Everywhere you look these days, there is a new device for sale designed to get music, movies, and entertainment to your TV without the hassle of old-fashioned delivery systems like cable or satellite. So when media-center maker Boxee announced last year that it was adding a Linux-based set-top hardware device to what used to be a software-only product, it took on a decidedly tougher market.
I'm hopeful it will succeed, not simply because the Boxee Box is slick hardware with an even slicker remote, but because it raises the bar considerably for open source entertainment devices.
For those unfamiliar, Boxee is a derivative of the XBMC media center — streamlined, with a customized user interface, connected to a "social network" base of other Boxee users, and pre-loaded with scores of Web content feeds. The company makes builds available for Linux (32 and 64 bit), Mac OS X, Windows, and the Apple TV (which runs a variant of Apple's iOS platform). The Linux version is capable of running on a home theater PC (HTPC) in addition to as a desktop app: it can output digital audio (even passing through DTS and AC3 signals to a receiver), adjust video overscan, and be controlled with a LIRC-compliant remote instead of a mouse.
The hardware set-top box is called the Boxee Box, and is manufactured by D-Link. If nothing else, you've probably heard a lot about its design, which looks like an alien black cube melting halfway through the surface of whatever it's sitting on. It's certainly weird (a "cubic section" may be the proper term for it...), but it ultimately doesn't matter, since the box's remote control is RF instead of infrared, so it does not need line-of-sight. Connection-wise, it has HDMI (1080p-capable) and analog video out, digital and stereo audio out, a 10/100 (not gigabit) Ethernet port, an SD card slot, and two full-size USB ports. 802.11b Wi-Fi is built in.
You can hook a variety of devices up to the USB ports, including external storage devices and IR remote receivers. Optical drives are not supported yet, although there is a feature request for them. Users report that they can supply enough voltage to run one external hard disk, but not two, so if you need a second one, make sure it has external power.
Speaking of remotes, the remote control is easily the best blend you're going to find of an HTPC's competing needs, the directional navigation pad and QWERTY keyboard. The "front" is held vertically and operated like a remote (assuming you don't pick it up backward, since it is symmetric). The "back" hides a small but complete keyboard, although you can also use the navigation arrows on the back side like a direction pad. Comparatively, the feature-less Apple remote forces you to type by scrolling through an on-screen keyboard, while something like the Logitech Revue is so clunky it'd might as well have wires.
The Boxee Box uses a newer revision of the Boxee application than is available on Linux (at the moment, version 18.104.22.16843, as compared to version 0.9.22.13692). The main improvement in the new release is navigation. Starting from the home screen, Boxee breaks content down into four groups: "Shows," "Movies," "Apps," and "Files." The first two are curated lists culling content from all of Boxee's pre-sorted web sources.
Apps is the main library of content source channels — at least, "channels" is what they would be called in any other context. Under the hood, some apps are simply links into RSS-delivered video feeds, while others launch specific video sites in Boxee's built-in web browser. The user shouldn't have to care what delivery mechanism gets the content to the screen, so the "Apps" design hides this — it's a different approach than most other media centers take. "Files," of course, allows you to browse media files on local storage, or on any discoverable shares on the network.
The choice of content sources is part of what distinguishes Boxee from the upstream XBMC application on which it is based. There are several hundred content "Apps" pre-installed, by default sorted by popularity so that things like The Daily Show and Pandora bubble to the top. But I also give high marks to how streamlined the interface is: it dispenses entirely with items like XBMC's Photo and Weather main menu entries. Honestly, who misses them? Weather, if it deserves a spot in your media center app at all, goes at the bottom of the list, not the top. The look of the app also discards XBMC's screen-consuming stock photo menu screens, and just puts text and content thumbnails in front of your eyes.
