Boxee Box Review
My Boxee Box arrived today and I've been playing with it since I got home.
Some background before we go into initial impressions:
I watch a lot of movies and I'm the kind of person that actually does like to re-watch movies, so consequently I also collect a lot of movies. I have hundred of DVDs and terabytes of movie files that I've collected over the years. The movie files are in a variety of different formats spread across external hard drives, computers, and my 4-bay RAID 5 NAS (coincidentally, also a D-Link).
Over the years, the encoding format of choice for movie files has shifted from DIVX to XVID to H.264. Lately, I've been finding Bluray rips to replace my old DVD rips and in a way this is the format shift that my father had to do many times when I was growing up. We had a VHS player and then a Laserdisc player and then a S-VHS player and then a DVD-player.
When you have digital movie files, you're going to want a way to watch them.
This is a problem I've thought about quite a bit.
In the beginning it was simple, you watched them on your computer, or if you managed to do it, you ran a cable from your computer to your TV. As hardware started to catch up, you started to see DVD players with DIVX decoders built into them or took USB sticks that you could put movies on. There were hacky implementations on movie players on the Dreamcast which could barely decode the compressed video.
I think the original Xbox changed all this - shortly after hackers figured out how to modify the Xbox to play unsigned content, digital media enthusiasts started to collaborate and Xbox Media Player was born. In many ways, the Xbox was a perfect candidate for a media player - it has S-Video output, it had a hard drive and a relatively fast graphics engine and CPU, it had ethernet (or even WiFi if you bought an addon) - it was a computer that didn't cost as much as a computer dedicated to playing media would cost.
I used my Xbox as a media player for years and years and watched as the software evolved. Soon all your movies had cover art screen scraped from IMDB, it recognized various naming strategies and split files, even extracted metadata from .NFO files, the MP3 player could post to Audioscrobbler, it grew more and more mature as a software project. Unfortunately, the hardware in the Xbox stayed the same and soon the software itself outgrew the technicals specs of the Xbox, you couldn't stream and decode the newer rips fast enough for it to keep up.
Where did we go next? There were certainly many alternatives, HTPC's started entering the market, as well as Apple TV, or Mac Mini's running Plex, a fork of the original XBMC. I stuck with my Xbox as long as I could - honestly I didn't really need to upgrade because I watched movies on my trusty Infocus X1 projector, which wasn't really HD so there was no real benefit.
Then the Popcorn Hour came out and I was impressed at its specs. It had gigabit ethernet, two USB ports, an internal hard drive, HDMI out, and could play pretty much any video file I threw at it, including 1080p content. It was basically a poor man's Mac Mini running Plex. There was a fair amount of hacking done on it, nothing like the golden age of Xbox Media Center hacking, but soon it had a USENET client and a torrent downloader - in theory you could use it as a centralized repository for accumulating and watching media content, but I never really took it that far. The most I did was upgrade the NTFS driver to allow write support, so I could plug two hard drives in it and treat it as a NAS, but it was actually much slower than a real computer for that purpose.
The Popcorn Hour was the first in a line of Networked Media Tanks and there have been some decent improvements upon the original model - but honestly, the UI of the Popcorn Hour bugged me too much to consider getting another one. Navigating the menus was a pain, sometimes it would get into a mode where it could barely stream unless it was rebooted, sometimes the remote would only work from a few inches away.
When the last revision of the Apple TV came out, I considered it, but it wasn't a real choice for me because I have no intention of re-encoding several terabytes of movies into a Steve Jobs-approved format. It looks like jailbreaking the new one has gotten a fair amount of traction, but I think the CPU is ultimately underpowered which means that the decoding is going to have to happen on the server-side, which isn't really what I want and I don't really feel like having to maintain and modify another device to have it do what I want - I just want it to work out of box with my existing content.
Many of my friends have gone with the PS3 as a media player, which is nice because you get the side-benefit of a Blu-ray player and a game console, but again I think that this involves encoding on the server side. In the ideal world, I just want to be able to put everything on my NAS and/or the hard drives attached to the device and not have to run a computer to decode content.
So when the Boxee came close to being released, my frustrations with my current Popcorn Hour basically drove me to order it.
Smaller than I expected as I pulled it out of the box, I guess the problem is that all of the product shots don't really have anything next to them for scale.
I hooked up my HDMI cable, my ethernet cable hooked up to my Gigabit ethernet router, plugged in the power cable and turned it on.
Next was a series of screens that would never have made it out of 1 Infinite Loop.
The very first screen I saw was "Upgrade Now!" and a button to upgrade. I hit it, it downloaded an update for a little over two minutes, then I got to watch a progress bar. After a while, it rebooted itself and dumped itself into a menu for setting up a new account.
I flipped over the remote and started using the keyboard on the back of it to type in my e-mail address, except it kept saying "Not valid" next to the text input, so I backed out of the menu and tried it again. This time it worked, and it let me set up my account.
The first thing I did, unsurprisingly, was try to find the Flickr integration. I went to Apps and scrolled through literally hundreds of apps, only to find it at the very top among the first 8 apps. Its icon hadn't loaded yet - you would think they would want to have these on the box instead of downloading them.
