I’m a huge fan of Boxee’s media centre software, having used it for three years now. Since the release of the Boxee Box in 2010, however, development of the PC version has suffered from a lack of support and updates.
We’ve been promised Boxee 1.0, the same version that originally shipped on the Boxee Box, for over a year now, but it turns out that all this time the Boxee team was hard at work creating Boxee 1.5 for the PC instead, bringing it right in line with the software that’s currently available on the set top box. That’s the good news. The bad news is that this update is the last that we’ll see Boxee ship for the PC, as the company is now focusing all of its resources on the Boxee Box instead, which you can’t really blame them for as that’s where the revenue is. So is Boxee 1.5 for PC the grand finale that we’ve all been waiting for, or is it an anti-climax to compete with LOST’s finale? Let’s take a look and find out!
The home screen of Boxee 1.5 has been completely revamped and takes on a much simpler form than its predecessor. When you first launch the new version, you will be asked whether you intend to watch most of your content from local drives that you have attached to your computer, or whether you would prefer to stream content from online services. Depending on which option you pick here, the interact will be adapted slightly to meet your needs better.
At the top of the home screen the Photos option has been removed, with a more social approach taking shape in the form of “Friends”. Also gone is the option to access your music files from the home screen, with this being replaced by a shortcut to ‘Watch Later’, the new version of what was your queue in the beta version of Boxee. From the off, there is definitely a more dedicated TV and movie feel to the latest version of the software, and it’s clear to see where the company is focusing its efforts. For those of you using Boxee on the big screen, the web browser has been updated to bring it in line with the version shipping on the Boxee Box and it also has a shortcut pride of place on the home screen.
Below the main selection row, the three columns which were one present have now been replaced by a much simpler, big-screen friendly flow of shortcuts to features applications and videos shared by the Boxee team. This makes the interface a lot easier to navigate when using a remote control, as you just have to navigate left and right until you find the content that you’re looking for, or just browsing through.
The ‘Friends’ section in Boxee 1.5 replaces the far left column on the home screen in Boxee 0.9 that contained a feed of all the media that had been shared by your friends on both Facebook and Twitter. As that content is no longer available on the home screen, it has a dedicated application within Boxee instead. The layout of the Friends section couldn’t be simpler, as it’s a grid of the last 40 items to be shared through social networks that you have linked to Boxee. Unfortunately, it has a tendency to be a little too simple. For example, you can’t choose to show only the Facebook content or just content from Twitter, you have to fish through everything to find something that you’re looking for. If you follow a lot of people on Twitter but don’t have a huge amount of media coming in through Facebook, then you’re going to be looking for quite a long time for the content that’s coming from there.
Fortunately, the Watch Later application within Boxee is a little better organised than the Friends section. Watch Later replaces the old ‘Queue’ column that was present in Boxee 0.9, and makes a few useful improvements along the way. You can choose to save media shared by friends, TV shows and movies to watch later, but in the previous version all of this content was just put in to one list that you had to view in order to pick out what you wanted to watch.
In the new version of Boxee, Watch Later has been split up into three categories: Clips, Shows and Movies, with all of the content being placed in the appropriate category. Also, it doesn’t matter whether your saved shows are from local sources or sources across the internet, as all of the content in Shows and Movies are consolidated into their own single lists.
Most of my time in Boxee is spent in the TV shows section. I’ve spent a long time ripping all of my DVDs and Blu-Rays to make them easy to view in one place on my PC, and that’s exactly what Boxee has offered. When it comes to handling TV shows though, the latest version offers a lot of welcome improvements over the previous beta version.
On the face of it, the Shows section looks very similar to the way it did in the beta, and for the most part it is. You still have the tiled interface showing all of the artwork for your shows which you can select to view the episodes, but thanks to a few subtle additions that have been made, everything is that little bit easier to manage. You can now navigate TV shows according to their genre, so if you have a huge library of various shows from different genres, but you wanted to watch an episode of Star Trek, you could narrow the genre down to Sci-Fi in order to get to where you want to be quickly. Although this feature was present in the previous version of Boxee too, it was hidden away in an off-screen menu that you had to know was there in order to use.