But in addition to the design, the navigation itself is also improved. I've used several generations of Boxee on Linux, and previous versions fell into what I call arrow-key-traps — where you can use (for example) the right-arrow key to move the cursor into some particular menu, but then the left-arrow key can't get you back out. MythTV themes are riddled with these problems. On the Boxee Box, the arrow keys always move the direction they look like they should, the "pause" button always pauses, and "menu" button always brings up the menu — even if what you're currently doing is watching a Flash-powered video via the built-in browser.
Putting Up with the Web
That last fact is a welcome surprise because those of us who use desktop Linux have been trained to expect going into "browser mode" with Flash to be a harrowing, focus-stealing experience. The Boxee team has made it about as seamless as possible. Browser mode is only the playback-tool-of-last-resort, when a content source doesn't provide a real, standards-based feed, but even when you enter it, the remote control still allows you to move the on-screen cursor with the arrow keys. It's not as fast as a mouse, naturally, but it gives you control to use the site's home-brewed Flash controls, including "full-screen" or "replay."
Still, in just a few minutes of using it, you are confronted head-on with the sad reality of just how crummy the bulk of web-delivered video truly is. There's no one to blame but the content providers; they could use a simple standard like RSS or ATOM, but instead they wrap their video in a custom, impossible to navigate, constantly re-buffering hodge-podge of "branding." Worst of all, most force you watch unskippable commercials, but even they don't offer you true video-on-demand. Instead, you get a selection like Season 1 Episode 1, Season 4 Episode 5, and Season 5 Episode 11 — and that's it. Yet the network probably still wonders why people are downloading episodes through file-sharing apps. At least you can still turn the volume down when the ads are playing.
The apps themselves are a mixed bag. The newest firmware update finally added Netflix Watch Instantly support, which is a huge win, and there are rentable movie titles from Vudu, plus other services requiring separate accounts, such as Pandora. These top-tire apps are run smoothly and deliver quality visuals and audio (users on the Boxee forums report that the box does better-than-average local buffering that more than makes up for its lack of gigabit and highest-speed Wi-Fi). On the other hand, Youtube's Leanback is a pretty poor offering in the browser, so you shouldn't expect it to be better via Boxee. I sampled several other series, including the original Star Trek, which I never watched growing up (don't judge me; I was watching M.A.S.H.), that were prone to occasional missing-sound or missing-picture glitches.
But that's not Boxee's fault, of course. All in all, the box does a remarkably good job of making these disparate content sources accessible in a unified way. The various "apps" require local installation before you can use them, but it is a one-click process, and it works fast. In fact, one of my few complaints about the interface is that it's actually difficult to tell which "apps" you have installed and which you don't — they all look the same in the menu. You can add apps to a "favorites" category with which you can bypass the full list, but that seems to be it.
Outside of the pure playback experience, I did find it irritating that firmware updates for the box are evidently downloaded while the machine is actively in use, which slows down effective bandwidth and interactivity. Two came in one week of testing, and in both cases once the download was complete, a "you must upgrade and restart now" alert popped up. In contrast, Roku's streaming video players download their updates in the middle of the night, and install and update themselves.
Choices, So Many Choices
So, given the number of options we have in streaming media these days, how do you decide if the Boxee Box is right for you? The simplest approach is to compare it to the alternatives.
The Roku media players are probably the closest offerings on the market: similar price point, geared towards streaming video rather than DVR functionality. Between the two, the Roku devices have a far more consistent (and simpler) interface. Every Roku "channel" looks and behaves the same. But the Roku players can only play back H.264 or WMV9 video, and MP3 or WMA audio. The Boxee Box can handle far more, including Vorbis, FLAC, FLV, and DivX. Though both are designed for streaming over the Internet, only the priciest two Roku models have a USB port so you can use an external drive with the "USB Channel" — the Boxee Box can use an external drive, but comes out-of-the-box able to play content from other machines on the LAN, over HTTP, Samba, NFS, UPnP, and other standard protocols.
