A couple years ago, I started playing with the early Boxee betas available for PCs and eventually on a hacked AppleTV. I followed the development of the software for months, running the latest betas and having to reinstall it whenever Apple released new patches for the unit rendering my hacks inoperable.
Eventually I grew weary of the choppy network streaming and the inability to play video with higher resolutions than 480p. I considered the Boxee box when it was first released but found my previous experience with the beta software on other devices so rocky that I avoided it until a friend boasted about how great it was.
He said things like you'll be able to play 720p and 1080p video without issues. You can watch video streaming from YouTube, Vimeo, and almost anywhere you've marked with the "Watch Later" bookmarklet on your computer. I decided to pick one up and it quickly became my favorite go-to device to play internet video.
The Boxee box is pretty simple and the interface is even nicer than the already clean UI it boasted on hacked first-gen AppleTVs. Network streaming was a cinch to set up but I found I could only reliably stream video up to a couple gigabytes in size before it would stutter and buffer repeatedly on my 802.11n wifi network. It was then that discovered one of the great things about the Boxee box: the extensibility.
Plug any USB external hard drive you like into it and the Boxee box will be able to scan for playable video files. You can also enable file server connection on your Boxee box, which allows you to do things like transfer new movies from any computer on your network to your Boxee's connected USB drive. This also means you can do things like set up Hazel scripts on a desktop Mac to scan a downloaded video directory and automatically transfer it over to the Boxee box while you sleep.
Once you have a large connected drive loaded with video, you're no longer constrained by the speed of your network. I could bring up 10Gb 1080p video of Blu-ray rips instantly. I could fast-forward and rewind through 1080p video without any delays as the video would seek ahead. Picture quality and sound were unbelievable all around.
One of the best things about Boxee is the software. It's really simple out of the box, offering you some staff pics that glean the best of YouTube and Vimeo on the home screen, and scanning network shares for playable movies is a pretty easy affair. It'll display the weather and it's loaded with a bunch of apps to play video from all sorts of sites. But the software lets you do much more advanced things as well. Like the aforementioned networking capabilities that allow you to map Boxee connected drives over your network for loading/editing. There are all sorts of other crazy options in the deep advanced menus. You can enable AirPlay for iOS devices. You can use an iPhone app as a controller over wifi. You can enable its webserver and interact over the network via various APIs.
The remote is a stroke of genius. It's a best-of-both-worlds mix of Apple-like beauty and simplicity on the front, with just three buttons and a directional pad. Flip it over to a full (albeit small) querty keyboard for entering passwords, filling out forms, etc. In my sea of remotes, the Boxee is a breath of fresh air. It isn't complicated like the GoogleTV controller but offers much more functionality than AppleTV's simple two button + directional pad remote. About the only drawback is that it works via bluetooth (or maybe IR?), so you won't find too many universal remotes that can talk to it.
Boxee isn't just a device or software, it's also an online social network and video service, but I have to say after over a decade of dabbling in social networks and a full list of about 50 friends on Boxee, none of us really use the sharing/rating features all that much. I rarely bother to "like" a video to report back to the Boxee site and all my friends. My friends feed contains just one or two friends using Boxee extensively and I haven't discovered much in the way of new shows as a result. One feature that is useful is the "Watch Later" bookmarklet you can add to your computer's browser. If you invoke it on a webpage featuring video playback (usually Flash), in most cases Boxee will recognize it and add it to your Watch Later list. You can pull this list up on the Boxee website or your Boxee box connected to your TV. This makes for a handy feature for things you catch on Twitter or at work and want to share in your living room.
Overall, the Boxee delivers by playing any crazy video I've ever downloaded. I watch a lot of British shows that don't play in the States or don't arrive on my shores for months to years after they play live for a UK audience, so I am downloading a lot of shows I want to enjoy in my living room and not my computer. The Boxee box is deceptively simple and offers enough flexibility to do much more than simply play internet video and it comes with one of the finest remote controls I've seen in years. If you download a lot of video online and need a way to easily play it on a TV, you can't go wrong with a Boxee box.
by Matt Haughey October 25, 2011 in Product Reviews