Feeling stifled by the narrow scope set-top boxes like Apple TV, but not quite ready to start stuffing circuits into a box to build your own home theater PC? D-Link pushes forth an unlikely solution with the funky and curiously geometric Boxee Box, which promises the control and flexibility of a desktop program packed into a standalone box. While it somehow manages to fall a little short of both, plenty of digital entertainment gurus will still find plenty to like in its imperfect middle ground.
Boxee is no more unique to the Boxee Box than Windows is to your Dell laptop. It’s just software, and Boxee has actually been distributing it for free on Linux, Windows and Mac OS X since 2008. A cult following ensued and D-Link picked it up for the Boxee Box in 2010, the first set-top box to use the software Boxee had been vetting on the desktop for years.
Boxee’s basic goal is to play everything. Locally, that means everything from common DivX files to the rare and mysterious VOB (the only thing it won’t handle locally is iTunes servers). In this world of ubiquitous broadband and streaming though, it also increasingly means access to streaming sites like YouTube, Revision3 and Pandora. Boxee also includes social networking features to see what your friends are watching and vice versa, and apps for letting developers expand the capabilities of Boxee. We’ll get to these features more later on.
We delayed reviewing the Boxee Box when it launched in November because it lacked even Netflix – a vital feature we were frankly in disbelief that D-Link had the chutzpah to ship it without. Boxee finally added Netflix in February, but Hulu, Hulu Plus and Amazon Video on Demand all remain missing in action.
Most of the set-top streamers we’ve had the opportunity to review share a common goal: invisibility. Through a combination of small size and generic designs, these book-sized boxes have been engineered to disappear into the tangle of receivers, Blu-ray players and game consoles below any given TV like they don’t even exist.
Not the Boxee Box. In a rather bold move, D-Link’s take on Boxee pulls the opposite effect. Think less “chameleon in a rain forest” and more “zebra in a disco.”
True to the Boxee Box name, it’s basically a cube, flipped on edge and cut down to look like it’s sinking into the tabletop. Square, yes, but totally off the axis you’re used to dealing with. Digging this shape from its unique cardboard packaging for the first time, it’s striking how small it feels; you could actually put it in front of many TVs without blocking the picture. The closest thing to the “front” of the box gets a glossy plastic panel with a Boxee icon that lights up from beneath, but the rest has been built from pretty ordinary matte black plastic. Only the bottom gets any color: The rubbery plastic it sits on is an outrageous, Xbox-y green.
To be sure, the style is polarizing. You’ll either love it or hate it. Fortunately, if you find yourself on the more conservative side, the RF remote allows to cram it in the back of a home theater system and it will still work, even if the shape isn’t particularly conducive to it.
Crack open D-Link’s Boxee Box, and you’ll essentially find a desktop computer built for very specific purpose. An Intel CE4100 processor actually beats at the heart, which shares a silicon bloodline with the Atom chips commonly found in netbooks – not entirely surprisingly, considering Boxee’s origins on the PC.
Keep in mind that there’s no storage in here. While the Box does have a 1GB flash chip for storing apps and other OS information, the only way to add truly “local” storage is through SD cards and the dual USB ports.
Spin this cube around and you’ll get to the business end. Like the Apple TV, an HDMI port supplies the sole means of connecting the Boxee Box to a television, which means older TVs are strictly verboten. D-Link does however, supply some analog outputs in the form of stereo RCA jacks for audio output, along with an optical audio output, which means older audio receivers are fair game. For moving data in and out, the Box supplies a typical Ethernet jack for Internet access (though Wi-Fi is also standard) along with an SD card slot on the side and dual USB ports in back. The sole button sits on the top face of the cube at the very back, and powers it up.
If you’re wondering what the perfect remote looks like, this is very nearly it. The top of the candybar-sized slab offers a typical five-way directional pad, along with dedicated play-pause and menu buttons. That’s it. Flip it over, though, and you’ll find a whole QWERTY keypad for thumbing in passwords, Web addresses and search terms quickly – the best of both worlds. Using the top buttons becomes second nature within minutes, and the rear keyboard has big, rubbery buttons that make a satisfying snap when you press them. The only thing missing is backlighting, which would come in handy for dim home theater use.