It's also important to note that despite the Linux underpinnings, there is a stark difference in the openness of the platforms. Roku allows developers to create "private channels" with its SDK, while anyone can develop media plugins for the Boxee Box, and either submit them to Boxee for future distribution, or simply run their own repository. The Boxee APIs are far more flexible, and the developer forum is filled with people figuring out new tricks, such as how to connect additional USB devices (see the IR dongle mentioned above), or connect to additional hardware, like HDHomeRun HDTV tuners. You can download the full source code to the Boxee Box, not just the Linux kernel, and build it yourself. If you have to ask how this compares to the Apple TV on openness, then you're just not paying attention.
On the other hand, if you're the type of Linux user that doesn't mind building your own set-top box, a harder question is whether you should buy a Boxee Box or install the free Boxee app. The Boxee Box plays jitter-free media at 1080p, but the hardware is not expandable (it's even hard to get root). Still, the company actively promotes both ("buy it" versus "build it"), so you might want to look at building. Here there are two factors to consider. First, the Boxee Box comes without any type of DVR functionality. We're not yet at the point where you can get all of your news and media over the web (heck, Boxee's domain name ends in .tv), so the ability to include a DVR package is a point in favor of building it. There are workarounds, such as the MythBoxee app, which you can add to Boxee Box, but it still requires a MythTV backend server.
The second factor is that the Linux builds of the Boxee application lag behind the Boxee Box version — at the moment, many months behind. There is no word on whether Boxee has figured out how to deploy versions of its most popular apps, like the DRM-bound Netflix Watch Instantly, on Linux. As Hulu has shown, there is no reason why it can't be done — it's merely an uncertain future. There are other ways to get content into a general-purpose Linux HTPC, including MythTV's MythNetvision plugin, Bittorrent, and Miro, but if you want simplicity, Boxee has them beat. It's a matter of weighing your priorities.
There is one dimension of Boxee Box usage that I have not discussed yet: the "social" component. Roku, AppleTV, and all of other web media streamers I'm aware of have no social dimension at all, so Boxee is ahead of the curve there — and yet, it still seems like the social side of the application never has quite picked up momentum.
In earlier versions of Boxee, the social component basically just allowed you to follow other users, and glean recommendations for Boxee-delivered video content that they watched. Thus the network of Boxee users was little more than yet-another-network-on-which-to-find-and-subscribe-to-your-friends. The 1.0 release running on the Boxee Box takes a more integrated approach, letting you tie in your accounts on other services, so you can access your friends' shared Facebook or Twitter videos and photos.
It still doesn't hit home to me — your friends become yet another delivery channel for passive entertainment. Everyone knows that real social networking is about participating in a conversation. As lame as Youtube content gets, it's dead simple to comment and even "respond" to other people's videos; the Netflix site even allows you to write reviews and share them with other users. Neither of these service's Boxee apps let you do that sort of thing — they just feed the videos.
Maybe the services simply don't care, but Boxee is an open platform — and so far, none of the open source apps add much interactive conversation to the video watching experience either. Open source can push the envelope beyond "rate, review, and respond" too. Boxee has flexible subtitle support and can overlay audio/video streams and other content while they play in real-time. It'd be nice to leverage that in a discussion somehow — to comment on tracks as they play, or find and share information about a show while you watch it. Perhaps it is a plugin API limitation, although neither MythTV and XBMC engage much social discussion, either. There are hints of better functionality brewing, such as the Watch Later bookmarklet that lets you add a video to your Boxee watch list while browsing with your desktop or laptop. But at the moment, watching in Firefox on the desktop lets you interact with other users at the same time, while Boxee on the set-top box doesn't.
Nitpicking over social networking features aside, I definitely like what the Boxee software has done with the 1.0.x releases available on the Box. The Boxee Box itself is quiet and unobtrusive, it can handle just about any media you throw at it, and unlike the competition, there are no barriers to accessing your own content, adding or reverse-engineering USB peripherals, and writing your own plugin apps. That'd make it a product worth looking at even it wasn't glowing green and "phasing" its way through other solid objects.