|Introduction and Specifications|
|Free flowing bandwidth; it's an enabler. There was a time when no one had cable modems or DSL lines. Remember that? Alright, fair enough, neither do we. Regardless, having a 10Mb+ data connection to your domicile is a thing of beauty, because there's obviously so much you can do with it. The question becomes not so much what the cable or telecom companies tell you, or sell to you, with respect to what you can do with it, but rather what a little imagination, and some optimized hardware and software can do with it. And that's exactly the premise by which service platforms like Roku, Apple TV, Google TV and Boxee were born, though Boxee was a bit of a pioneer in the space with the introduction of their cross-platform software in early 2010. Boxee touted their software as the first "Social Media Center," with the ability to rate content and share it with your friends across multiple portals like Facebook and Twitter.
Boxee developed a strong following as a result, because the very hooks they built into their software that allowed users to share their favorite shows, movies and other content, also broadcasted the Boxee brand along with it. Boxee turned out to not only be truly innovative but it also came with built in viral marketing. It setup the small start-up nicely for their next phase of productization and licensing. Since then, a number of devices with Boxee under the hood have been announced, including ViewSonic's upcoming Boxee TV as well as IOMega's IOMega TV (with 2TB of on board storage so this might be one to watch for sure). And of course the big boys turned their sights on the obvious Internet TV market opportunity with products like Apple TV and Google TV arriving recently as well. That said, other than installing Boxee software on your computer, the only device currently available that can bring the full HD Boxee experience to your living room in a neat, tidy package is the Boxee Box by D-Link.
Though D-Link actually started shipping the Boxee Box back in November of last year, the company took their sweet time getting us a review unit and perhaps that's not such a bad thing. The word from our friends at Engadget ( in November '10) was that the Box has potential but wasn't quite polished enough yet. Since that time, Boxee has released a number of firmware and platform updates that enhance the experience and bring new services, like full 1080p content from Vudu and what could be considered critical mass in mainstream movie rentals, Netflix. Clearly, the Boxee Box has had time to mature and now we're here to show you what it can do as of today.
Does the Boxee Box have what it takes to compete with the likes of Google and Apple TV? We'll try to help you decipher the answers to that question and more in our full review and product showcase here. First, let's take you on a quick demo of the device, then we'll break it down in easily digestible bits.
In terms of content and file format support, it might be easier to ask what the Boxee Box doesn't support for video and audio media types. We honestly couldn't find any file it wouldn't play and threw quite a bit at the machine, right on down to AVCHD video files from our in-house HD video cameras (Canon VIXIA). In short, the Boxee Box just works and plays it all pretty much. Another notable for the Boxee Box is its ability to handle full 1080p HD video content, which is something Apple's Apple TV can't claim but Google TV can.
The Boxee Box kit is straight forward. Within the bundle, you get a single HDMI cable, AC adapter, a few manuals and warranty bits of paperwork and a multi-function remote with full QWERTY keyboard. The good news is, since the Boxee Box has two USB ports on the back side, you can also hook up a wireless keyboard and mouse, should you so choose, to make navigating the Boxee interface that much easier. Though we'd offer that remote slinging couch potatoes will do just fine with simple, quick text entry on the Boxee Box remote.
|Boxee Box Hardware|
|The Boxee Box itself is an example of what simple, functional elegance should look like, though at first glance it's an odd shaped device perhaps, depending on your taste in styling cues. It's not as diminutive as Apple's Apple TV but the Box also has a lot more going on in terms of overall features and functionality. With Apple TV you get just the basic connections to hook the device up to your TV or receiver. In typical Apple fashion, the device is otherwise closed off to the outside world, with the exception of its Ethernet connection. With the Boxee Box, you also get a pair of USB 2.0 ports and a Flash card reader slot for better expandability and access to your media.
Since the Boxee Box, much like its media streamer competitors, has no internal storage, USB connectivity can come in really handy, though you can't actually download and save content locally with the device. In the future, we'd like to see Boxee include a time-shifting/DVR app; though without the ability to stream live TV currently, you don't really need a DVR app obviously. These are wishlist features but we dare to dream around these parts. Beyond that, there are other excellent uses for a pair of USB ports, like being able to attach a wireless keyboard and mouse. In fact we tried it and it worked like a charm.
We should note however that the Boxee Box remote actually works quite well, considering its size, though we might have opted for something a little larger with slightly more spacious keys and maybe some sort of more elaborate tracking surface for cursor control. About the only shortcoming with the remote is mousing around in a browser window with the track button on the front side; it's not exactly nimble.
Intel's Atom CE4100 at 1.2GHz - At the time, NVIDIA's Tegra 2 was a day late and a dollar short.
