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Testing Boxee TV: First impressions, screenshots and unboxing video

Boxee’s new Boxee TV device started selling exclusively at Walmart (s WMT) for $98 Thursday, but I got lucky and was able to buy a unit at a local Walmart store Wednesday afternoon. I’ve recorded an unboxing video, taken a bunch of photos of the UI and played around with it for a few hours to share some of my first impressions of it with you.

The basics: What is Boxee TV

Boxee TV is Boxee’s second major hardware initiative, and it’s a very different device than the Boxee Box that went on sale two years ago. The Box came with all kinds of bells and whistles to combine local and internet content, including a full Flash-enabled web browser and hundreds of apps. Boxee TV on the other hand concentrates on a few essential apps, which at launch include Netflix (s NFLX), Vudu (s WMT), YouTube (s GOOG), Vimeo, Spotify, Pandora and MLB.

Boxee is offering its “No Limits” cloud DVR with unlimited storage space for $9.99 a month. The company will also introduce a limited, free DVR tier.

Boxee instead promises to provide a lot of content through over-the-air television – the broadcast feeds of networks like NBC, ABC and CBS which can be accessed in HD with an antenna. The device offers access to live over-the-air TV through a built-in dual tuner, and Boxee is launching a cloud DVR service to give users unlimited recording space for their favorite shows. This “No Limits DVR” was initially announced as a $14.99 per month subscription, but Boxee announced Thursday that it will instead make it available for $9.99 a month. The company also announced that consumers who buy the box will get a three-month Netflix credit, regardless of whether they’re new or existing Netflix customers.

The exterior: Boxee TV unboxing

With the original Boxee Box, Boxee put a of of emphasis on unique industrial design: The device itself was shaped like a cube that looked like it was sinking into whatever surface it was standing on, and the packaging was very Apple-like. (s AAPL) The new Boxee TV is a much simpler device, and that also translates to a more mass-market oriented, somewhat busy packaging. Check out my unboxing video, or continue reading below for some first impressions.

The goodies: My first few hours with Boxee TV

I just had a few hours to play with Boxee TV Wednesday, but it was enough to get some first impressions of the device itself, some of its core features, and some of the apps that come with it:

Much of the Boxee TV setup happens on the second screen.

The setup: Existing Boxee users need to register for a new account to use Boxee TV, but the whole registration and setup process is impressively fast. Once your unit is connected to your TV, an included indoor antenna and the Internet, you’re asked to open a web browser on your laptop or mobile device to complete the registration process.

Boxee found 24 over-the-air channels for me. Upon further inspection, I found that it had concentrated on the better-known ones and that I could enable access to another 22 channels in the settings.

The web-based setup didn’t feel very long at all – and once I looked up from my laptop, Boxee TV was already done with the channel scanning, offering me access to 24 broadcast channels, including ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX.

Live TV: Live TV starts playing as soon as you turn on your Boxee TV, and it keeps playing in the background even while you navigate the programming guide.

The live TV experience overall is pretty neat; changing the channels comes with a just barely notable delay, and once you tune into a new show, the device immediately displays the show’s title, episode number and a progress indicator that tells you how much you missed.

Boxee’s TV guide doesn’t look like your cable guide at all.

Pressing left or right on your remote’s D-Pad opens up a horizontal programming guide that shows what’s on right now. Press the home button, and you can also see what’s coming up in the next two hours. There is no cable guide-like grid guide, so you won’t be able to see what’s on tomorrow at 7 p.m. Boxee’s thinking seems to be that you’re only interested in what’s on right now if you want to watch live TV, and that you should schedule your recordings of upcoming shows on the second screen. Speaking of which:

The No Limits DVR: Boxee’s cloud DVR will only be available in some major cities at launch, and the Bay Area is unfortunately not part of that initial roll-out. However, pure luck would have it that the company was doing some limited testing of DVR functionality in the Bay Area Wednesday, and I was able to at least test it for a little while.

Boxee TV only lets you schedule recordings on the web, and the service isn’t available everywhere yet. I got lucky and stumbled across a limited test in the Bay Area, which is why you only see two channels.

Recordings can only be scheduled on the web – Boxee is going to roll out dedicated apps in the future – but the website worked fine for that purpose and was actually pretty snappy. However, I found it somewhat irritating that I couldn’t just start a recording on the device itself once I stumbled across something interesting.

