Thanks in large part to this outstanding remote, getting Boxee ready to go is a breeze. You’ll be prompted to connect it to a Wi-Fi network if you haven’t hardwired it at boot, asked to create a Boxee account, and then you’re off and running. We recommend double checking display settings, though – our Boxee initially auto-detected the TV settings wrong and had us in 720p when the display wanted 1080p.
Boxee basically axes the home screen into two panes: A lower scroll bar full of featured videos and apps, and a top bar of every feature, including friends, watch later, shows, movies, apps and files. Intuitively enough, anything you want to access locally falls under “files,” while streaming footage falls under shows and movies, each sorted into their respective categories. Submenus also give you the opportunity to crosspollinate (selecting “files” under shows will display just the TV shows you have stored locally, as will selecting “shows” under TV).
Pressing the remote’s menu button at any time will either send you back a level if you’re browsing through tree-type menus, or pull up a top menu overlay that serves as a shortcut to Boxee’s many nooks and crannies. Similar to Google TV, it also has a universal search bar. Searching for a term, like “The Office,” will turn up any TV results, movie results, and also offer the option to search the Web for that term in Boxee’s own, Flash-equipped browser. Also similar to Google TV, it omits important sources like Netflix, making it more of a first stop for finding content than an exhaustive search.
Boxee breaks the browsing experience into a smoothly tiled interface with box art for every TV show and movie, ratings, run time and episode descriptions. It’s one of the most seamless, uniform ways we’ve seen to navigate content scattered across many different sites in many different formats. But it’s a thin veneer. Playing back anything from the Web inevitably involved opening the browser after selecting what you want.
While it can access any of the same Flash players your computer can, different sites vary in their ability to play nice with Boxee. Open a South Park episode for instance, and Boxee will automatically switch you to full screen and high quality, and the remote will play and pause the video as if it were playing locally. Open other content, and you’ll have to bypass age gates, close ads, manually turn the video to full screen by finding the button in the player, and play and pause the same way. Because you can only move the cursor in one direction at a time with the crude four-way directional controller, doing anything requiring the cursor can be maddening.
To Boxee’s credit, the platform makes an attempt at whipping this wild west of content into standard formats with its app platform. Boxee offers 165 (at last count) apps from content providers like Pandora, YouTube, Netflix and Vice. Each one offers an interface that has been tailored to Boxee, eliminating the need for a cursor, but they still have their shortcomings. Many are just painfully slow to load, and haven’t been developed enough to work smoothly. Others seem to be lacking the same content you could find online. Finally, the universal search can’t reach inside apps (like Netflix), so you’ll have to manually get a feel for what you can get through apps and what you can’t, because your favorite shows could be hiding just out of reach if you don’t dive in.
Even the lowliest set-top box will reach out to network drives to find music and video you want to play back on the big screen, but Boxee outdoes these budget boxes with its interface. Rather than forcing you to locate “127-hours_james_franco_2011_RaDKREWILLERz-rip.mov” by hand, you can tell Boxee to scan directories and find the media, use the Web to “scrape” metadata like box art and descriptions, then display your stuff in the same pretty format it uses for online content. If you wanted to turn your TV into a kiosk for simpletons to watch movies, this is what it would look like. But it has its own set of imperfections.
Boxee won’t always be able to identify every file you pour in the hopper. Sure, that’s like blaming the maid for being unable to put your clean dishes back in the right cabinet every time — it’s pretty amazing Boxee does as well as it does – but some of its failures mystified us. Some shows labeled in the familiar format “Name of show – S1E01 – Name of episode” slipped through the cracks. A manual naming utility makes it fairly easy to take care of any mystery content with some coaching, but be prepared to invest some time to get your whole collection indexed, and more flakiness. “Sorry – Unable to bring the movie details,” Boxee told us when we tried to identify the first episode of The Office. What?
Even less excusable is Boxee’s music player which borders on “glitchy enough to call useless.” Playing certain music files from our network resulted in no sound, the time meter clicking by at 2x speed, and eventual crashing. At other times it froze for 30 seconds at a time on the menu screens. You can’t even queue up songs to play in a custom playlist; albums merely play as they’re arranged.
Network navigation produces similar aggravation at times. Entering a password-protected file server from one route just denied us access, another finally route gave us the opportunity to plug in a password.
D-Link’s Boxee Box stands as one of the most ambitious set-top boxes out there, both in terms of sheer content available and the refinement in its world-class interface. Forget bragging about your Blu-ray rip of Avatar, you’ll zap on the TV just to show off Boxee for friends. But this glossy front end hides mechanisms still seemingly stuck together with chewing gum and duct tape. We were content to grind our teeth and accept the occasional crash and hiccup when Boxee was merely a freebie download for the PC, but after shelling out $200 for a set-top box, Boxee engineers need to get serious and learn how make Boxee work like the appliance it’s being sold as. As Boxee improves the Box’s underpinnings, it may rise to prominence as the preeminent set-top box of choice. The (delayed) addition of Netflix in February proves the team is still hard at work. But in the meantime, be prepared for a rollercoaster ride as Boxee smoothes out the wrinkles.
- Near-perfect remote
- Unique design
- Sleek, intuitive interface
- SD card reader and dual USB ports
- Wide variety of online content
- Plays almost any file
- Design doesn’t fit standard home theater aesthetic
- Mousing often required for Web content
- Frequent crashes, glitches
- No video outputs for older TVs
- Still missing Amazon VOD, Hulu Plus