Hands on with Boxee for iPad and Boxee Box v1.2

The long-awaited Boxee for iPad app went live yesterday and quickly rose to the #13th most popular free app for iPad. Simultaneously, Boxee released a new firmware version for the Boxee Box set-top media player, v1.2, with some new Apple-friendly features like AirPlay and AFP support. We've gone hands-on with all the new functions.

Airplay for the Boxee Box

Probably the biggest news for me isn't the iPad app at all -- it's Airplay support for the Boxee Box. This is something I've been hoping for ever since our own Erica Sadun started to help reverse engineer the AirPlay protocol, eventually leading to her AirPlay receiver software for OS X BananaTV.

You need to enable AirPlay first, as it's an "experimental" feature. Turn on your Box, go to the Settings page, and navigate to Network > Servers and tick "Enable streaming from iOS devices". Immediately, "Boxee" should show up in your Airplay settings in compatible iOS apps.

In fairly brief testing, I received somewhat mixed results. Photos, Videos and YouTube worked fine sent from my iPad 1 and iPhone 4. Video playback was slightly laggy, but no more so than when using an AppleTV or any other AirPlay receiver. The Boxee remote is capable of basic transport control -- play/pause works with video content, as does the d-pad for fast forward and rewind. It doesn't, however, do next/last picture when the Box is showing photos, nor can you start or stop slideshows with the remote.

Sound was less successful. The native iPod app on both my iOS devices detected the Boxee Box, but I had several instances where the stream got "lost" -- the device thought it was sending it to the Boxee but no sound came out. I also had one crash which required me to hard-reset the Boxee. On the other hand, when it did work it worked well -- and in a neat touch, the Boxee activates its sound visualizer during music playback to give you something to look at. Spotify also didn't work at all, I couldn't convince it to make any noise. I had the same problem when trying to stream audio from iTunes 10.4 on my Mac to my Boxee Box.

As this option makes the Box appear to be a normal AirPlay client, all iOS apps that support AirPlay video and audio streaming should work with it, notwithstanding crashes on Boxee's end. Note that it also isn't listed as supporting the new iPad 2 mirroring mode in iOS 5, although we weren't able to test that. Again, however, this feature is clearly advertised as being experimental.

Streaming content from your network to the iPad

On to the iPad app itself now, then, and the first big feature is the ability to stream arbitrary audio and video content within your network to the app. My first big disappointment: this is really just a lukewarm rework of Air Video. Like all these streaming apps, the Boxee version needs an intermediary computer that consumes the video content and converts it into an iPad-friendly video stream. I had initially hoped that the Boxee Box itself would be able to fill this role, so I wouldn't need to leave a computer switched on for it to work. No such luck in this release.

For the iPad app to work, then, the Boxee Media Manager (BMM) has to first be running on a Mac or PC on your network (minimum supported OSs are OS X 10.5 or Windows XP). Very similarly to how Air Video works, the BMM has a minimal UI that allows you to select which folders of content will be visible to the app. Switch to the iPad, and your content is there, presented in a reasonably attractive UI.

Now, there are downsides. Like all of these pieces of software, there's a quality drop from the conversion process. That process also creates lag -- it takes a few seconds after pressing Play before you see any video, for example, and trying to fast forward to a particularly point in the video rapidly becomes quite frustrating.

Compared to more established solution like Air Video the Boxee app has several other important drawbacks. It offers limited customisation, whereas Air Video lets you fine-tune the conversion process to trade off lag, quality, and network bandwidth. Even worse is the lack of support for not-on-local-network streaming. With Air Video, wherever you are in the world, you can enter a PIN into the app and all of your content will stream out of your home connection, across the internet, and down to your device. Boxee cannot do this. On the other hand, if you don't have pretty significant bandwidth both at home and wherever you are, this often ends up looking pretty ropey anyway so (at least for me) this isn't a killer feature.

Finally it's worth pointing out that the Boxee Media Manager app has no hardware acceleration so has to do all the video conversion heavy lifting on the CPU alone. This translates to a lot of heat, a lot of fan noise, and video playback that might be jerkier than it has to be if your Mac's CPU isn't particularly powerful.

Of course, Boxee is free, but then Air Video is only $3.

One last note: if you really, really like Inception, a trick presents itself: when playing back media, the Boxee player itself has AirPlay support. Which you can then direct to a Boxee Box for those dream-within-a-dream moments. Well, in theory; in practice, this just resulted in gray screens and lockups whenever I tried it. It's a silly thing to do so that doesn't strike me as a significant problem.

Social integration & Watch It Later

That's not the only trick up the Boxee app's sleeve, however. Boxee has long supported social integration to its server-side accounts, with two key features. These are visible as soon as you load the Boxee app.

Watch It Later is rather like Instapaper for video. You install a special bookmarklet in your web browser. Whenever you find yourself browsing to a video you don't have time to watch right now, click the bookmarklet. Next time you load the Boxee iPad app (or turn on your Boxee Box) all those videos will be arranged in order for you to catch up on.

The social integration is similar, but it's for videos other people post. You link your Boxee account to your Facebook and Twitter accounts. Any video link that any of your friends post will be collated automatically and, again, presented for you to skim through and catch up on. If like me you often browse Twitter in quick bursts where you rarely have time to watch videos, but you never remember to go back and look them up later, this can be a really useful feature.

Looking to the future

I chatted with Andrew Kippen, Boxee's vice president of marketing, as I was composing this review. I asked him how he thought the launch had gone and what Boxee's short- and longer-term plans were to develop the software.

TUAW: Any thoughts on how the launch of the app has gone? Was it well received?
AK: Really well received. We're #13 on the App Store for Top Free Apps -- not bad for 24 hours.

TUAW: Any immediate plans for bugfixes or changes?
AK: I think we'd like to smooth out a few things in the first time experience and we're listening to forums/Facebook/Twitter/Email to hear how things are going for people -- mostly all positive, but we're hoping to squash any bugs that come up quickly.

TUAW: Why can't Boxee Media Manager run on the Box itself -- am I right in thinking there's not enough CPU grunt?
AK: It's something we're going to work on. We wanted to get it out there for Windows and OS X, before we baked it into the box. Always good to get first reactions so second effort has everything people want.

TUAW: I've seen some crashes using the AirPlay streaming (which is perfectly understandable, I know you've worked to a reverse engineered standard and it's clearly marked as experimental) -- will this improve in future releases?
AK: Yep -- obviously there's only so much we can test with early access users (~200) vs. the tens of thousands that are using the app now.

TUAW: Will Boxee Media Manager be getting GPU acceleration anytime soon? It runs my poor MacBook Pro pretty ragged right now!
AK: It's something we want to support. Just working to find time & resources to make it happen.

TUAW: Longer term, where is the app going? Are you going to add the plethora of options contained in Air Video, for example? Any plans to support outside-the-local-network streaming?
AK: Lots of plans for where we can go, but you'll have to stay tuned for that.

The bottom line

In this launch, Boxee has presented us with some experimental-but-cool stuff (AirPlay), some genuinely neat new stuff (social features in the Boxee iPad app), and some promising-but-needs-work stuff (media streaming to the iPad). In any event the app and the Media Manager software are both free, so you've nothing to lose by giving it a go.