The recording process did work fine, despite my limited residential upload capacity, and I was able to stream a recorded episode both to the Boxee TV device as well as my latop.

Boxee TV’s YouTube app is the same app that recently rolled out on the PS3 – and it’s the slickest implementation of YouTube on TV devices out there.

The apps: The apps line-up available on Boxee TV is fairly standard, with a few notable exceptions: The YouTube app on the device is essentially the same as the one that recently rolled out on the PS3, and I gotta say it’s beautiful. Easily the best YouTube implementation currently out there, and miles ahead of the classic Leanback-style YouTube app on the original Boxee Box. Also worth noting is that Boxee TV once again features a Spotify app – Spotify has been slow to get onto connected devices, and isn’t available on competitors like Apple TV (a aapl) or Roku yet. And finally, Boxee TV also comes with a Cloudee app, offering access to Boxee’s very own cloud storage service for personal media.

Local media. One of the core strengths of the Boxee Box has been its support for local media. Boxee TV doesn’t put much emphasis on this. The only way to play local files is to physically plug in a USB or hard drive; you can’t access any network-attached storage drives. Boxee has said that it wants to support DLNA in the future, which would make it possible to beam content from your tablet or mobile phone to the device, but that feature isn’t available at launch. I connected a hard drive to the device to test various file formats, and the experience was inconsistent. Boxee TV had no problem playing back MP4s and other more common file formats, but the playback of a ripped DVD was sub-optimal, and some media, including even some DivX files, didn’t play at all.

The verdict: My thoughts so far

I’m a fan of over-the-air TV – and a like the simplicity of the Boxee TV UI.

I’ve been a longtime proponent of over-the-air TV, and often tell people who are interested in ditching cable that they should buy an antenna first. As such, I was immediately intrigued when I heard about Boxee’s plans to launch a device with a bottomless cloud DVR. However, their announcement of a $15 monthly subscription plan caused a bit of sticker-shock for me. $15 just is a lot of money, especially if you also pay for a Netflix subscription, and possibly some VOD content as well. At some point, you might as well subscribe to cable again.

Boxee’s decision to instead go with a $10 plan makes a lot more sense, and personally makes the service more attractive to me. And the device itself seems pretty intriguing as well, even just after a few hours of testing. I like the simplicity of it, and it offers access to most of the apps that I regularly use – with Hulu Plus being one of the few exceptions. I’d definitely miss access to local files if I were to trade the old Boxee Box against a Boxee TV – but I may have a feeling that I’ll just keep both around if Boxee TV’s cloud DVR delivers what it promises.

Stay tuned for a more detailed test of Boxee TV in the coming days. In the mean time, feel free to check out my ebook Cut the Cord: All You Need to Know to Drop Cable for more information about over-the-air television and streaming devices.

66 Responses to “Testing Boxee TV: First impressions, screenshots and unboxing video”

  1. Janko,

    What are your thoughts on them dropping boxee box owners and not fixing bugs like audio dropouts, 3tb support, etc. I was curious how you would feel as a consumer if you paid for something and it does not do what is advertised. Thanks.

    • Exactly, I still have audio dropouts with HD DTS, but they really should of just updated the boxee box and added this live tv service to that, I would buy that box in a second and I would of payed more. YOU DON’T TAKE AWAY SERVICED PEOPLE GET USED to using, I’m sorry but this box just pisses me off. I would of payed more for a updated boxee box.

  2. My parents use a digital converter box with their old CRT TV–would Boxee allow them to do away with this, which confuses them? If Boxee has 2 internal tuners could one be used for the TV itself without a digital converter box or does a TV tuner come into play no matter what?

  3. I live in the mountains in Virginia and only receive CBS when the weather turns cold. I am still using a very tall and old antenna (mounted on my chimney) along with the needed converter box when the switch-over took place. Prior to the switch over a few years ago, I received NBC, Fox 5, ABC, CBS. An agent of Direct TV visited and said I needed to have many trees cut down. I have already spent $2,000 to do so but I still need more trees removed. My house is in a low area with hills and trees all around while a neighbor on higher ground receives many more channels using an indoor rabbit ear antenna. Also, no cell phone works inside my home but I can occasionally get service outside late at night. Now knowing all this, do you think this Boxee would work at my home?

