As part of my Life With Google TV series, I’ve been looking at other internet-to-TV devices. Previously, I reviewed Roku. Next up? The Boxee Box. If you’re already a fan of the Boxee software service, the device might be worth it. However, it left me underwhelmed. That may improve when Netflix & Hulu Plus support finally comes.
My Real Life Testing Approach
I know that Boxee has legions of fans who have been using the software version for ages. If you’re one of those ready to scream at me about why the Boxee Box is awesome, hang on to those thoughts for a moment.
My approach with these devices has been to review them as if I know nothing about them, in the way a consumer might approach them, puzzled by the choices they saw on the shelves of an electronic store.
I knew some of what Google TV could do, having been at the launch event — but I hadn’t been briefed or looked at the final product in depth, before I used it. I just plugged it in and tried to see how well it worked to let me watch some TV shows via the internet. I followed the same approach with Boxee as well as Apple TV (a review of that soon: short story, Roku seems much better).
I haven’t been a Boxee user in the past. I’d just heard about the box, like many. So I ordered one through Amazon. It arrived on Thursday. Friday night was Boxee Box testing night.
The Hardware Setup
The Boxee Box is a $200 device that’s currently being sold only through Amazon. “Box” is sort of a misnomer. It’s more like a misshapen triangle, where part of the cube has been lopped off, making it lean back. There’s a picture of it it at the top of this review from the Boxee site — each side is about the size of a hand.
I immediately hated the format. You’re not going to be able to stack any other devices on top of it, and it just feels like an awkward shape to fit in among other devices you might have. Then again, I have an incredibly crowded TV stand now, yet I managed to fit it in.
On the flip side, I absolutely love the remote control. It incorporates a keyboard on the back:
Despite the keyboard, the remote is small enough to hold in your hand. Sony & Logitech, take note. This is what you should have done for your Google TV controllers. The only downside is that the remote has no backlighting, so you won’t be typing much in the dark. The front has some simple navigation buttons, and it can control the volume in some videos you watch.
The box comes with a power adapter, as well as an HDMI cable. Plug them in, connect to your TV, and you’re off-and-running. You can choose to use either wireless or wired internet connections. I went with wired, so as to eliminate wireless issues during my testing.
The Software Setup
Despite being a brand new device, Boxee immediately wanted to do a software update, as soon as I turned it on. That’s pretty common, I’ve discovered. The brand new Google TV and Roku devices I’ve used did the same. It only took about five minutes, and then I got a prompt to either login using my existing Boxee account or to create a new one.
The Missing Channels: No Netflix, No Hulu, Not Yet
Once logged in, you get a home page as shown below tthat allows you to see what your friends on Boxee are sharing, shows you’ve selected to “Watch Later,” browse or search for TV shows, movies, use applications or display multimedia files:
Just below the main menu options are some featured applications/channels. Most notable is what’s not there: Netflix, Amazon or Hulu.
In my Roku: My First Day Review & Impressions article, I explained more about how each of these services gives access to a wide-range of television and movie content. None of them are present on Boxee.
Not having Amazon feels kind of crazy. I mean, you buy the box through Amazon. As for Netflix, it’s coming — as is support for the Hulu Plus service (that’s Hulu on a monthly-subscription basis). The Boxee Blog has a post that explains more about this.
I’d have preferred if the Boxee Box displayed these channels now, with a message that they were to come (as with Vudu, below). That’s especially important given that the Boxee Box web page for potential buyers of the product lists Netflix as a “featured content partner” now. Buy the box, and you’ll discover nothing about Netflix is mentioned, that I could find. Even searching the Boxee box brought up nothing.
Vudu is listed now, a pay-per-view streaming movie service. Try to use that, and you get a “Coming Soon” message:
In the end, I started wondering if there was any TV content I could watch with this new device. Lots, as it turns out, though it might be less about “on demand” viewing and more about discovering something interesting among the offerings.
Browsing TV Shows
I started exploring the Boxee TV menu, to understand how that worked. I was offer a list of popular shows, presumably as viewed by other Boxee users in general:
What’s with those missing thumbnail images? I repeatedly found Boxee to be very slow in loading these, as I browsed. Moreover, when I’d actually play content, I’d often get buffering.
Now, my two kids, having had enough of being forced test subjects during Dad’s crazy TV gadget reviews, had retreated elsewhere for some Call Of Duty: Black Ops action. So, our home network was pulling bandwidth already. That might have been part of the issue, so your experience might me much better. Then again, testing again today using Boxee on a computer — with no other serious bandwidth issues happening, I got those same slow-loading thumbnails.
On the plus side, it’s pretty easy to navigate the “Shows” menu and see what’s available in a variety of categories. Here, I’m checking out the Sci-Fi offerings:
And I discovered that Babylon 5 was listed!
OK, so not all the seasons are offered — but really, Season 2 is where anyone should start. Let’s watch!
OK, a browser is cool, in that you can go directly to some things you want, just like with Google TV. Still, it’s as disappointing for Boxee kick me out into a browser as it was when Google TV did this. FYI, Boxee talks about hoping this problem will solve itself over time, as more content is offered in HTML 5.
