As I mentioned in this week’s podcast, I recently purchased a D-Link Boxee Box and I’d like to share my thoughts on it in a little more detail than I could on the podcast.
More after the jump…
Why Consider a Boxee Box or Instead of an Apple TV?
The Boxee Box is in the same category of devices as the Apple TV (see here for our review of the 3rd gen model) and Western Digital’s WD Live TV. These are all set-top boxes designed to allow you to access various types of online video content as well as streaming your own video content to your HDTV in one way or another, and now they all allow you to stream that content in 1080p.
I come to the Boxee Box as someone who owned a 2nd generation AppleTV and was extremely satisfied with its ease of use, reliability and functionality but the particularities of what I want a set-top box to be able to do led me to considering the Boxee Box.
I watch quite a bit of anime, and in particular watch a fair bit of anime in HD well before it’s officially released in North America thanks to the wonders of fansubbers who donate their time to create subtitles for anime series as they are aired week to week on television in Japan. While this is great for any anime fan who wants to keep up with the latest and greatest anime series until they can buy them on Blu-Ray for their permanent collections, it does present a large logistical challenge to using an Apple TV.
The Apple TV is, unsurprisingly, limited to the Apple ecosystem in terms of the types of content it will allow you to stream from your computer. This means that video files in basically any other format that mp4/m4v won’t work. The problem, of course, is that the vast majority of HD video on the internet today is distributed in Matroska (.mkv) containers. The other issue for the anime fan is that the subtitles in Matroska releases are virtually always in .ass format, which the Apple TV usually doesn’t get along with at all.
For the tech-savvy user, there are ways to get around these issues: You can re-mux .mkv files into .m4v files and you can extract subtitles in .ass format, convert them to .srt, and re-package them into the .m4v files. The issue is ultimately that this process is very time-consuming when you are dealing with large volumes of files, and even then, there’s often no guarantee that a file you have re-packaged for the Apple TV will necessarily work (though I had a pretty high success rate).
In light of all these challenges, I started investigating Apple TV alternatives that would be able to play a wider diversity of file formats. I looked into Western Digital’s WD Live TV, but the lacklustre reviews I found turned me off to the product. Instead I ended up coming across the Boxee Box and was intrigued at its ability to play a wide diversity of file formats and its claims of a wide variety of file accessing options (SMB and NFS networks, the proprietary Boxee Media Manager, and USB external HD’s that can be plugged directly into the Boxee Box). This looked like it just might be the perfect platform for my needs, and I considered the higher retail price ($189.99 for the Boxee Box vs. $109.99 for the Apple TV or WD Live TV) not unreasonable given its greater claimed capabilities (and included HDMI cable).
First Impressions of the Boxee Box
I picked up a Boxee Box at a local electronics retailer and got cracking on setting it up. The slanted cube shape, while visually interesting, does mark the Boxee Box as quite a bit larger than either of the alternatives. This happened to (just barely) not be an issue for me as it fit on the same shelf the Apple TV had been on, but it’s worth keeping in mind.
One neat feature of the Boxee Box is that the remote control features a qwerty keyboard on its underside, something that is truly a godsend whenever you have to enter text anywhere.
Once I had it hooked up I turned it on and began trying to figure out where to download the Boxee Media Manager application, which I figured should obviously be the easiest way to share video files on a couple of different computers with it. I was wrong. Leaving aside that the actual download page for the BMM is somewhat difficult to find, there’s also the slight problem that it works so poorly and so inconsistently as to be utterly worthless.
I was quite surprised by this. It would seem to me that if you want to compete with the Apple TV, then making sharing content on your various computers with the Boxee Box as easy as possible would be a top priority. It really should be as simple as firing up the BMM, telling it which directories you want to share with the Boxee Box, the program should remind you what you might have to change on your OS firewall to get the program to work, and then it should just work. In reality, I spent a few hours fiddling with BMM across two computers and just couldn’t get it to work consistently.
This would already be a deal-breaker for a lot of people. Not everyone is technically savvy enough to be comfortable setting up SMB or NFS networking on their home network in order to be able to access their files. Hell, anyone who doesn’t have at least a basic understanding of networking and network security should absolutely not be trying to set up either of those things because they are likely to leave gaping security holes if they do. I’ll post a how-to guide for how I set up my own Boxee Box to access all of my video content in another article, but suffice it to say that if you aren’t comfortable setting up fixed IP addresses for various computers on your home network and setting up your networking to restrict access by IP to only the Boxee Box, then this product probably isn’t for you.
Another glaring issue with the Boxee Box is that it cannot read metadata embeded into .mkv and .m4v files. I don’t even have a vague comprehension of how a set-top media player intended to compete with the Apple TV can omit such an obvious feature. Instead the Boxee Box will attempt to scan the files you add and determine what they are so that it can download metadata for them. Newsflash, this system works very poorly and is hilariously stupid when all the metadata for the files is already embedded in them. I upvoted an existing bug-report about this issue due to how annoyed I was by this.
On the other hand, the Boxee Box did play videos (once I had the networking set-up) in all of the following formats perfectly and without complaint: MKV files, MKV files with ASS subtitles, M4V files, WMV files, MOV files, FLV files, MPG files, etcetera. Basically it worked with every single file type I could throw at it all the way up to 1080p video without any problems whatsoever. You should be aware, however, that it apparently does not work with files that have DRM protection on them. I couldn’t really test this as I avoid DRM content like the plague.
In addition to its ability to play a dizzying array of file formats, the Boxee Box also has access to thousands of apps, including apps for Youtube, Netflix, various sports packages, as well as a huge array of online video sites and sections. It also features a built in web-browser with flash support that should, in theory, allow you to watch almost any streaming video content that you could access on a desktop. Again, while this might matter to many consumers, it doesn’t really fall within the scope of things I use a set-top box for so I cannot really speak to the functionality of these various apps compared to its competitors. I did test out a few (Youtube, CBC Television, The Escapist) and found they worked reasonably well.
Finally, the Boxee Box has an annoying tendency to occasionally crash, requiring a hard-reset via the button located on top of it. It never did this while playing a video, though, and honestly these crashes most frequently occur when you select the on-screen menu option to shut the unit off so it hasn’t been that big a deal. I’m mainly pointing it out as another example of how the Boxee Box seems far too beta and not ready for a wide consumer audience who want something to just work.
To me, the choice between the Apple TV and Boxee Box is a very clearly delineated one.
If you are looking for a set-top box primarily to access Netflix, sports streaming packages, iTunes store purchases, and the occasional file you are willing to re-mux to be able to import to iTunes then the Apple TV is the clear winner. It’s $80 cheaper (though no HDMI cable is included) and it is incredibly easy to use. It’s a no-fuss no-muss solution for the vast majority of consumers who won’t really need the additional features that the Boxee Box provides.
On the other hand, if you are a more technologically savvy user who will primarily be watching a wide variety of your own video content, are comfortable setting up the SMB or NFS networking, and need to be able to use a variety of file formats without wasting time converting them: Then the Boxee Box is probably the best set-top box solution for you, despite its foibles.
Even though the Boxee Box ended up suiting my needs better, D-Link really needs to fix the issues which hold the Boxee Box back from being the best solution for the average consumer.
That’s Yo “Yes, when I say ‘video content’ I mean porn” Garbage!