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The Boxee Box Reviewed: The Good, the Bad and the Clunky

Boxee Box
The poor, issue-laden Boxee Box has had a rough go of it. The streaming media box has been in a seemingly constant war with Hulu, and, after announcing at last year's CES that Boxee would launch using NVIDIA's Tegra 2 hardware, the manufacturer had to switch to an Intel-based solution, since getting the software running on NVIDIA's hardware proved to be too difficult. Despite of all the obstacles and setbacks, the Boxee is finally here. However, as we've discussed in our rundown of the Apple TV, Roku and Google TV on the Logitech Revue, it now faces a market crowded with legitimate competitors that didn't exist a year ago.

So, major proponents of the Boxee Box are curious: is it still compelling enough to earn a place in your home-theater setup? Or have the seemingly endless delays sabotaged the box, making it D.O.A? As major fans from day one, we tentatively took the device for a spin.


Hardware and Design

Boxee Box Hardware
No discussion of the Boxee Box can get started without addressing the quirky design of the device. Personally, we dig the angles, the sliver of bright green peeking out from the bottom, and the hidden logo that lights up from nowhere when the box is powered on. Others might want their streaming-media boxes to blend with the rest of their A/V components, or easily fit into shelves underneath their TVs. The Box's undeniably unique silhouette will either get put in the pro column when weighing your options, or immediately send you running into the arms of the simplistically designed Roku.

Underneath the cubed exterior is a pretty standard Atom-based nettop. In fact, the innards are almost identical to the Logitech Revue. The chips inside aren't going to win any awards for speed, but they're more than enough to push 1080p video. Around back, you'll find an HDMI port for hooking up your HDTV, as well as optical audio jacks for pushing sound to other devices. Inside is a speedy Wi-Fi N radio, but you'll also find an Ethernet port for a wired network connection. There's also a pair of USB ports for plugging in external hard drives, and an SD card slot that lets you play back local media.

If you have any trouble playing back local media, you're a more demanding consumer than we are. The Boxee Box supports a stunning array of codecs and formats. In our two weeks with the device, and after throwing just about everything at it, we have encountered only one video file that the Boxee Box could not play back.

The other major hardware component is the remote, which is unique with its full QWERTY keypad on its reverse side. On the whole, it's a wonderful creation. Using the keypad is much more pleasant than navigating on-screen keyboards with basic directional controls. That being said, there are a few design quirks that keep it from being perfect. The symmetrical controls make it very easy to grab the remote the wrong way, which had us constantly hitting "menu" when we wanted to hit "play/pause." The remote is also just a little too wide for comfortable typing, especially since the QWERTY keys take quite a bit of force to press. (Still, we'd take the Boxee remote over the Apple TV and Roku remotes any day.) Alternatively, you can always use the iPhone app, which gives you the option of controlling the Boxee Box with virtual buttons or by using hand gestures.

Still, neither the remote nor the the iPhone app offer a good solution for controlling the on-screen cursor. Unlike the Boxee desktop app, many videos require you to launch full-screen mode with the remote's directional pad, something that is at best inconvenient and at worst maddening.

Software and Selection

Boxee Box Software
Having to manually launch videos in full-screen mode is just one of the frustrating differences that users of the desktop software will encounter. For example, your "Queue" is now called "Watch Later," and the main screen no longer provides quick access to items on that list. While viewing your lists of shows and movies, the browse and search menu is no longer accessed by hitting left; the menu button on the remote drops down a browser bar from the top. The biggest sacrifice in the transition to the Boxee Box, however, is the loss of a streaming box's two most important content sources: Netflix and Hulu. To be fair, both will be coming to Boxee in the near future, but they're not here now -- and that puts Boxee at a distinct disadvantage when compared to the other media boxes.

Overall, we enjoy the face-lift that Boxee has received. The UI is stripped down to be more remote-friendly than its previous incarnation. Some options and navigation tools are a little out of the way, and there are a few strange behaviors that we'd like to see cleaned up. (For instance, hitting enter in the search box, even after you've typed your query, opens the on-screen keyboard instead of performing the search). Still, the look is more consumer-friendly and a little less cluttered than the desktop app.

Unfortunately, the app selection for Boxee is disappointing. While we loved both the TED and the New York Times apps, most of the rest left us wishing for just a little bit more. The Adult Swim app, for example, gives no easy way to discern which videos were full episodes and which were simply clips. And the 'Know Your Meme' app constantly got stuck buffering videos. Generally, the apps were basic landing pages that simply played back videos from sources like YouTube, and not customized video channels optimized for Boxee.

Verdict

Boxee Box Verdict
Like the Revue, the Boxee Box ultimately has a ton of unrealized potential. For playing back your downloaded movies and TV shows (we won't ask where you got 'em), the Boxee Box simply can't be beat. It served up almost every file we threw at it. Sadly, everything else about the box left us wanting. Streaming video content is severely limited without access to Netflix or Hulu. And some content available on the desktop app, including 'The Simpsons' and 'Conan,' won't play on the Boxee Box. To make matters worse, even the videos that would play were unreliable and unstable. Pausing a video often meant having to restart it from the beginning, or rebooting the device completely. It's a shame that the device is hindered by buggy software and limited streaming options. Once Hulu and Netflix are added to the mix, the Boxee Box will be a far more compelling option. But, until the bugs and the interface kinks are worked out, the $199 box is strictly for those who want to watch videos they've downloaded or ripped themselves.

Tags: Boxee, boxee box, BoxeeBox, BoxeeBoxRemote, boxeehq, hulu, Netflix, reviews, roku, streaming, streaming media, streaming video, StreamingMedia, StreamingVideo, top

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