Software and media playback
Boxee's dramatically changed its interface from the beta
released at CES 2010 in January. We actually really liked the old UI -- it was engaging and different, and really highlighted the social aspect of using Boxee. The new UI is... well, it's sort of ugly. It's like a cross between an Apple TV and Roku, all stirred up with some cutesy graphics, and while it may be simpler and easier to get familiar with, it's also much less functional in many ways, particularly when it comes to accessing local media -- getting to your stuff now requires many more clicks, and some of the more robust filtering options have disappeared. We're not the only ones to dislike this change; there's an eight-page petition
on Boxee's forums asking for a reversion to 0.9. We doubt Boxee will do anything that drastic, but we are hoping some of the old UI makes its way back into the 1.0 interface over time.
But let's engage this interface on its own terms instead of looking at the past, shall we? At its core, Boxee is all about delivering content from multiple internet sources to you in a seamless and unified way, and you've got plenty of options in that regard. On the bottom half of the main screen you've got a selection of featured apps and videos -- we're quite fond of the Vevo music video app, which is really well done -- and then you've got what essentially amounts to a source list up top.
On the far left, you can select the Friends tab, which pulls in all the video your friends from various services have shared -- if you've got Boxee hooked into Facebook, for example, all the videos your friends post will show up automatically. Boxee tells us this feed is refreshed every time you open the tab, but for us it seemed like it was taking far longer -- we'd like a simple refresh button. Right now the Box supports Facebook, Twitter and Google Buzz, and it appears there's more to come -- Netflix seems like a no-brainer, and the Boxee website lets you add yet more. Then you've got Watch Later, which is a queue of things you've chosen to watch later, Shows and Movies tabs that offer galleries of available content, and finally Apps and Files. We'll get to those last two in a moment, but let's just focus on Friends, Shows, and Movies for a second.
Boxee offers a number of ways to go get content online -- in addition to a partnership with Vudu and upcoming deals with Netflix and Hulu Plus, there's also the web itself. Selecting content from Friends, Shows or Movies pops up a dialog box displaying all the potential sources available -- services, sites, even local media if applicable -- and selecting one means a number of different things might happen. You might get a buffering screen while Boxee pulls down a raw file, as with the Engadget Show. You might get a full-screen Flash player with controls mapped to the Boxee UI and remote from a handful of sites the software understands, as with YouTube. You might open an app and play a video from within that experience. Or you might just get dumped on to a webpage with a tiny Flash player and left to your own devices to make it all work. In all but the last case, Boxee does a commendable job presenting its own UI and offering a unified experience, but it's not perfectly seamless, and the tiny little differences between playback modes seem destined to confuse non-geek users.
Apps are a bit of a different story -- the Boxee Box comes preloaded with a large variety of different apps, and, ah, several more can be unlocked by switching off the adult content filter in settings. (Given Boxee's rebellious history, we can't help but wonder if D-Link knows that switch is there, actually.) Boxee apps aren't really "apps" in the interactive sense -- they're more like custom content interfaces for various web sites, and they don't really try to be much more. As we said above, we're quite fond of the Vevo app, and other apps like Showtime Podcasts, The Big Picture, Auto-Tune The News and TED all provided direct access to their respective content with no added fuss. Whether or not you think having page after page of web video apps on your TV is valuable is up to you, but to us it feels like having an endless amount of Blu-ray extras with no actual movie to watch. That's not to say there isn't great long-form content out there -- we recommend a little something called The Engadget Show -- but out of the gate Boxee's app content is very "web video on your TV," not "TV delivered by the web."
And finally there's local media playback, which is where the Boxee Box thoroughly outclasses its competitors. Avner Ronen said at the launch event that the Box can play back any video format with a three-letter file extension, and we were able to play back virtually every file we threw at it, whether over an SMB network share or loaded up on an SD card. Straight from a camera, pulled off the internet in an unknown format, whatever -- it played. The only issue we ran into was that when faced with either a slow network connection or SD card, hitting play would result in a wait cursor that kicked us back out to the file list, and we'd have to hit play a second time. (Since we were struggling with WiFi to begin with, we ran into this problem quite a bit.) We also agree with Boxee's many fans who want easier access to local files with more robust sorting options -- until Boxee lines up more content deals, the Box's overwhelming strength is local media playback, and it should be a point of emphasis on the main screen, not hidden away in a tab. Boxee says it'll eventually add a preference to prioritize display of local content on the main screens, and the company has also promised manual refresh and hourly scan / update options for network sources -- right now you're limited to scanning sources daily, which is clearly not often enough.
Performance, browser, and Flash
Given our experience with the Intel CE4100-based Google TV devices, we weren't expecting the Boxee Box to light any worlds on fire performance-wise, and we'd classify real-world responsiveness as "acceptable." We've seen Boxee more or less fly when run on actual PCs and even Atom-based nettops, so it's a little sad to see it chug along on the Box, but it's not a killer. Unlike Google, Boxee doesn't think anyone actually wants to browse on the TV -- Avner says the Boxee browser is a "fallback" -- so while you'll wait a tick or two while cueing up a video or loading a web page, the real goal is to watch video, and the Box can certainly do that.
