Boxee Box review

We’ve been tracking the Boxee Box by D-Link since its first appearance at CES 2010 in Las Vegas. Now 11 months on, the Boxee Box, a media streamer to take on the likes of Apple TV, Roku, and Google TV, is here and ready to plug into your TV. But is it any good? 

Before the Boxee Box was Boxee. A free app was available for download for the PC, Mac, and Linux for you to plug into and enjoy. The concept is simple and has now made the jump from software to hardware to your living room, adding partners along the way. In the case of the Boxee Box that’s meant that the device is built and sold via D-Link in the UK. It's added Its networking (wireless n and wired) know-how into the mix, and setting it up on your network at home takes less time than it’s taken you to read this far into the review.

Put simply Boxee Box is a media streamer that lets you play any content you have locally on a USB drive, network or SD card, or alternatively stream content directly from the net and services like YouTube, BBC’s iPlayer or Channel 5’s On Demand service to name but a few. Rather than designed to be hidden in amongst the clutter that resides in your TV stand, the Boxee Box is a cube that looks like it's sinking into the surface you have it on.

It’s a combination of matt and gloss black and bright lime green to accentuate the design, complete with a glowing logo on the front. There is an SD card reader on the side and connections for your TV around the back.

Ports include Ethernet, HDMI, optical, stereo audio out and two USB sockets. This is HDMI and HDMI only, but that HDMI cable (included in the box) does carry the audio stream too. The device runs near silently (there is some noise) powered by an Intel Atom processor that is good enough for the job, but not enough to make everything super fast.

Come to the remote, and rather than a cheap-looking off-the-shelf OEM offering, Boxee has taken a dual approach. On the front it’s incredibly simple with a d-pad, a menu button (that doubles as a back button), and a play/pause button. 

Flip the remote over and you’re presented with a 40-button QWERTY keyboard over four rows. The upside of that QWERTY keyboard is that searching for content and password entry is very easy. The keys are rubbery, but well spaced out and comfortable to use, and within the button layout are four arrow keys for navigation so you don’t have to keep turning the remote over to navigate around the screen.

iPhone or iPad owners can turn their device into a Boxee remote as long as it's on the same network. Boxee offers a dedicated iPhone app, while iPad users are serviced via a number of third party offerings including the very good Rowmote. Pairing is quick and simple allowing you button or gesture control, but the overall experience is lacking slightly with you having to finger the cursor across the screen multiple times like a bad mouse on a small mouse pad.

On the resolution front you’ll get full 1080p, and all the resolutions up to that to support your TV and a host of audio formats like Dolby.

As for formats supported on the media front it includes: FLV/On2 VP6 (FlV/F4V/M4V), H.264 aVC (TS/AVi/MKV/MOV/M2TS/ MP4), VC-1 (TS/AVI/MKV/WMV), MPEG-1 (DAT/MPG/MPEG), MPEG-2 (MPG/MPEG/VOB/TS/TP/ISO/IFO), MPEG-4 (MP4/AVI/MOV), DivX 3/4/5/6 (AVI/MKV), Xvid (AVI/MKV),  WMV9 (WMV/ASF/DVR-MS). Image formats include JPEG, PNG, GIF, BMP, and TIFF. Audio gives you MP3, WAV/PCM/lPCM, WMA, AIF/AIFF, AC3/AAC, OGG, FLAC and Dolby Digital/Dolby True HD. That covers most bases.

Plug in the Boxee Box, connect it to your TV, look for your wireless network, punch in your network password; which is made easier by the remote control, and you’re off. The software has taken a drastic change to the user interface you’ve probably seen on various “reviews”, photos, and previews over the last 11 months.

“This upgrade, makes using Boxee even easier and more intuitive”, Andrew Kippen, marketing VP at Boxee tells us. “The enhancements to the main menu mean that you can now quickly find exactly what you want to watch or discover something new from your friends”.

While those menu systems are, it’s fair to say, easier to use, they are also considerably duller than the swishy, flashy offering we’ve been teased so far to date. It also means that the desktop experience and Boxee Box experience, from a user interface point of view are now different - a mismatch that is, if you’ve been using the desktop offering, slightly jilting.

The interface, therefore, is divided into a number of different areas to help split your content: Friends, Watch Later, Shows, Movies, Apps, and Files.

The Friends area allows you, via the services panel on your Boxee account (it has to be accessed and controlled via a browser), to strip out Twitter, Facebook and other social networking site's videos and then watch them on your TV. Support includes Facebook, Twitter, Google Buzz, Tmblr, Netflix, Flickr, MUBI, MLB.TV. The idea is that you’ll be presented with a never-ending array of funny videos and things that interest you because it interests your friends. It’s a nice idea and one that you can use to easily lose 20 minutes on the sofa.

With lots of content available you might not be able to watch it there and then, so you can opt to set it to the Watch Later queue. This works exactly how it sounds with the area basically a list of things that you’ve saved to “watch later”.