So the big buzz with respect to the Boxee Box's delay getting to market centered around reports that Boxee was having issues with NVIDIA's Tegra 2 processor, which was their initial platform design target for the system. As such, the company shifted gears and dropped in the Intel Atom-based CE4100 media processor, which is the same platform that Google TV runs on. Under the hood here you can see just how small the tiny SoC (System on a Chip) is. We didn't take time to tear things down beyond this but underneath the metal shielding here is a very small motherboard, with a few RAM chips, some peripheral modules and chips for Ethernet, USB and WiFi and not much else frankly.
The Boxee Box next to Apple TV. It's bigger, but offers much more.
Considering the Boxee Box in total, this is one system that bring essentially what the sum of its parts has to offer. Fortunately, Intel's CE4100 family of Atom-based media processors really delivers quite well. Not only do you get full 1080p HD media support, along with support for just about any file format you can throw at it (save for HDCP protected content currently) but you can also tap content into the device from a number of external sources both directly and over the network. Unless you're heavily invested in Apple products (and let's face it, more than a few out there are), the Boxee Box offers a more powerful and capable solution for HD media streaming.
|Boxee Box Software and Experience|
|If what we're seeing now for Internet TV and media streamer devices is a first generation effort, then Boxee probably has invested as much time and resources into the interface and user experience as any product offering on the market currently. Prior to the Boxee Box itself, Boxee had been developing and refining their 10 foot user interface as a standalone, cross-platform software package. And Boxee's man months of engineering time have delivered nicely. Packaged together neatly in a device that has been optimized to run it, the Boxee Box organizes multimedia content and applications that showcase it, arguably better than any device in its class currently.
Click any image for high res.
The primary Boxee Box home screen is broken into six high level sections: Friends, Watch Later, Movies, Apps and Files. Friends gives you a view of media that is being shared by your friends over various social networks. Watch Later is a listing of shows that you've tagged to view at another time. Shows is the main Internet TV app with content from various networks. Movies is an aggregate listing of movies from various platform providers, from Vudu to smaller providers. Apps is a menu of specific apps available on the platform, from music apps like Pandora and VEVO, to video content apps for websites like TED and Revision 3. Of course the big ticket apps are Netflix and Vudu, with movie rentals on demand and a growing list of HD movie content coming on line every day.
Finally, the Boxee file server application does a nice job of hosting your network-attached media, like images and video files. There's a picture viewer with slide show feature complete with transition effects. The movie player interface was able to stream and play anything we pulled up on it.
Netflix scene selection interface in action makes skipping forward and replay a breezy thing of beauty.
And of course there's Netflix. Though Netflix still has plenty of work to do with respect to fleshing out their library, especially HD titles, the Netflix interface is actually nicely equipped and easy to use. The scene scrolling feature specifically caught our eye with the ability to scan through scenes in a movie title with impressive granularity. In fact, there are far more scene selections to choose from versus a standard DVD menu interface. We're looking forward to seeing how Netflix continues to expand their on-demand services and how they could possibly enable a richer experience for Boxee users moving forward.
|The Wrap-Up and Conclusion|
|The Boxee Box is pretty much the best implementation we've seen yet on the whole notion of Internet TV, Movies and other content served from the cloud and connected via socialization features. On the content delivery side of things, though the experience is still far from perfect, Boxee has essentially taken the widest range of features and function and enabled it with hardware and software that is up to the task and becoming more polished every day. Boxee's two primary competitors, Apple TV and Google TV (at least those with the most brand-name traction), deliver either a more limited experience (in the case of Apple TV) or one that is less polished (in the case of Google TV, from what we've seen thus far). And so, in short, the Boxee Box is a best-of-class product that delivers an experience at the highest level, which the ecosystem that currently exists for these types of product can support.
That's not to say that all is right as rain with the Boxee Box and devices in this space. There are obvious network support issues which limit content currently, not to mention the whole DRM issue, not the least of which is the ability of these machine to stream HDCP protected content. And actually, since we're whining just a little, a touch more bandwidth across the entire backbone of the internet might help too. It's a rather big can of worms to sort through for Boxee and other competitors in this space but we'd wager that as time goes on, things should loosen up a bit and Boxee seems to be well-positioned to capitalize on it with products like the Boxee Box.
Since we received our evaluation system back in early January, Boxee has released a number of small updates to the platform that have either enhanced the user experience in some way or added new services like HDX movies from Vudu and the Netflix app. So far, if you're an early adopter and took the plunge on a Boxee Box, you're probably pretty happy with the decision you made. For that we applaud Boxee and along with their best-of-class HD media streamer, the Boxee Box, we have zero reservations chalking them up for an Editor's Choice here at Hot Hardware.