When you’re viewing the different episodes of a TV show, you can choose to make that show a favourite of yours so that you can access it quickly in the Shows’ favourites section. If you had the complete series of a show such as Friends on your hard drive and wanted to watch something in season 1 of that show, then you would have to navigate all the way to the bottom of the list to find it unless you knew that there was a hidden menu on the left hand side of the window which contained season filters. In the latest version of Boxee, this has thankfully been rectified. There is now a navigation bar on the left hand side of the show window which allows you to narrow down the selection to single seasons. Needless to say, it’s much easier to select a single season out of 10 than it is to navigate through 235 episodes to find the one that you’re looking for.
For the most part, there hasn’t been a lot of changes made to the movies section, aside from the separation of ‘Local Movies’ and movies that can be streamed from a number of services on the internet, at least not on the surface of things. The interface of the Movies section is mostly the same as it was in the previous version, with your movie artwork being shown in tiles that can be navigated. Like the previous version, you can change this to be a list instead if you prefer.
If you’re using the Boxee Box, then you have a really good range of services from which you can stream movies, but unfortunately the PC version doesn’t have the same functionality. Online streaming services such as Vudu are limited to the world of set top boxes, at least for now, but Boxee has promised that it’s working with Netflix to bring a version of their application to UK computers.
On the surface, the new version of Boxee looks like a vast improvement over the previous version. The interface has been refined and perfected for use on larger TV screens as opposed to smaller computer screens, and visible menus make filtering content a lot easier than it was in the beta.
The new version of the software even takes advantage of better hardware acceleration and optimisation to play movies that couldn’t previously be played on some configurations. Although my first generation unibody MacBook can handle AVC encoded Blu-ray files just fine thanks to its NVIDIA 9400M graphics chip, it’s always struggled and spluttered when playing back VC-1 encoded content. Boxee 1.5 is the only piece of software that can now play those files flawlessly on a computer that couldn’t play them just last month. That’s what I call an improvement.
Even if you’re viewing this content on a 16:9 display, like I am on my computer which has a resolution of 1920 x 1080, Boxee will place black bars on the left and right hand side of the screen so it looks like you’re actually viewing older content that isn’t quite widescreen. It happens with both TV shows and movies, and many users have taken to the Boxee forums to complain about the issue. Even though the company has said that this version of Boxee will be the last, a fix is most definitely in order to prevent users from rolling back to the old Boxee 0.9 software. As much as I love the improvements that the new version has brought, it simply isn’t worth it if I can’t view 16:9 content in full screen.
The web browser in the latest version of Boxee sees a massive improvement over the previous version. Navigation of the browser is most definitely fine tuned for a remote, as it’s slightly awkward using the trackpad to accurately move the cursor on the screen, but using the arrow keys on a keyboard or a remote shows that the same momentum that is used to move the cursor on the Boxee Box has also been implemented here.
The browser now supports Flash content as well, so you can view content on websites such as the BBC without leaving the application. Online services such as BBC iPlayer work perfectly through the browser, but I would prefer to have a dedicated application that worked as well as the website did, as it would save a lot of time spent browsing the web to find content that you want to watch.
The new version of Boxee is definitely a solid update, in many cases worth the year long wait we’ve had since the Boxee Box was released with the new version of the software. Despite all of the improvements that have been made, however, the aspect ratio bug is definitely one that needs to be addressed. For a piece of media centre software that has a main goal of allowing users to enjoy their video content, Boxee 1.5 makes 16:9 content slightly uncomfortable to view. Hopefully, the development team will release a patch in the near future.
With the aspect ratio bug placed to one side, the rest of Boxee 1.5 marks a big improvement over the previous beta version. For those using it on the big screen, the browser is now much more capable of handling media content and longer browsing sessions, and the social features, although not at the forefront of the home screen as they used to be, are still very present throughout.
You can download Boxee 1.5 by going to boxee.tv and signing in with your account. If you haven’t got an account, then you can create one for free.
Hoping to study Computer Science at University in the near future, you’ll seldom see John without a computer in touching distance! His interests include building computers, reading all sorts of literature and of course writing for Zath to keep you updated on all the latest in the world of tech! You can follow John on Twitter as @british_geek.