  4. where is the sanity

    Seems Boxee missed the mark again. Instead improving on good idea they abandoned it for another Roku. The MOST impressive thing with Boxee for me was the ability to stream my ripped DVDs from my home server to the rest of the house. Who wants a 1000 DVDs cluttering up a wall ? I would buy one today, but without local support…I’ll go with WD.

  5. Janko,

    I just got one from Walmart and so far I have been impressed with the box. It does run a bit hot.I, however, couldn’t figure out a way to power off or put the device to sleep unlike my Apple TV. Did you try that?

  6. OTA ATSC channels are 20Mbps. If they’re really uploading live OTA signals, they would have to be doing pretty aggressive re-compression –to the point of ruining the video and audio quality, especially given that you can “record” two shows at once. Also, if they were really uploading live OTA content, the product wouldn’t be limited to specific media markets. What is far more believable is that they’re simply selling a VoD service designed to look like a DVR service. Granted, this would require the cooperation of the broadcasters and rightsholders, but Avner Ronen has said Boxee is now playing ball with the incumbent powers in the filmed entertainment industry, so this model fits that statement. Given that the device doesn’t support recording setup from the unit itself and doesn’t pause live TV, well, that’s just more evidence to support the theory that this unit isn’t uploading content.

  7. Bill Sheppard

    I predict a huge fail with this box. OTA-only support, DVR requires a subscription fee not so much less than Tivo’s far more mature and polished platform, DVR requires network, meaning quality and data limits will be impacted, no pause of live TV, few apps, no DLNA support, poor history of supporting customers. Who exactly is going to want this?

  8. Susan Yasue Grogan

    Janko, maybe you can answer my question. At one point heard that Boxee TV was supposed to be able to unscramble local channels via an existing cable line, using a cable card. Does that still hold true? I know the FCC caved and allowed cable companies to scramble local channels, so does this mean people will have to pay the cable company for their local channels now? Is the Boxee TV only able to use OTA? How will this work if at all?

    • I don’t think this will work with a cable card, but Boxee did cut a deal with Comcast which supposedly will eventually allow them to decrypt encrypted cable channels on a software basis, meaning the device will be able to display them without any additional add-ons.

      • Susan Yasue Grogan

        Interesting. I didn’t realize it was software-based. I’m curious to see how this will play out. I haven’t seen a potential date for encryption kicking in either. I personally don’t bother with cable at all, but I think having access to the local channels through a cable line is important for so many people who live in areas where antenna signals are not stable. I hope these changes and any related issues will be well covered.

    • Benjamin Sell

      Its alot when an existing solution (TIVO) does a better job at the same price point. Remember this – TIVO wins awards for the design and functionality of their software, whereas BOXEE has legions of angry/betrayed users complaining on how buggy it is.

  9. Benjamin Sell

    Is that screenshot from the unboxing? Why on the record button is there a “BETA” tag? So, the users are buying a product that explicity states that it does XY and Z, but come time to run those functions it has a “BETA” disclaimer? Looks like the same old BOXEE bull***t; Advertise one thing and deliver another.

  10. Benjamin Sell

    I think its funny how nondescript boxee was about the lack of networking support and file codecs. Boxee made it seem like there was less emphasis, but in reality it was a monumental shift. So, basically this is a DVR with a couple of apps thrown in the mix. Which begs the question: Why not buy a tivo? I dont see ANY reason why this product would be a better choice. Especially considering how poor the product support has been with BOXEE (google it, folks). The first boxee was riddled with problems, false promises, and finally abandoned. It would be interesting to see if Walmart would carry Boxee if the VUDU app wasnt included.

    • A Tivo is more expensive and has a limited storage capacity. A Tivo also requires add-ons to watch recordings from a tablet. and Boxee are going to steal a lot of the market from Tivo if they aren’t careful

      • Benjamin Sell

        The only reason the Boxee is less expensive is because they are running a promo… The idea that folks are dying to watch TV on their other devices hasnt quite worked out yet. I have a tablet that can play netflix, but guess what? I purchased a large screen TV because small screens suck. Watching on my tablet is a great demonstration of how the technology has progressed, but far from practical. As far as storage: Do the math on how long it would take to upload a tivo hard drive worth of data. The idea of an unlimited DVR isnt really all that appealing when it would take 4 months of 250gb data caps to reach a TB hard drive worth of data. is doa at this point. They have one tuner which makes hardly practical for any household. Unless boxee gives users an option to store locally in addition to cloud, this solutions stinks.

