Boxee Sits Comfortably Atop the Media Center Hill
What it is.
Boxee is the most hyped media center software to ever hit the market. It's supposed to change the way we watch TV, how we discover new content, and solve global warming. Okay, maybe not that last part, but you can only expect so much from what amounts to a prettied-up version of the open-source XBMC (Xbox Media Center).
What's different about it?
Boxee is a media center for the age of broadband and social networking. It doesn't just play media stored on your computer; it indexes hundreds (possibly thousands) of streaming videos from, amongst others: ABC, NBC, Comedy Central, and (thanks to a little browser-based trickery) Hulu. It's also a platform for widgets and apps that can pull in additional content from services like Pandora, Netflix, and MLB.TV. Plus, like any piece of software worth its digital weight in bytes, Boxee integrates with social networks like Twitter and Facebook for sharing what you're watching with others.
What we like.
The most compelling, and best, feature of Boxee is its ability to seamlessly combine video from all of the major Internet streaming sources into one easy-to-search library, and to automatically add new episodes to your queue. If that was all it did, Boxee would be well worth the free download.
Following what seems to be a growing trend, Boxee is a true cross-platform app. Versions are available to download for OS X, Windows, and Linux. And aside from the Linux version's inability to stream Netflix (which is addressed below), all three versions are feature complete. We're also big fans of the iPhone Boxee Remote app (when it works), which makes navigating from across the room much more pleasant than it would be with a standard media center remote.
Boxee's ability to cull information such as cast, plot synopsis, and even subtitles is also greatly appreciated. Just know that Boxee is very fickle about what it will recognize. So, take a tip from Lifehacker, and use TVRename to clean up those file names.
We're also quite fond of the new look. It's friendly, warm, and very Web 2.0 in all the best ways possible. It may take some exploration to master the more obscure menus and options, but we vastly prefer its look and organization to the spartan-to-a-fault design of Front Row and the unnecessary flash of WMC.
Then, there are the apps -- the add-ons that bring content and features to the Boxee platform. How this gallery of extensions matures will play an important part in how Boxee evolves as a media center. Will it simply be used to keep certain content partners happy by separating their products from the generic streaming media section? Or will it become a powerful hub for customizing and adding features, à la Firefox?
What we don't like.
We have two major complaints against the Boxee Beta, and honestly neither is really Boxee's fault. First and most important is its stability. It often froze when launching the browser. It stalled out following commercial breaks. The iPhone remote app constantly failed to connect. And, until we downloaded the Direct X SDK (which no regular user would have any reason to install), it simply refused to play any non-Flash video on our Windows 7 PC. But, then again, we've been spoiled by the likes of Google and Mozilla, both of whom slap a beta tag on products that are more than ready for prime-time. "Beta" is supposed to mean "test version"; it's supposed to mean there will be bugs. And when Boxee says "beta," Boxee means beta.
Our second major gripe is specific to the Linux version: no Netflix. Now, this isn't terribly shocking. Netflix's streaming service isn't supported on Linux -- or, at least, not openly. You see, the Boxee Box and the Roku both run Linux and both are able to stream Netflix. That indicates there are no technological hurdles to overcome. Netflix has constructed an artificial road block to thwart Linux viewers, and the aggravation is enough to make one cancel their account.
Is it worth the hype?
For at least one (admittedly adventurous) Switched writer, Boxee and a cheap Windows PC have replaced the traditional cable and DVR setup -- which should really say it all. Is it a truly revolutionary application? No, but it's far-and-away the best of its class.