To a casual onlooker, the hype and excitement that D-Link’s Boxee Box generated at CES 2010 must have looked almost inexplicable. It’s another media streamer. It sits by your TV and plays content off a network. And the case looks like something ripped straight from a first-year industrial-design student’s notebook.
All valid observations. But it also plays Hulu, costs less than $200, and sports a slick user interface that makes most DVRs and cable boxes look like relics from 1993 – with a remote that does the same. These features alone probably explain why the quirky little Box is now the darling of home theater nerds everywhere.
Let’s start with that remote. As we explained at the beginning of CES, many streaming media boxes have made a stab at the ultimate remote and failed miserably, including Boxee’s promising but ultimately disappointing iPhone app, which we tried when we switched to an HTPC. Make it full of hard buttons, and it’s easy to use, but typing “a boy and his dog” into a search box will take you 45 seconds with an on-screen keyboard. Make it touch screen, like that Boxee app, and it entering text is a breeze, but you need to stare down at the screen for every little adjustment.
Boxee’s two-sided remote suffers from neither. On the top, you get a directional pad, home and play/pause button – all you need to navigate Boxee’s simple menus. On the bottom, you get a full QWERTY keyboard for tapping out text with ease. And amazingly enough, they don’t seem to interfere with one another at all. Since the slim shape of the remote forces you to grip it by the edges, you never really accidentally press keys on the bottom while working the top.
The on-screen interface glitters with the same amount of polish. Every nugget of content is filed into six categories: photos, music, movies, TV shoes, apps, and files. All of them offer an intuitive overview of content within, and the QWERTY keyboard on the remote makes it simple enough to bust out a search if you don’t feel like browsing. All the icons, menus and graphics whisk around on screen like a well-oiled machine, too, thanks to Nvidia’s Tegra 2 graphics processor under the hood.
While some of Boxee’s quirks when running on a PC still have us hesitating to call this the box that will get HTPC owners to finally trash the mouse and keyboard for good, we’re confident they’ll be resolved by the time the Box launches later this quarter. And we can’t wait to kiss the noisy Compaq in our living room goodbye.