The Boxee Box arrives on the market after a long wait, and the streaming landscape it enters has changed dramatically since the box was first announced in late 2009. The Boxee Box by D-Link ($199, price as of November 24, 2010) makes a clear design statement, but it still has room to grow on the content side.
You have to give the Boxee Box and D-Link points for appearance alone. Despite the name and the square packaging, this media-streamer/set-top box isn’t the cube you might expect: Rather, it’s a shiny black polyhedron—a cube with a corner lopped off, which makes for an amusingly off-kilter shape when you set it on its rubberized green bottom. It’s all very Frank Gehry.
However, once connected to your HDTV, the Boxee Box works much like other set-top boxes that stream media from your network and the Internet to your TV. You connect the box to your TV using the included HDMI cable, and to your network wirelessly using 2.4GHz-band 802.11n Wi-Fi or ethernet. What distinguishes this streamer is its impressive range of Web video offerings, both free and paid; a slick, videocentric user interface (elements of which you can try out on a PC or Mac by downloading Boxee’s free software); and an attractive industrial design that includes, besides the box itself, a petite, candy-bar-style remote.
Unfortunately, Boxee suffers from problems that we’ve seen on competitors, most notably the Logitech Revue ( ) with Google TV. Boxee allows Web-based streaming, but some TV networks are blocking their video content; I couldn’t play CBS or NBC shows, although I was able to stream Fox and ABC programs; and, the unit sometimes felt slow when rendering Web pages. Furthermore, the software didn’t always feel fully baked: The device froze and crashed a couple of times while I was testing it, particularly when I used Wi-Fi, which tends to be problematic for streaming media in my crowded downtown San Francisco neighborhood. Also, several key services aren’t yet available even though the product is shipping; Boxee says it will have Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Vudu streaming by the end of the year or early in 2011. Vendors invariably insist that various issues or missing content will be fixed via firmware updates, but I’m starting to get tired of seeing products being sold before they are fully functional.
Boxee tries very hard—and for the most part succeeds—in eliminating the geek factor you see in many set-top boxes, mainly through the use of attractive graphics. That said, it’s still complicated enough that it could use a full-blown user manual, as opposed to the tiny setup booklet I got with the product: It took me a while to figure out that hitting the menu button can exit a video.
Setup is easy, though: Once you hook it up and power it on by pressing a button on the box (or thereafter by pressing the menu button on the remote), you’re directed to adjust the display to fit your TV’s screen, and create a Boxee account. That account will store your information, including your account data for services such as Netflix, Pandora, and YouTube. You can link your account to Facebook, and then share your media choices with Facebook buddies, while viewing the videos that they choose to share.
Boxee’s home screen has a menu of six icons lined up across the top half and a horizontally scrollable selection of screenshots from featured content on the bottom (you see three screens at a time). The menu items are Friends (which shows shared Facebook videos); Watch Later (for items you’ve tagged while browsing content libraries); Shows (TV programs); Movies; Apps; and Files.
Movies and Shows are fairly self-explanatory; they list films and TV shows that can be accessed directly from Boxee. The interface shows rows upon rows of what looks like the packaging for DVDs, giving the page the look of a video store.
On my test unit, the film library consisted of old and/or current indy art house films from Mubi, a subscription service. As for TV shows, I did find a few that are current, but again, most were old.
You’ll find most current Web content and services under Apps, including Flickr, Pandora, YouTube, commercial services, and dozens more sites with news and music as well as video content. Boxee calls them apps because they’ve been optimized for Boxee (by the content provider, a third-party developer, or Boxee itself). They appear as large squares with logos. Some will require that you create accounts on their Websites before accessing their content on Boxee; some are ad-supported.
Content accessed through Boxee apps looked fine when it played, but sometimes the Boxee Box appeared to crash and reboot, especially when I tested the Boxee over Wi-Fi (as opposed to an ethernet hookup via a HomePlug AV switch). I also ran into some software glitches. For example, when I tried to exit a music video on Vevo, the exit confirmation screen appeared only for a second and then disappeared; it took me several tries to hit the navigation enter button quickly enough to confirm that I wanted to stop watching.
If a video site doesn’t show up as an app, you can always navigate to it using the Boxee browser (which is itself an app). Like Google TV, the Boxee browser lets you search for video content (but with Microsoft’s Bing search engine) or simply enter a URL to bring up a site. However, unlike Google TV’s Chrome browser, which can pretty much do everything a desktop browser can do, the Boxee browser is limited in its ability to deal with Flash sites that aren’t focused on video. I was unable to play some Flash games, for example.
Also, the Boxee remote doesn’t have a mouse or touchpad—you can move the browser’s cursor only up, down, or sideways using the navigation buttons. This can be awkward if you have to select something with the cursor—for example, on the Fox site, navigation felt like a hassle, as it took me a few seconds more than it would have otherwise to position the cursor over the full-screen icon on the video player.
The Files menu item lets you browse your local area network for multimedia content; it proved exceptionally capable at finding network shares, something that’s been problematic on some media streamers. Videos on my PCs and NAS devices streamed smoothly via the Boxee. Files also lets you browse and play content stored on drives attached to either of the Boxee’s two USB ports.
Once you navigate to one of these areas, clicking the menu screen on the remote brings up an abbreviated version of the menu bar as an overlay without the Friends option and featured content, but with a search field for entering a keyword or URL, and small icons for settings and for shutting down the Boxee. In the upper-right corner of the menu bar you’ll also see the current time and weather in your area (taken from the AccuWeather app). You can always return to the full home screen via the Home menu item.
Macworld’s buying advice
Overall, the Boxee Box promises to be a great addition to a connected home—once it implements all of its premium service offerings and fixes the bugs. I like the petite, two-sided remote (although a backlight would have been nice for the keyboard side), and the interface is one of the best I’ve seen.
If you want a full-blown Web browser that you can access while watching, then you might prefer to pay an extra $100 for the Logitech/Google box; Boxee is not set up to work with your existing TV service and requires its own HDMI port. And I wish it were a bit peppier in accessing content.
But for user-friendly access to a wide selection of paid and free content, both on the Web and within your own local-area network, a fully-baked Boxee Box may well be the polyhedron you’ve been waiting for.