simple upon first glance. It has 7 buttons, including the four navigational buttons, which allow you to move around the interface of the Boxee Box without effort. If you have a large movie library, however, you will probably want to search for movies directly by typing instead of scrolling through thousands of choices. On devices such as the Apple TV, you would have to do this through using the four navigation buttons and selecting each key on an on-screen virtual keyboard, but not on the Boxee Box.
The ingenious remote turns over to reveal a QWERTY keyboard, complete with arrowed buttons, and even numbers and symbols accessible through holding down the Alt key whilst typing. Needless to say, using the remote is an awesome experience, and makes you wonder how manufacturers didn’t think of this earlier. Text input isn’t exactly a dream, but it’s an incredible improvement over manually navigating to each key and hitting the select button. Apple, screw minimalism and take note.
The new Apple TV is based on iOS and Google TV is based on Android. Where does the company with no mobile operating system turn to? Linux, of course!
The Boxee Box runs on a lightweight Linux distribution, so there’s no unnecessary resource hogging from the operating system getting in the way of your media playback. The Boxee team has taken a completely different approach to Apple in terms of media consumption; there are no walled gardens to be found here, just your content from as many sources as you like.
The box runs Boxee v1.0, as opposed to the beta version of the software that continues to be available for computers running Windows, Mac OS X and Linux. We were lucky, as we received the unit around a month after it had been released, meaning that most of the early bugs were ironed out by the time I tested it out for myself.
When I received the unit, it was running the original firmware that shipped with the box, and it was really buggy in places. Playback would cease and crash out if I tried to switch audio tracks on a movie, Wi-Fi speeds weren’t exactly stellar, and the performance was decidedly average.
Fast-forward to January 13th, and the latest firmware update makes the entire experience a more positive one. Since the update, I haven’t had one single problem, my Wi-Fi connection on the device has been rock solid and I’ve been switching audio tracks to my heart’s content without any issues.
The home screen now has 6 choices at the top: the ‘Friends’ option has replaced the social network feed that was visible from the home screen in the beta, and the ‘Watch Later’ option has replaced the queue of items waiting to be watched on your account. Featured items now occupy the bottom half of the screen, with three thumbnails directing you to various pieces of content on the web.
Some may argue that this adds an additional click to get where you want to go, but after using the software on the Boxee Box, I prefer it to the look of the beta which I have used a few times since.
If you’ve used the Boxee media center software before, you’ll be familiar with having all your content in the “Shows” and “Movies” section of the program. If you want to watch a movie that’s on a local hard drive, simply select the “Movies” icon on the home screen to be taken to your local library of content. If your files are named correctly, then they will have already been imported and tagged in Boxee. All you have to do is select the movie that you want to watch, sit back and relax!
One drawback of the Boxee Box, however, is the lack of UK specific content. Our friends on the other side of the pond can enjoy Vudu movies, which delivers 1080p rentals over the net, as well as Netflix. Meanwhile, we’re stuck with, well, 4OD through YouTube and the odd free movie that not many people are interested in. What we really need on the Boxee Box is a service such as TV Catchup or SeeSaw to deliver tailored content for the UK. Even LoveFilm rentals would be a start, although they are generally very few and far between.
One major gripe that I had with the new Apple TV and other media centres was that it could only handle 720p content. Well, that and you are locked in to Apple’s bubble of content. The situation with the Boxee Box couldn’t be more different.
I’ve already mentioned that you can play all of your content from any source (presuming it isn’t protected by DRM), but exactly what can the box handle? I’ve tested it thoroughly, playing back a range of content from various sources.
Although there is no disc drive in the Boxee Box, it can handle .iso images of DVDs and Blu-Ray discs, albeit without the menu. This suits me fine, as I don’t generally watch additional content on a disc anyway; I normally just watch the film and call it a day.
I played a variety of blu-rays encoded in both AVC and VC-1 – my HTPC always struggled to play back VC-1 content so I was curious to see how the Boxee Box would handle it. Sure enough, every single thing I threw at it played absolutely flawlessly, with no skipping in the video track or drop in frame rate at all. To put it short, there is nothing that the box cannot handle.
The only issues I ran into, in fact, weren’t video related at all, they were audio related. When playing back movies with a lossless audio track, there were 2 or 3 occasions in the film when the audio track would go silent for a second or two before returning. At first I thought this was an issue with the movie itself and not the box, but it happened on a variety of films encoded in different formats.
There is no doubt in my mind that, quite frankly, the Boxee Box is the best media centre to be released so far. Its capabilities excel far beyond that of the Apple TV, and I couldn’t find a single thing that it wouldn’t play back.
At £179 from Amazon, the Boxee Box is an absolute steal, although the lack of UK specific streaming options make it less viable to replace a full TV setup than, say, Apple’s rental system through the Apple TV.
Despite this, I can’t praise Boxee and D-Link heavily enough for this wonderful product they’ve created, so do yourself a favour – buy one, check it out, and break out the popcorn. Happy viewing!