I hit the Flickr button and then it... asked me to go to a web page on my computer.
So I went to www.boxee.tv/auth and went through the authentication dance and tried it again, this time it showed me a Dashboard screen with some text that said Your Photostream, Your contacts, Your favorites, but no photos except my buddy icon. I hit the Your Photostream link and then thumbnails started rolling in, I played with the slideshow for a bit and then went back to the Dashboard and sure enough, thumbnails started coming in here, too. Overall, not that bad.
Next, I tried the Movies and TV tabs. First, I tried watching Alice in Wonderland which it reported as the Walt Disney animated version. I started it and it buffered it from Youtube Movies and started playing what appeared to be an older version of the film with real people - the first of many mismatches when autoguessing movies. Then I tried streaming The Daily Show from Fancast, a website I had worked on a couple years ago - and.. it opened up a webpage with a movie clip in the center of it. I managed to move the cursor to click on the Fullscreen button, but it made me wonder - Are they really partnered with all of these places, or do they just screen scrape and regex the movie clip out of them? The streaming was pretty unwatchable on an HD TV - it was pixelated and blocky as if it was just a blown up web page, which is not unsurprising considering it was just a blown up web page. I tried a few more TV shows, they all went to full screen immediately but were also pixelated and blocky.
I tried really hard to find the Netflix button, and then figuring that I needed to do the authentication dance, went back to my laptop and hooked up the two services, but I still couldn't find it on the actual device. Finally, I gave up and decided to start importing my content. I already have quite a few Samba shares from multiple devices, but when I selected my "New Movies" share it prompted me for my username and password, even though I have authentication off for that. I tried it three or four times and googled about it, turns out I needed to uninstall the latest Windows Live 2010 Essentials pack. Not really Boxee's fault, but still a bit weird.
Finally, it started importing my movies and it did a pretty impressive job of detecting what they were. I had to make a few corrections, sometimes it would choose the wrong movie that was named the same but from a different year. You change the movie through the Identify tab, type in a search term, and then choose from the results.
It's worth mentioning that the remote is kind of weird when you use the keyboard, often when you're filling in text fields on the device you have to move between them to start filling out the next one... but, on the keyboard side of the remote there is no arrow keys so you actually have to flip it over to move between fields and the flip it back to the keyboard to start typing again. After a while this gets pretty old.*
*Followup: I found some arrows on the keyboard side. =) In my defense, they were hard to find in low-light.
It appears there's no recourse if you don't agree with the cover art it chooses for the movie - for one movie I autocorrected, it didn't pull cover art at all - others it would have errors selecting the movie even though it was in the search result list - I think this might be a parsing error on their part.
There are two views for browsing Movies, a grid with a bunch of movie covers and a list view which has a long list on the left side and the cover and description on the right. The description includes the Director, but you can't filter the list by Director, which was really disappointing. To be fair, you couldn't really do that on the Popcorn Hour either, but it seems like it would be a reasonable feature. I had hoped if it was going to make the effort to download the meta-data associated with each movie it would at least let you filter by them. The Movies tab with streaming movies can be sorted by Genre, but the local files cannot, only by Title. It would be nice to be able to see some more granular detail on the movie like the path name and the filenames - maybe there is, but I didn't find it on the browsing section, only on the correction screen.
The TV Shows tab was a bit more impressive, first there's a grid of TV shows and then when you select one, it breaks it down into seasons in the detail view. For whatever reason, the later episodes in the season seemed to have the same thumbnail where the earlier episodes had episode-specific screenshots. There was also a synopsis of each episode.
As far as actually watching movies goes, I tried a few, they all played fine except a handful that I knew already had encoding issues. I tried switching subtitles and got confused of how to actually change them - the icons were not very intuitive, although I did stumble upon a feature that it would download subtitles from Open Subtitles which I thought was pretty cool - assuming they actually synced correctly.
I didn't try out the music player or the non-Flickr native photo viewer.
Finally, I rebooted, hoping the Netflix sync would kick in then, but it wasn't anywhere to be found. Then I went back to my Local Movies tab and it had to re-download all of the cover art again - I really hope this was a mistake and it does have a local cache - otherwise this seems like an unnecessary dependency on Internet availability. Finally, I googled about the Netflix thing - it's supposed to be in a firmware update "by the end of the year". Great.
The movie/TV show import was the most impressive feature, obviously a lot of effort has been put into recognizing various filenames and the correction worked for most Movies and TV shows. Unfortunately, I think the streaming seemed very 1.0 - I don't see myself using it a lot although if the HD Netflix has a good interface I think that will make it considerably more useful. It clearly doesn't have the polish of an Apple TV but then again, it seems like they are for different markets - legitimate content vs. "acquired" content. There seemed to be a handful of bugs in even the setup process, not to mention the website - the whole thing does seem a little rushed to market. If I find the music interface cumbersome, I might end up getting the new Apple TV as well, the price point certainly makes that possible. Either way, it's still a step-up from my dying Popcorn Hour, but if you're buying it for it's Internet streaming claims, I would hold out until a few more firmware updates and partnerships.