Review: Boxee Box

By Pat Pilcher

4 comments
Boxee's little box that could. Photo / Supplied
Boxee's little box that could. Photo / Supplied

From the little box that could files comes the Boxee box, and all told, it's a decent bit of gear that'll put a smile on the face of any AV geek wanting access to video, music and photos on their telly.

With the smart TV market getting smarter (and slightly crowded), a dedicated box like the Boxee may seem odd, but after spending some quality time with it, I found a whole lot of reasons to love it.

The words "Boxee Box" may have had a rectangular and bland box-like gadget in my imagination, but looks-wise, Boxee was anything but - unboxing the Boxee revealed a gizmo that's had a slice taken out of its base and back. As striking as this asymmetrical design may be, it unfortunately made the Boxee tricky to stow alongside other AV gear.

AV rack gripes aside, its design also sported several nice touches, like a green Boxee logo that glows on power up and a rump which is coated with a bright green rubbery substance, limiting its propensity to slip or fall (definitely a good thing with quakes from the south frequently shaking cassa Pilcher in Wellywood).

Spinning the Boxee around also revealed a slew of connectivity options on its rear Spanning Ethernet, HDMI, optical and composite audio-out, along with two USB ports and the obligatory power socket. The irregular design of the Boxee mightn't be everyone's cup of warm brown beverage, but after installing it next to my Samsung telly, I had to admit that it looked pretty striking.

If its shape intrigued, I was also curious to know how those clever clogs at D-Link had managed to wring so much functionality out of such a petite package. Powered by an Intel Atom CE4110 chip, Boxee packed 1GB of flash memory, along with a 1GB of RAM. Placed side by side with Boxee, other media streamers seemed quaint and even chunky by comparison.

Setup

Getting set was a fairly straightforward exercise. From unboxing to plugging it in, configuring Boxee took a frustration-free 10 minutes. Much of the smooth setup was largely due to both the Boxee remote (which made typing in network settings and passwords just that much easier) and the fact that I already had a Boxee account and was able to skip the account creation stage.

Once logged in to a Boxee account, it really came to life, and I was able to effortlessly share videos and keep fellow Boxee friends up to speed with what I was watching (as well as see what they were watching). For social media-savvy individuals, having an account also allows you to link Boxee activity to Facebook and Twitter.

In use

Perhaps the coolest part of the Boxee experience was its remote. It has simple four-way navigation controls on one side, and a compact (but usable) QWERTY keyboard on the other. Having reviewed my fair share of onscreen keyboards and other input options, Boxee's remote was a breath of fresh air. Whilst not suitable for writing War and Peace, it was perfect for casual text entry, which is all that is needed.

Powering up Boxee revealed a clean and uncluttered interface that looked like the love child of an Apple TV and a generic, Brand X digital media streamer. The interface was easily readable from the comfort of a sofa thanks the use of large and easy to read fonts, and simple graphics.

One of the most noticeable features of the Boxee interface was the Friends tab, which lists all the media that Boxee, Facebook and Twitter friends have watched, along with any ratings and comments or recommendations.

There's also a Watch Later button, which lets you queue up video for later. Then there's a Shows and Movies tab, providing access to both online and locally-stored content.

Aside from its social networking smarts, Boxee is designed from the ground up to dish up digital media from multiple online sources in a seamless and unified fashion. On the bottom half of the Boxee's main screen there's a list of downloadable apps (which are really custom interfaces for accessing online services rather than traditional 'apps') and videos available for streaming.

Online content spanned a huge array of online services and sites in addition media stored locally via a hard drive on my home network. Given the huge variety of online content available, playback varied from buffering whilst Boxee downloaded an entire video file, or a full-screen Flash Player (complete with on-screen controls) for services like YouTube.

In addition to the seemingly endless stream of online content, Boxee also managed to play nice with locally stored content. No matter which HD video format I threw at it, Boxee, the little box that could, managed to decode and play video effortlessly, whether the file was supplied via my network drive or loaded up on an SD card (which inserts into the a slot on the side of the Boxee box). The big take-out here is that access to content was seamless, with Boxee doing all of the leg-work obtaining legit content online.

Performance

Having yawned through many an Atom-powered netbook struggling to render HD footage, I wasn't expecting Boxee to deliver awesome 720 or 1080p content, but it smoothly rendered virtually every high-definition video format I threw at it.

About the only fly in the AV ointment was audio sync, which in rare cases would start ahead of video. This could have been an encoding issue rather than anything to do with the Boxee box.

While the playback of video, music and photos worked fine, browsing the web felt clunky, with the Boxee browser being both sluggish and tricky to navigate. Given the media-centric nature of the Boxee however this wasn't a huge loss.

Verdict

With an expected retail sticker price of $419 including, the Boxee box offers serious bang for your retail buck. Not only does it offer far more format compatibility than Apple TV, it's also cheaper than most standalone dedicated media centre PCs (and far easier to set up). While there's a seemingly endless multitude of brand X media streamer boxes already available, few provide such seamless access to online and locally-stored content as Boxee, or its social media integration. In short the Boxee is definitely the little box that could.

SPECS
Boxee Box

$419

Dimensions (l/w/h) 114.3mm x 114.3mm x 116.8mm
Language support: English, French, German, Italian, Spanish
Network Protocols: IPv4, ARP, TCP, UDP, ICMP, DHCP Client, DNS Client, DDNS Client, HTTP Server, Samba Client, RTP/RTMP, VPN: PPTP, DLNA 1.5
Network support: Wireless: 802.11n/g/b (2.4GHz), Ethernet 10/100
Ports: HDMI 1.3, ethernet, 2x USB 2.0, Optical Audio (S/PDIF), RCA (L/R)
Memory Card support: SD, SDHC up to 32GB, MMC
Audio formats: MP3, WAV/PCM/LPCM, WMA, AIF/AIFF, AC3/AAC, OGG, FLAC, DTS, Dolby Digital/Dolby True HD
Video Formats: Adobe Flash 10.1, (FLV/FV4/M4V), H.264 AVC (TS/AVI/MKV/MOV/M2TS/MP4), VC-1 (TS/AVI/MKV/WMV), MPEG-1 (DAT/MPG/MPEG), MPEG-2 (MPG/MPEG/VOB/TS/TP/ISO/IFO), MPEG-4 (MP4/AVI/MOV), DivX 3/4/5/6 (AVI/MKV), Xvid (AVI/MKV), WMV9 (WMV/ASF/DVR-MS)
Photo formats: JPEG, PNG, GIF, BMP, TIFF
Supported resolutions: H.264: 1080p, 1080i; WMV9/VC-1: 1080p, 1080i; MPEG4: 1080p, 1080i; MPEG2: 1080p, 1080i
Remote: dual-sided RF remote: with 4-way nav and QWERTY keypad.

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