That's not to say we had flawless playback experiences -- we noticed that audio and video sync drifted occasionally, and every now and again we encountered a Flash bug where the audio started and finished well ahead of the video. We also once came back to a Showtime podcast after a long pause to find the sync so unmatched we had to quit and relaunch the video to get it back in order. We also ran into some seriously stuttery playback of an XviD file and a DTS-encoded WAV file -- which also led us to discover that multichannel audio files are only output as PCM, instead of bitstreamed like video files. (We were able to send both DTS and Dolby Digital to our receiver while playing video, if you're curious -- we weren't able to test Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD.) Overall these are all minor issues, but they add up, and in a market this competitive we hoped the Boxee Box would be a lot closer to perfect.
As for browsing, well, we can certainly understand why it's treated as a fallback -- it's serviceable, but as with Google TV, it's slow enough to make you immediately reach for your phone or laptop, and if the speed doesn't bother you, moving the mouse around with the arrow keys will make you run screaming for the hills. (We'll say it again, though: add a trackpad to this remote and it would be perfect.) We also found that Boxee's Flash implementation is just as video-centric as Google TV's -- while it'll play 1080p video without breaking a sweat, a simple Flash game like Canabalt runs at maybe half speed. There's a huge market out there for Flash games on the TV just as soon as someone figures it out -- and we can't for the life of us understand why Boxee's 1.2GHz Atom-based CPU can't run Flash games as well as any netbook or most high-end Android smartphones.
Netflix, Hulu Plus, and content blocking
We'd be remiss in our review if we didn't mention Netflix and Hulu, which are both coming to the Boxee Box. Netflix is due "by the end of the year" and will be in HD, although it sounds like surround audio will remain a PS3 exclusive for the time being. Boxee's even making a special Box remote with a dedicated Netflix button
, which sounds crazy to us but apparently makes perfect sense for the huge numbers of people out there who just want Netflix on their TV. As Boxee said to us, "Netflix is different."
As for Hulu, well, first let's just commend these two for working things out. It's an impressive achievement for Boxee to have gone from scrappy underdog rebel to full-on media platform, and getting Hulu to play along is confirmation of the company's newfound status. That said, it's not Hulu on Boxee -- it's Hulu Plus, which'll cost you $10 a month. Visiting Hulu.com pops up a note saying Hulu Plus is coming at some undefined point in the future, and that's it. Same with various other network sites -- just as with Google TV, lots of content is blocked from the Boxee Box browser, and that kills much of the product's value. Boxee is aggressively out there trying to negotiate deals with content owners, and Avner is sincerely passionate in his belief that they'll eventually come around, but don't expect any of this stuff to be resolved when you plug this thing in on Christmas morning.
We should also note that while Vudu is technically on the device at launch, we weren't able to test it -- we just got a dialog box saying it's "coming soon."
Man, we really want to love the Boxee Box. On paper it's exactly the right blend of streaming content from online services and robust local playback support we've been dreaming of for years -- and having a Webkit browser with Flash as a fallback seems like a perfect compromise to the PC / TV interface dilemma. It also lines up perfectly price-wise: at $199 it offers vastly more features than the $99 Apple TV, but it's cheaper than the much more ambitious $299 Logitech Revue while offering a similar browsing experience. Plus we're pretty much stupid for the remote, save for the lack of trackpad.
Unfortunately, in practice the Boxee Box just isn't polished enough to be worth the hassle right now. The ideas are all there, and our experience with the Boxee team has us confident in their vision and ability to execute, but the Box as shipped feels like less of a finished product than an excellent rough draft of the future. Yes, it's nice having a ton of web content easily accessible on your TV, but that stuff isn't a replacement for the high-quality linear TV content most people want, and Boxee doesn't do a great job of delivering that. Netflix and Hulu Plus will go a long way to filling that gap, but they're not here yet, and while Vudu sounds nice it's just not enough on its own.
What you're left with, then, is an extremely nice media streamer with amazing codec support and tons of potential for the future. That's not a bad purchase if you're in the market for a streamer, and we'd imagine plenty of people will pick one up just for that. We'll just say it: this is the best nerdy streamer box we've ever used. But streamers are almost by definition niche products, and we don't think that's what Boxee's going for here -- hell, if you're nerdy enough to want a streamer, you're nerdy enough to grab a $299 Ion nettop and run Boxee on it, and you'll get better performance with no network content blocks. No, the Boxee Box has to deliver on all that latent potential if it wants to challenge Apple and Google and shake up the staid TV industry, and we just don't think it's there yet -- it lacks both content and polish, and that's a deadly combination.
Boxee says it wants to do major updates twice a year with "many, many" small updates in between, so we're certain many of these issues will be dealt with -- and the content deals feel almost inevitable, given the Boxee team's undeniable charm. Until then, however, we're still waiting for the TV revolution to finally arrive.