  11. Rskinner

    Did they do away with the fully functioning web browser? Many channels provide content on their own websites which may or may not have supported apps so having that web browser to view content is significant to me.

    • News Hound

      yes – THIS is the thing consumers don’t understand. The consumer can legally make a copy of the over-the-air program for his own personal use. But a company like Boxee cannot just take network programming off-air, warehouse a recording of it, and allow consumers to access that recording. They do not have any way to acquire the rights to do that — content owners will not go there. Not now, not ever. It would be suicidal for them to do so. This is also why Aereo (which I believe will ultimately lose in court) sets up a separate, tiny remote antenna for EACH consumer.

  12. Janko,

    Can you confirm that recordings scheduled over the web actually need your device to be on during the recording timeslot? i.e, can you confirm that the DVR functionality is local recording and upload?

    There was a theory floating around earlier that the recording happened at Boxee’s end (because most households simply don’t have the upload bandwidth necessary to transfer recorded HD programs to the cloud).

    Personally, I don’t understand why people would want to spring money for this. Most cord cutters are techies and they can easily set up a low power HTPC to do local recording and not rely on Boxee’s servers at all. In addition, the HTPC would easily pay for itself in less than a couple of years (lesser if some old PC is being repurposed for this). But, well, Boxee needs a business model with recurring revenue to satisfy their VCs…

    • I can’t do any more testing of the recording capability at this time, they turned it off for the Bay Area last night – but I do know that my unit was uploading a ton of data while I was recording stuff, so I do believe them when they say it happens locally.

      I think you are right, a lot of the current cord cutters are techies. But there are tons of people who would love to cut the cord or cut back on cable of there was a simpler solution, and that’s what Boxee is trying to do here. We will have to see if they succeed.

      • Janko,

        Thanks for confirming. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be an optimal Cloud DVR solution. In many ways, this isn’t efficient use of resources for Boxee either. Say, 90% of the users DVR a particular show: So, all of them upload the same show to Boxee’s servers. I hope that Boxee isn’t storing a copy for each user. In the case that they are not storing a copy for each user, wasting their upload bandwidth for something which gets redirected to /dev/null doesn’t make sense in the era of bandwidth caps.

  13. gonzo90017

    A few thoughts. Were you using the included antenna? What is yoir internet speed (upload and download)? I can’t believe you have to use the web to schedule recordings. No TV Guide grid? The last 2 are going to turn off a lot of people.

  14. Cloud only DVR makes it practically useless I think. Boxee has to compress like crazy to upload, which degrades the original high quality mpeg2 OTA stream. Why not allow recording as is to a locally connected USB drive as well?! Also, most of us have slower upload speeds compared to download, and I don’t want to use up bandwidth to store to the cloud.

    As is, for $99, this is not bad simply as an OTA HD tuner with some apps thrown in. As a DVR for cloud only, I’ll pass!

    • Thomas M

      Thanks for your comment! I don’t own a Boxee TV yet but after researching all its capabilities and the economics of having one, to me this device is exactly as you said:

      As is, for $99, this is not bad simply as an OTA HD tuner with some apps thrown in. As a DVR for cloud only, I’ll pass!

      DVR to cloud really makes no sense with the type of internet we have available today. The concept sounds really good, don’t get me wrong, but In practice this will be a totally useless by today’s internet bandwidth limitations.

      On the other hand, If Boxee TV could record OTA content to an attached hard drive, it would be a realistic, awesome feature!

  15. Danny Policarpo

    Good to see an unboxing and early review of the Boxee TV. It’s a shame the lack of file support vs previous Boxee box seems to have disappeared, that’s one thing the WD’s TV Live can certainly be credited for is its mass support for weird and wonderful audio and video formats.

    I hope DLNA support comes soon for this as well as a European version of Boxee TV. I would love to have the free to air TV channels from freeview/freesat plus the Boxee TV hooked up to my network drive playing my own downloaded content such as TV/Movies.

    On that note Janko, would you know if one was to try and set up a Boxee TV in the UK , would the tuner work?