For years, hardcore media-streamer PC hacker tinkerer types have scoffed at Apple TV’s limited feature set and built themselves Linux-based miniPCs that get a massive range of media formats to your TV at full 1080p. Now, DLink has backed a one-time maverick project to bring this kind of functionality to the ordinary home user. But does Boxee Box still really suit the uber-geek more than the mum and dad?
The Boxee Box is a hardware implementation of a free media server software package called Boxee. It provides a clean, relatively straightforward interface, an excellent little remote with a miniaturised keyboard, and the ability to pipe the internet’s most popular streaming services – YouTube, Netflix, Hulu and more – direct to your TV without all that tedious mucking around in Windows.
The box itself offers an HDMI output with 1080p output and support for pretty much any media format you can think of. There are two USB ports into which you can plug an external hard drive (there’s no internal storage) or thumbdrive, and the box has both Ethernet and WiFi built in. So you can suck movies off a PC in another room.
Glitchy. That best sums up the Boxee user experience. The software is dynamic, by which I mean it updates itself, and bits of itself, constantly over the internet. For instance, every time we used the YouTube “app”, it would download “the latest version”. Some apps drop you back to an ugly web browser interface for an instant before the app’s nice TV-friendly skin kicks in.
Most irritatingly of all, there’s no Boxee-enforced standard for how the buttons on the remote are implemented. The Play/Pause button does not mean Play/Pause in all apps – again, YouTube uses the centre ‘enter’ button to play and pause videos.
Here in Australia we don’t currently have access to the full range of streaming video services that the US offers. Hulu and Netflix have big plans for our country, but for now you just stare at those icons – or the space where those icons would be – sadly.
Boxee Box does support VPNs, but if you’re at that kind of level (essentially spoofing the internet into thinking you’re in America) and have a US credit card, then you’re probably the kind of person who just plugs their notebook into the PC via HDMI anyway.
There are a lot of features in this little awkwardly shaped box, but most of them feel like they’re saying “just wait until the next version when we’ve fixed all these bugs!”
To the tech-savvy uber geek, the Boxee Box is one of the best media players on the market today. It’s powerful, well-made, has a great remote and piles and piles of features. Sure, you can’t integrate it into a media rack thanks to its rather self-consciously ‘edgy’ shape, but it does look cool on the top of the cabinet. And as an uber-geek, you’ll forgive it its many glitches and peculiarities, secure in the knowledge that updates will improve it as time goes on.
For the kind of person who’s idea of high tech is Blu-ray Live though, the Boxee Box still falls too far in the IT nerd camp. It’s a little computer, with a little computer’s foibles.
Easy to use? For some of us, yes. For the rest, a Playstation 3 remains a more elegant, if more limited, option.