Boxee Box Review is a post on The Hickensian

The Short Review

The Boxee Box is a well made, beautiful piece of hardware that plays even large mkv files without complaining. However, it has a mass of regressions from the beta version: missing functionality, downgraded UI aesthetics & usability and online content is given more importance than your own files. All issues I have with Boxee Box are potentially solvable via firmware updates though!

The Long Review

After waiting 11 months for it be released, it was a shock when I discovered that the final Boxee Box UI had undergone so many radical changes. I cancelled my order, preferring to try the desktop software first to be sure that it still suited me as much as the beta. However, I saw some more reviews, spoke to the Boxee CEO Avner Ronen and saw his responses to the issues and felt confident again. So, the order was back on!

There are many excellent reviews out there, and I will try not to cover the same ground as those, so make sure you also read:

Next, let me state the conditions and criteria of this review. My Boxee Box setup is:

  • Samsung 720p TV
  • Audio output through Denon Stereo (not optical)
  • Wired gigabit ethernet connection
  • Media library kept on QNAP TS209 NAS drive (appears on Boxee as a samba share).

Bear in mind that this review is UK based. There are many online content providers that aren’t available here, such as Netflix, Vudu, Hulu and Pandora. So if you’re reading this and thinking “Why not buy a Roku?” remember that even if we could get the box in the UK, we still couldn’t get the services! We do have LoveFilm, Blinkbox and Spotify, but these aren’t yet supported in Boxee.

I’m also approaching the Boxee Box from this standpoint: I have a PS3 that can play CDs/DVDs/Blurays and all the files on my NAS via DLNA, access BBC iPLayer as well as films from LoveFilm and Mubi. I’m quite happy with it. You can pick up a PS3 slim for only £30 more than the Boxee Box in the UK, so it’s got to provide a much better media hub experience to be worth it. It’s off to a tough start already when I’m not bothered about the social ‘sharing’ side of Boxee, or for it’s multitude of online video apps.

I’ve also been using the Boxee Beta (v0.9) a lot on my Mac and an Acer Netbook, so a lot of this review is comparison between this and the version you get on the box after the first update (v1.0).

Packaging

I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the Box packaging. Expecting the bog-standard ‘egg-box’ style innards, I got nice smooth black cardboard neatly nestling the hardware. See more of the packaging on my Unboxing photo Flickr Set. Off to a good start!

Hardware

The Boxee Box is a thing of beauty. It’s small, solid and dares to be different. Not everyone will be a fan of the sinking cube look, but I definitely am. It’s such a refreshing piece of industrial design.


(Box contents with miniature teapot for scale)

There is an external power brick, but not too big a one as it goes. A surprise inclusion was a HDMI cable – which I’ve not heard of manufacturers doing before. Hopefully it would prevent people being taken in by the ‘gold connector for best signal’ scam that some electrical shops operate (it’s a digital cable, it either works or it doesn’t!).

The Boxee remote has had a lot of attention: it’s RF (no line of sight needed), and includes a full qwerty keyboard on the back. Even my 7 year old son was impressed by that! It’s a good idea, but the keys do need quite a firm press to register, presumably to prevent accidental keypress when using the other side. They’re also labelled with grey text and not backlit, which makes it hard to see at night. For the amount you need to use it, it’s definitely better to have it, than to not. As the iPhone remote app works with the box too, I’m more likely to use that for text input. Apparently a companion app for the iPad is being produced too, presumably more than just a larger version of the iPhone app? It will be interesting to see what they come up with there.

Turning it on via the power button on the top, there is a slight fan noise, but it’s less than my PS3 Slim. I wouldn’t say whisper quiet, but not loud enough to be a concern. The Boxee logo glows when it’s on, but dims when you’re playing a video – such a nice touch.

What I couldn’t work out though, was how to wake the Box from sleep. The remote didn’t seem to have any effect, and the pressing the power button just turned it off.

UI

Here we go then! The Boxee Box ships with version 0.9, the one you can currently use on your computer, but when you start it up, you’re upgraded to 1.0, which in so many areas is radically different.

Aesthetically I still don’t like the new UI. It does look better in real life than on the screenshots, but not enough to stop me missing the previous version. The Boxee-Identity green highlight/selected state has been replaced by a colder cyan colour. The bold font has been replaced by the ‘kinda-funny-looking’ one used in the alpha and looks unrefined in comparison. The background image is now a muddy blur that lacks the warmth and emotion of the sunset image in the beta. Slightly transparent overlays are now fully opaque. Perhaps the simpler downgraded graphics are due to hardware limitations?

The simplified homepage is an improvement on the busy-ness of the beta, but now half the screen is taken up by ‘featured’ content I can’t change and the other by over-simplified icons that lack the quality of their 0.9 predecessors. In 0.9 I used to have roughly two thirds of the screen dedicated to my content (friends feed and queue) they’ve been replaced by half a screen of pushed content without any say in the matter.

It doesn’t just look different though, a lot of the functionality is either changed or missing:

  • Your local media files are treated as less important than online sources. More on that later…
  • Customisation options like changing the background and hiding media file extensions have been removed
  • Media sources are only scanned once daily, no frequent options. (You can initiate a manual scan at least)
  • Music and Photos have been removed from the top level, and are now a subview under ‘files’. ‘Friends’ and ‘Watch Later’ now take their place
  • The Last.FM and Vimeo apps are missing, amongst others.
  • The pop-up menu that appears when switching views was larger and easier to read in 0.9, and allowed you to add shortcuts to favourite apps or files:


The addition of search is helpful though, and in general, the interface feels nippy – it’s only really let down by slow loading of thumbnails.