So where is all that content you’ve been promised? It’s in Shows, Movies and Apps. Shows is a TV Shows and features list which brings a load of hit shows from the BBC, Channel 4, Five, and anything else Boxee has been able to find on the world wide web. On the surface the selection looks amazing, certainly compared with Apple TV's pay to watch approach, however clicking on a fancy DVD-looking cover brings you the realisation of what the game actually is. It’s a link to a website where the file is available to stream.

Don’t get us wrong it's all legitimate (the four adverts you’ve got to watch to view Channel 4 content will let you know that) but in the case of Channel 4 it zips you over to YouTube to the 4 on Demand section, asks you if you are old enough to watch it (if there is an age restriction) and then jumps back to full screen mode so you can enjoy Spaced from 10 years ago, for example.

This approach doesn’t always work, with Five videos causing issue on-screen with some programmes having to be watched in a smaller window, rather than full screen. Yep, in most cases the content it surfaces is free, and in most cases you’ll have to watch a couple of adverts to enjoy it (obviously not with BBC iPlayer though).

Movies are drawn from a number of different services, and glancing through the hundreds of options there is a good mix of TV station content, independent films, and video podcasts. Failing that, some sites have gone as far as making apps to access their content. Take the BBC iPlayer offering for example. Its app makes it look like the iPlayer interface that you know and love.

There are currently (at time of writing) 133 apps to view content including access to adult websites like YouPorn, to photos from The Big Picture, to Tumblr, to Flickr, to audio podcasts and more. And parents worried about the adult elements, don’t be, you can turn them off and password their access.

For those that really must have their fix of news there is also an RSS feed reader app, that lets you get all the latest that’s happening on Pocket-lint. More and more are being added and they are not all just watching video. Failing that you can fire up the Boxee Box’s very basic browser that lets you surf the web. It is a fall back rather than a state of the art browser for your TV, and to be honest it is going to be quicker to grab your laptop, phone, or tablet to surf. It does offer full Flash 10.1 support however.

Those keen to access US sites like Netflix and Hulu Plus (Hulu won’t work on the box in the UK or the US) from the UK will be pleased to hear the Boxee Box features VPN support. Using a service like Super VPN for $4 a month you can convince those services (and likewise for US readers with BBC’s iPlayer) that you are in the correct country and therefore eligible to watch them. That’s access to all the latest US sitcoms for around $12 a month. 

Connect a drive to the device, or to your network and it will, with the press of a couple of buttons, be able to stream content from that device regardless of the format it’s in. We’ve tried a host of formats on NAS drives and USB drives plugged into the Boxee Box, and SD cards directly from a digital camera and it has coped with all of them without fuss.

While the Apple TV plays .m4v and that’s about it, the Boxee Box is happy to play anything. It’s like VLC for your TV. Better still, once it has noted where the file is, you can set it to check that folder regularly for updates, and it will go off and get DVD covers for you even if it’s not an official (cough) download.

As long as the source file is good quality and your network strength good, then the streaming, after the initial scan, is very good. We pointed the Boxee Box in the direction of around 60 digitally encoded movies and TV shows, and after about 2 hours we could access and play any of them without problems.

You’ll get full playback control via the remote and that includes fast forward (varying speeds) play, pause, rewind, and stop. If you’ve got the digital content to stream, this makes for a very good media streamer.

While the main focus is on TV shows and Movies, the Boxee Box does of course let you stream music and photos from any drive as well. Using the file interface we were able to add, then stream thousands of photos from our internal picture drive on our network to the Boxee Box without a problem. Unfortunately you can’t have them become the screensaver like you can with Apple TV, but Boxee has confirmed to us that this is due in the next software update. 

Pictures can be played as a slideshow, and have transitions applied between slides. You can also set the length of time the image is on the screen for.

Music is supported, however Boxee currently only supports streaming of your own content rather than via a third party service like Spotify.

Verdict

The success here is the ability for the Boxee Box to play any file you can throw at it in 1080p, giving you considerably more power than Apple’s Apple TV offering. Then there is the VPN support for American TV fans and the ability to stream content from the likes of Channel 4, BBC and others - with more and more players scheduled to come on as more roll out - and finally the ability to enjoy those silly or thought-provoking movies your mates are sharing via Twitter and Facebook.

The catch is that the free content integration could be better, certainly from a mass market media experience and that might put people off if they are after something as well polished as the Apple TV, even though it lacks the same level of content.

What you get though, is a media streamer that works very well, and promises to be considerably better in the near rather than distant future, and Boxee has been keen to tell us that there are plenty more features coming. With Google TV yet to show up in the UK, and Apple offering a cheap but limited experience, this is the best of the bunch giving you plenty of content and ways of easily getting content to your TV.

Where the Boxee Box falls down is that if you want premium content, like the latest movies or TV shows and don’t mind paying, you’ll struggle to get them here unless you can download them on to your computer first.