Theoretically, Boxee is like a cheaper Google TV that can play back every file type imaginable, as well as stream internet videos through its browser + Flash player setup. In reality, it only does one of those things well.
Why It Matters
Boxee, the software, was the first suite to give people a 10-foot TV experience on their Macs and PCs, taking web video and hiding it under a pretty UI for couch viewing. Removing the computer from the picture and putting all this functionality into a $200 box is a recipe for success—that is, if the major broadcast networks weren’t so damn hostile towards Boxee (and Google TV). Something about the fact that a Boxee is a standalone, made-for-your-TV experience—as opposed to a computer—really pisses off content providers. And they’re one-by-one blocking access to their shows from these browser-based streamers.
Boxee’s UI is decent, and gets you where you need to go—Flash-based web videos—in minimal clicks. It nicely aggregate TV shows and movies into a large pool, rather than having to make you care about the fact that 30 Rock is available via Fancast, but The Daily Show streams via Comedy Central’s website.
You navigate using Boxee’s proprietary RF remote, which means you don’t need line-of-sight to your box when you’re typing in searches on the built-in keyboard. It’s a weird setup, because on the front side of the remote you’ve got a D-Pad, the play button and a menu/back button, and the back side gives you a QWERTY keyboard. You might hit keys by accident when you’re navigating, but overall, the keyboard is fine for the little amount of typing you’ll do.
Playing back local network video is extremely easy, even if there are occasional audio/video sync problems for the first few seconds. Unlike other streaming boxes, you don’t have to worry about which file format it supports, because it supports them all.
I really love that Boxee can handle any random video file you throw at it. It is a fantastic box for playing back downloaded video, and most likely the most robust file streamer I’ve used. It plays over the network (SMB shares), and it plays via the SD card slot in its side. Pop a card out of your camera and into Boxee to see the home videos you’ve just recorded.
I also like that it’s a browser, and can play back Flash video from random places. Comedy central works. Random shows supposedly work, like Fringe on the WB site, but it crashed my Boxee box entirely, for some reason. Entourage works fine. A lot of these are just random, sporadic episodes scattered around the web, made to get people hooked on the concept of a series, rather than a “last few shows” like you get from Hulu or Fancast.
There are also apps, like Pandora, which work in the background in multitasking mode. It’s still unclear how many apps will come to Boxee, but if they can lure companies like Spotify in, it’ll be a nice bonus.
Speaking of apps: YouPorn! Suicide girls! Reality Kings! These adult sites have specialised version of their page made for Boxee. Unfortunately, YouPorn gave me video errors whenever I tried to play anything. Technically, as long as Boxee’s browser and Flash plugin remain standard enough, it should be able to handle any of the major porn sites as well as any other online Flash video content.
Hulu Plus isn’t coming until later. Netflix isn’t coming until later. Comcast’s Fancast service, which is like Hulu, only works sporadically (works just fine on my Mac). It’s unclear why Fancast seems to struggle to play its videos, but because it is the biggest repository of videos that Boxee has access to, the fact that it’s not working properly hurts the platform a lot. I hope Boxee can make sure that Fancast isn’t blocked, like it is for Google TV.
But if you don’t have Fancast, you’re left with a mish-mash of random internet videos, like Rocketboom and Geek Brief. They’re not bad, but they’re not really what you build a video streaming platform on. The short of it is, until Netflix and Hulu Plus come, you don’t have a lot of high-quality content for Boxee, especially since Fancast is hit-or-miss.
The browser isn’t too fast, and seems slightly underpowered compared to a Google TV. Boxee doesn’t scale web pages like Google TV, and I’m still too young to have to squint at my television. Boxee apparently doesn’t really think you’ll use the browser for browsing, so they didn’t spend much time optimising pages, which is kind of a shame.
What’s worse is that Boxee is unstable. It freezes. It crashes. Your cursor disappears sometimes, so you have to reset the box. I’ve used Logitech’s Google TV box for a lot more hours, and I’ve pretty much never had to reset that one. I’ve had to hard reset Boxee about once an hour.
The industrial design is quite interesting, but you can’t stack it with your other boxes, so you might have to hide it in a corner or a drawer. You also can’t control it with universal remotes. Speaking of remotes, the D-Pad on Boxee’s is not a trackpad, like on the Logitech Google TV box, so moving the mouse around in the browser is horrible and tedious.
The only people I would recommend the Boxee box to is someone who torrents a lot of shows and movies and needs one box to play back all the various formats. Everyone else, whether they’re looking for a good way to play video, or to stream Netflix, or to get Pandora on their TVs, have many more choices to out there, most of which are cheaper. If Boxee can secure solid deals for Hulu, Fancast, Netflix, Amazon and other video providers, this would be a solid box, but until then, it’s just a really good way to watch pirated videos. [Boxee and Amazon]
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