Boxee Box Review: Better Than Apple TV & Google TV

Boxee finally released its long-awaited Boxee Box two weeks ago, entering the market after both Google TV (s GOOGL) and Apple TV (s AAPL). The startup’s set-top box is produced by D-Link and the only one of these products that’s available internationally as well, but competing with the big boys will be challenging. In other words: Boxee has to be really, really good to still matter in a year when Google and Apple have refined their products.

I’ve played with the Boxee Box for close to two weeks now, and actually think they have a shot at this, but I gotta admit a bit of a bias first: I’m a paying customer of D-Link and Boxee. I signed up for the box as soon as it was available for pre-order, and wrote about the reasons for doing so here before.

Why does this matter? Well, admitting that you paid $200 for something crappy is much harder than just talking trash about something that you have to eventually send back to the manufacturer. Luckily for me, I didn’t really have to convince myself that I didn’t waste money, because it honestly is one of the nicest solutions for bringing online video to the TV screen I’ve seen.

Check out the latest episode of Cord Cutters for a video review of the Boxee Box, or scroll down to continue reading this review.

The Box itself

To say that the design of the Boxee Box is unique is an understatement. It looks like a tipped-over cube that’s sinking into the surface of whereever you place it. One of the sides is shiny, and upon powering it on, an LED-powered Boxee logo appears. It’s a little too far out there to be an Apple product, but definitely has the same kind of cool to it. However, Boxee didn’t compromise on features, and the company deserves credit for including a big, easily accessible on button. Most of its competitors don’t even have a button like this, which means you’ll have to scramble to unplug the power cord if the unit crashes (and all of them do, at some point).

There’s also an easily accessible SD card slot, which is a bonus for everyone who likes to show off photos on the TV screen. The only thing missing is a more prominent USB port. Boxee features two of them, but both are in close proximity, right under the Ethernet port in the back of the unit. That works well to attach an external USB drive, but it’s not exactly the most convenient place to plug in your Flip camera.

Speaking of ports: Boxee also comes with digital as well as composite audio out and one HDMI port. And yeah, 802.11n Wi-Fi of course.

The remote control

Much has been said about the ingenuity of the Boxee Box remote control, and I gotta agree: This thing is hot. It features a directional pad, a play/pause button and a menu button that doubles as a back button in many cases. Flip it over, and you have a full QUERTY keyboard in your hands. The keyboard keys are made of rubber and have a calculator-like feel to it, so this isn’t anything you want to use to write long-winded emails — but it works like magic to enter URLs, search terms etc., and it makes the setup process so much faster. No more entering your endless WPA key with a painful on-screen keyboard, yay!

I found the remote to work well in most instances, but did occasionally hold it the wrong way, simply because it’s just a little too symmetrical. The keyboard is hard to read in low-light situations — e.g. when you’re watching a movie — but still, I gotta say: This is by far my favorite remote for any of the many media streaming solutions I’ve been testing in recent months. The fact that it works with RF, as opposed to IR, is an added bonus for me: Now I can control the music playing in the living room from the kitchen without worrying about archaic things like line of sight.

The new UI

Boxee significantly revamped its UI for the release of the box, cleaning up the home screen and dropping a number of features hiding in the left side bar. Instead, it now offers a top menu / search bar that offers access to content categories, apps, local files and a search box. The UI changes have enraged some loyal Boxee fans, but I must say, I don’t actually mind the new experience. I’m still occasionally looking for some of the advanced filtering options that could be used to navigate apps and content with the now-gone side bar, but overall, it’s pretty easy to find everything with just a few remote control clicks.

And that’s exactly where Boxee prevails. Even some of the simpler media streamers I’ve tested in recent months had a hard time keeping everything organized in an easily understandable manner, and Google TV added a whole lot of complexity that often left me wondering where to start. Boxee, on the other hand, has a few main categories, and you know exactly where to look for what.

Online content

Boxee’s Movies library features close to 2,200 titles, many of which are free and ad-supported by the way of YouTube, but honestly, you won’t find that much interesting stuff in here right now. The TV show library is slightly better, featuring shows like The Daily Show, The Office, Community and Glee. Many shows only have the most recent episode available, and others, like Modern Family, are completely amiss. That’s because Hulu recently started to block Boxee, and the promised Hulu Plus subscription service isn’t available just yet. Netflix (s NFLX) is also amiss, but will come to the Box before the end of the year, according to Boxee, and VUDU (s WMT) is still a few weeks away from being integrated as well.

