I’m sure by now many people know that I was one of the ones who pre-ordered the Boxee Box. I had been waiting for this box to be released since I saw the reviews from CES. I’ve been using the Boxee software intermittently since the alpha days. To me, this box was the best you could get for the price. Short of building a custom HTPC, I still don’t think you could do much better.
Something that surprised me when I first started using the box was something that I’m calling stumblability — the ability to sumble upon new content that you haven’t experienced before (ie channel surfing on broadcast cable). There are quite a few videos and shows ready for you when you first turn it on being pulled from online sources. I think aggregators like this and services like Hulu or Netflix allow for just as much sumblability as we currently have with broadcast media. Maybe even more. Right now there is a large selection of shows and movies to pick from without loading any of your own content on it, but at some point in the future you will literally be able to start any show or movie at any time. I think your chances of starting a show you might not have watched otherwise are just as high on a device like this. The only thing that might change is that there’s a chance you won’t start watching something that you have absolutely no interest in watching. I don’t think I’d ever watch a show like that for any period of time anyway, so I think this is a benefit of this new direction that I think media consumption is taking.
One of the problems I had right away was the ability to get my own content on the box. I like the fact that I can get my favorite web shows without any setup at all. As far as mainstream content though, there’s not as much. One of the advantages of Boxee is that it will play almost any format on the planet — if you can get it on the box. I had some trouble hooking the box up to my local network to access some of my files. The ideal solutions would be UPNP, but I’ve been having some problems there. The next best thing is Samba shares. And that works — kinda. You can setup a Mac to share content over SMB and the box sees that, but it asks for a username and password. When I put in my username and password from my MacBook, it just re-prompts so I’m not sure exactly what it’s looking for. The final solution that I found was to put the IP address of the machine in when adding a SMB source. This presents the new problem of having to make sure that device is always at the same place on the network. Other than that, it seems to be working quite well so far. But it’s still scanning my media.
Note: The problem of not being able to add a Samba source by the DNS name seems to be a Mac specific problem that I’ve faced before. I was easily able to add a PC source and could browse all the shared content without ever being promoted for a password at all.
It still feels a bit like a beta product. I’m not sure if they officially took it out of beta for the release of the box or not, but I’ve experienced some rare crashing. Nothing huge, and always doing the same kind of stuff. I haven’t experienced any random crashes or anything. An example would be when trying to connect to my MacBook’s shared sources via UPNP. I have Rivet installed on my Mac and it seems that when I try to add it as a source for files, it crashes my Boxee Box and Rivet on my Mac which is weird. I’ve also tried other UPNP servers on my Mac with the same result so I don’t think it’s just one piece of Mac software.
I have to say I was surprised to see that Netflix was missing from the apps. I just found out that you can actually add custom repositories, so I’ll have to check that out as well. I expected not to see the Hulu app on the box, but apparently we’re getting Hulu Plus and Netflix apps in the near future. The reason I’m surprised about the Netflix app is that it ships with the Boxee software now for Mac, Linux, and Windows. The only thing that I can think of is that they’re trying to optimize the app to work with the remote, since Netflix hasn’t been restrictive as to which platforms they’re watchable on.
This remote was actually a major selling point for me. I don’t think think they overlooked design or UX on any aspect of the Boxee Box. The remote is no exception. First of all, it’s got the basic apple-style remote on one side with a full QWERTY keyboard on the other. And it’s completely designed to make sure you’re not pressing buttons on the opposite side when you don’t intend to. Having a full keyboard on my television is awesome and I’m not sure that I would be able to handle a set-top box without it.
If you’ve got the money for an Apple TV, that would by far be my ultimate home theater/set-top box solution. It’s got very similar outputs as the Boxee Box with much more processor. I would definitely still load Boxee on it, but you have even more control with a custom solution like this. Obviously the remote will be less than ideal, but I’m sure there are some pretty decent remotes you could get for it as well. I think for me, local storage would be huge. I’m not saying I made a mistake by skipping the HTPC because network shares make that part of it almost invisible. A new Mac Mini running Boxee with all my media on it would be very cool though. Also, the option of having a full operating system with mouse and keyboard wouldn’t hurt. The Boxee Browser isn’t bad at all, but more power and flexibility is never a bad thing.
I’ll be talking about the Boxee Box on this week’s version of Sudo Make Me A Sandwich, so be sure to check in there if you want more about the box.