On the plus side, by moving my arrow pad around, I was able to get the video to fill the entire screen — and thus, Boxee did deliver Babylon 5, a shining beacon of hope all alone in the night, to my TV:
Still, I started thinking about Season 2 only being available, as I wrote this. So I turned to my TV-on-the-internet touchstone, Clicker. Where there more seasons of Babylon 5 offered than Boxee was listing? Oh yes, there were:
Clicker found all seasons online, for free, through SlashControl, AOL’s free TV offering.
Clicker’s not a box you can buy. It’s a guide that points you to content, and a guide I sure wish some of these devices would feature more (also see USA Today’s recent story about Clicker here).
Searching For TV
Next, I decided to try out how well Boxee would let me search for TV shows. In particular, I’m wanting to catch up on The Event, a new series out this season. Could it help? As it turns out, no:
I was able to search and find The Event listed as a TV show, but when I drilled in, all I was offered were short clips.
No Network Blocking, At Least From NBC, Yet
Knowing that The Event was on the NBC web site, I decided to navigate there directly using the Boxee web browser. Would it play? Would NBC be blocking Boxee like it does Google TV? (See A Tour Of How Networks Have Blocked Google TV From Their Web Content for more about that).
I haven’t tested the other major US networks of CBS, ABC and Fox, to see if they’re blocking. However, Boxee CEO Avner Ronen has said he expects it to happen. It certainly makes no sense for them to block Google TV and not Boxee. Frankly, I’m surprised NBC doesn’t have the block in place already, which I think mainly shows how sluggish the networks are in general to take action (I’m waiting to hear back from NBC on network blocking, by the way. Hopefully more to come).
Other Channels & Apps On Boxee
When I reviewed Roku, I talked about the “channels” that it offered and how most of them were like public-access channels on cable, interesting to some, but few likely to attract many viewers.
Boxee offers channels confusingly in two ways. You can browse “Show” channels using the menu:
Here, you get things like FX Networks — which broadcasts on television — mixed in with Engadget, which is net-only, to my knowledge.
Meanwhile, in the “Apps” area, you also can get net-only content, such as 1938 Media:
YouTube Leanback is also among the apps. Then, there are real app-apps:
Yes, you can tweet from your Boxee Box. Well, look in the upper right-corner, and you’ll see there was an error when I tried to download that app. Hang in there, Boxee tweeted to me, when I tweeted about this yesterday. It’s working on it. Tweet on, dudes.
Watch Later Is Not Your DVR
Within Boxee is a way to tag a show to “Watch Later.” This intrigued me. Was Boxee offering a hidden DVR tucked into that box? I tagged two shows:
When I did go back to watch later, no, my video hadn’t been magically stripped from the web and stored for easy viewing. Instead, it’s simply a bookmarking feature, allowing you to click and stream from the web, on demand:
Not Tested: Social Aspect & Local Multimedia
Earlier, I’d mentioned there was an option to see what your friends are watching via Boxee. I didn’t test this. I don’t have any friends on Boxee. I’m not even sure if I want any! But if you’re into social sharing, this might be a feature to attract you to the service. One nice thing is that Boxee supports multiple accounts. So if several people in a household have different friend lists, they can log in individually.
I also didn’t try how well Boxee handles playing local multimedia content. I will be coming back to this. The company promises a great deal of support here, and I hope that turns out to be the case.
A Bit Rushed, Wedged Between Roku & Google TV
In the end, the Boxee Box feels rushed. Putting it out without Netflix support, when that’s already part of the software service, makes little sense. It should have been part of the launch product, to me. Still, like Google TV, I’m sure it will improve over time.
Of the three devices I’ve looked at so far, it’s firmly within the middle –as is its pricing.
Roku gets you lots of streaming content for less than $100, but you’ll get no ability to browse the web with that. Still, if you had to get a streaming media device today, Roku especially shines, I’d say.
Boxee gets you streaming content, but not as efficiently as Roku, to me. But for the $200 price, you can browse the web and get to what you want, assuming blocking doesn’t happen.
Google TV takes you into the $300 to $400 price range, too expensive for what the box currently offers, in my opinion. But you get a much more comprehensive TV search experience than either Roku or Boxee offer, the ability to browse the web more easily and faster than with Boxee — and if you have a Dish TV, an awesome way to find shows and program your DVR (more on that later).
As for Apple TV, as I said, I’ll come back to that in the near future. It’s mainly attractive, from what I can see so far, if you’re a big user of iTunes to purchase content.
And yes, as Romit Mehta has asked, I’ll do a big chart and round-up when I’m finished with all these. NOTE: The chart is now done, listed below, along with articles about related products.
- Life With Google TV: First Day Review & Impressions
- Programming Your DVR Made Easy: Google TV, Dish & The Logitech Revue
- Apple TV: First Day Review & Impressions
- Roku: First Day Review & Impressions
- Roku + Hulu Plus = Pretty Awesome
- Internet-To-TV Players Compared: Roku, Apple TV, Boxee & Google TV
Also see our Internet-To-TV page for further stories that will come.