That being said, you can access streaming shows like Grey’s Anatomy and House directly from the broadcasters’ websites — until those broadcasters decide to block Boxee, just just as they did with Google. In other words: Content rights are a mess, but they will get better once Boxee’s partnerships kick into effect. The fact hat the Box ships without those services available is pretty unfortunate. The again, I did find enough to watch, thanks in part to…

The apps

Boxee has weeded out its app directory, kicking out some of the apps that never really worked or aren’t working with the new software version. Sadly, that means that also a few very good apps, like Clicker or the Twixee Twitter app aren’t currently available. However, the company has been talking to developers, and at least a hand full of apps reappeared within the week that I’ve been testing the box, with now around 140 apps available on the Box. Revision3 is one of them, and others include, and Livestation.

Boxee has also started to add “web apps,” which are essentially just websites optimized for Google TV, from publishers like TNT (s TWX) and Adult Swim. It’s cool to have some of this content easily accessible on Boxee, but treating these sites as apps is actually a pretty interesting approach as well. Let’s face it: Do consumers really care whether something like YouTube Leanback is a native app or a web site?

Finally, it’s worth noting that Boxee is an open platform, so it’s possible to install apps from third-party sources, and there are a number of directories offering additional apps, and content, for your Box.

Local content

Local content playback is one of Boxee’s strengths, and the Boxee Box easily recognized my NAS and played just about anything I threw at it. Well, almost anything, anyway. An obscure 3GP video was apparently a little too esoteric, but otherwise it was smooth sailing. Music streaming also worked really well, and adding additional content sources was easy as pie. One issue to be aware of is that the box apparently only has enough juice to power one USB drive. Even having two Flash drives plugged in will lead to only one being recognized.

Still, this is one area where Boxee again beats both Google TV and Apple TV hands down. Home sharing with Apple TV is a nightmare, and don’t even think about plugging in an external hard drive. Google TV also had issues with local content playback, but with Boxee, it just works. Kind of like an Apple product should behave.

The web experience

Boxee features a full Webkit browser, enabling users to access any web site. However, the remote control has no touch pad, which means that navigating sites is pretty painful. And you’ll inevitably find yourself on sites, even if you browse Boxee’s movie or TV show catalog. Select something like The Daily Show, for example, and Boxee will present you with a list of currently available episodes. Click on one, and you’ll get dumped onto the episode’s web page. But how about this for a happy ending: Press the menu button once, then click the pre-selected maximize icon, and you’re watching the video in full screen.

Granted, this doesn’t quite work that well on all websites. Boxee’s browser tries to recognize a site’s Flash player to allow easy full-screen playback. But sometimes gets confused by Flash banner ads, meaning that you’ll stare at a full-screen Macy’s ad for a few seconds until you realize what happened. You can always access the browser mode again, and then it’s your turn to slowly navigate Boxee’s mouse cursor with the remote’s navigational pad. It’s painful, but you’ll get better at it.

Of course, the big headache ahead for Boxee is that it might eventually get blocked by the major broadcasters, which makes that browser a whole lot less valuable.

The social stuff

Boxee has social built into its DNA. Boxee users can follow each other, much like they can on Twitter, and videos you “like” are automatically recommended to your followers. That’s good in theory, but finding users worth following is a lot of work. Luckily, you can also just use your social graph and connect to services like Twitter and Facebook. Videos of your friends and the people you follow will then automatically show up in your Friends feed. That’s a very cool feature — essentially, you’re using all your friends to curate your web video-infused TV programming.

I found the feeds updating a little slow, and sometimes, the feed simply wasn’t available at all. Still, I found some neat gems this way, and the feed in fact turned into something I’d visit every day as soon as I turned on the box. It’s also something that really sets Boxee apart from its competition, as neither Apple TV or Google TV currently offer anything like this at all.

The final verdict

Boxee has to deal with a lot of the same issues as Google TV when it comes to online content right now: Broadcasters’ web videos could get blocked any day, and Hulu Plus isn’t available just yet. I can understand that this would make some people think twice before buying into the platform. And yes, not having Netflix available is kind of lame. However, I’ve found the Boxee Box to be a great addition to my TV setup, even with some content missing. The experience is more streamlined than on Google TV, and there are infinitely more possibilities to get content and waste hours over hours than with Apple TV, thanks in part to its Twitter and Facebook integration.

Granted, Boxee doesn’t have a number of features that Google TV inherited from Android, like the ability to do multitasking and easily switch between a number of apps and browser windows. The pendulum could also swing once Google and Apple open up their platforms for third-party apps. Still, Boxee is already proving that it can easily handle web apps optimized for Google TV, so it could profit from those other platforms getting more popular as well.

The ability to gracefully handle local content and the awesome remote control are two more reasons make the Boxee Box worth its money alone. Add to that the fact that you’ll soon have access to Hulu Plus, Netflix and VUDU, and you have box that’s maybe not perfect, but definitely very, very nice.

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