One of the advantages of Boxee over my PS3 is that it will scan my media sources and fetch metadata & cover art from IMDB.com, making browsing your library more appealing than simple filenames. In general this relies on you naming your files in a particular way, which can be a bit of a faff at times, but worth it when it gets it right first time.

The problem is that it doesn’t always work, despite being named clearly. For instance, Boxee has a bug which means if you have episodes of classic series Doctor Who, as well as new, Boxee will only show the new. The missing episodes don’t show up in ‘Unidentified files’ either. You can of course still play any of your files by going through Files > Source and finding the file, but this is no improvement on using the PS3. This is a bit of edge case, but would’ve been solved by allowing users to grab data from tvdb (as Plex does) instead of imdb.

Also, part of the metadata that Boxee grabs is a star-rating. While this makes sense for online content I get a bit uppity to see someone else’s opinion on my local files. Who cares what they think? Minor thing though.

When it comes to playing video I really can’t complain however! It could play everything I threw at it flawlessly. The biggest file I could test with was a 22gb .mkv version of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, which it did without any complaints! It also successfully played DVD .img files, and I was able to navigate the DVD menus just fine. After using an Apple TV and PS3 this is just wonderful.

I’ve seen reports of users having problems with some playback and samba shares, but I’ve yet to find that.

Whose Box is it anyway?

The biggest problem of all however is the way local media is pushed to the back. The Boxee Box feels driven by online content providers – their content is more important than yours, and you can’t change that. Even though my content is high quality and ad-free.

For example, in ‘Movies’, Boxee will only show your files after all the online content. You can filter these out but it requires quite a few clicks each time. You can also access them via ‘Files > Movies’ but I don’t want to see my movies in the clunkily named ‘Movies Files’, I want to see them in just ‘Movies’. Even ‘My Movies’ would’ve been preferable.

This is a moot point though, as Avner has already stated that Boxee understand this problem and are addressing the issues of local content :

“Planned solution: We are going to let users tell Boxee whether they are going to use it mostly for local or Internet playback. In case you select “Local” clicking on Movies or Shows will take you to the movie or show files rather than to the most popular online titles.”

I can’t wait for that update as it’s the biggest issue for me.

Apps

Boxee provides easy access to a lot of online content via ‘Apps’, which install when you first click them, but some required a second click to launch after installation. To be honest, the main one I care about is BBC iPlayer. Sadly, when selecting a show, Boxee goes into a kind of browser view, rather than going directly to full screen like it’s 0.9 counterpart. I tried manoeuvring the cursor onto the ‘full screen’ button but couldn’t manage it. As it stands I wouldn’t use the Boxee Box for iPlayer, I’d use the PS3 instead.

4oD videos play well, although like other YouTube videos, they play with the video control bar visible at the bottom. Again, something that you didn’t have to put up with in 0.9. This seems to be a general problem with online video – where 0.9 was clever and gave you the video full screen, it now often shows it in this browser view.

There’s an awful lot of stuff on Boxee I don’t give two hoots about, which was fine in 0.9, but this version puts that stuff front and centre. I’d love a way to uninstall apps, or at least reduce their visibility.

Family Friendly?

I also wanted this to be something the family could use when we sit down to watch movie together, but the local content issue makes it less favourable. Beyond ‘hiding adult content’ (i.e not allowing porn) there’s nothing more you can do to prevent them from being able to watch content too old for them. One way around this would be to create a different user account for family – a hassle and would only solve issues with local files. Again, control over apps would help here.

Boxee has also some funny ideas about which of my movies are in the ‘family’ genre. They’re not quite ready to see Son of Rambow just yet.

Summary

Pros

  • Beautiful, well made hardware
  • Plays any video file, without issues

Cons

  • Interface is simpler, but feels unrefined and childish in places
  • Online content is first and foremost, with local files a 2nd class citizen
  • BBC iPlayer app feels like a big back step
  • Needs more control over content, particularly for family environments
  • IMDB TV Show database means that content can go missing
  • Lacks many useful UK content providers like LoveFilm and BlinkBox.

Advantages over the Boxee Beta? There’s only really one: better playback support (some mkv’s I had issues with play fine on the Box). In every other respect the beta did everything right, and it’s very tempting to find a way to keep 0.9 on the box. Whether it was technically possible to do everything the desktop version did on the Box, I don’t know.

Advantages for me over a PS3? A prettier media library, smoother playback and support for more codecs, most critically disc images and mkv’s. On the other hand, the PS3 also offers disc playback, as well as only showing the content/apps that I choose to. Not to mention that the PS3 supports BBC iPlayer better, and has access to LoveFilm too.

Now, the Cons list may be bigger than Pros, but all the issues with the Boxee Box are potentially solvable with software updates, and with the exception of the aesthetics, we know are in the process of being fixed. I would hope that Boxee consider bringing back the emotion and refinement from the beta interface too, or add customisation/theme preferences, but there’s no word on that yet.

For my needs, Boxee isn’t completely replacing the PS3 yet, but I do really, really want it to. I have high hopes that the next few updates will solve the majority of these niggling issues and allow that to happen. Onwards and upwards!

The Hickensian is the journal of Jon Hicks, one half of the creative partnership Hicksdesign. Take a look at the work we do.

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