We recently took the D-Link Boxee box, the DSM-380, for a spin. While the box has been around since late last year, we put the box with it’s newly released firmware, version 1.2, through the paces. Available at retail for $199, it’s a virtual Swiss-army knife of streaming boxes. If you’re a geek or someone who likes to tinker, the Boxee box is for you. However, most consumers may be frustrated by its complexity.
|The Boxee box now with Netflix stickers|
The Box is not a Box
D-Link’s Boxee generated a lot of buzz for its odd tilted square shape that appears to be emerging from the surface. In reality, the box is actually pretty small, measuring just under five inches high. Included along with the Boxee are a power adapter, remote control, instruction manual and HDMI cable. We always appreciate the inclusion of an HDMI cable.
|What’s in the Boxee box|
|Boxee with the Wii, Apple TV and Roku XDS|
Connectivity includes HDMI, RCA-audio, USB storage ports, SD-MMC slot, Ethernet and an optical audio port. The Boxee also has built-in wireless N. Note, HDMI is the only option for connecting video. It’s nice that an optical audio port is included to work with older receivers. Newer boxes coming onto the market – such as the Roku 2 and this year’s Blu-ray players – exclude the optical port. The Hub still thinks our Pioneer VSX-1014 has some life in it, so kudos to the Boxee for working with it.
|Boxee Connectivity: Ethernet, HDMI, Optical, RCA, power and 2X USB|
One of the Hub’s favorite parts of the Boxee is its innovative remote. It’s also sold separately for folks who run the free version of Boxee on their PC or Mac (it comes with a USB IR receiver). The remote uses both sides: a full QWERTY keyboard on one side and minimal layout on the other side for lean back viewing.
|Boxee keyboard remote|
|Flip it over for the simplified remote: Play, Menu and D-pad|
Boxee also offers remote apps for Android and iOS devices. The remote apps function well and they offer a better way to move the pointer around the screen than the D-Pad (very handy in apps like HBO GO and the web browser). Currently, there’s a bug in the remote app that dosen’t let you enter text into certain fields (i.e., the FIOS sign-in for HBO GO). Normally, this won’t bother us except when we lose the regular Boxee remote and we would like to watch Game of Thrones.
Note that the Boxee’s remote is RF not IR based. The good news is that RF goes through walls and cabinets so you won’t experience line of site issues. Since it’s RF, most of the Harmony universal remotes won’t control it. You’ll need a universal remote with RF capability, such as the Harmony 900.
After unpacking the box and connecting it to our TV and receiver, we pressed the almost hidden power button on the top of the box. After booting up, it downloaded a firmware upgrade and rebooted two more times (once to download and install, the second to load the new software). We were up and running pretty quickly.
On start-up, Boxee runs a setup wizard. First, the Boxee presents an easy-to-use screen alignment tool. You can then login with your Boxee userid. This one of the few streaming boxes on the market that allows users to setup different profiles. This is especially important given the box’s social media features.
Continuing setup, the Boxee asks, “What do you watch the most: (local, web video, not sure?)” Basically, this controls the defaults for each category on the home screen (which can be changed easily from the setup menu).
As we used the Boxee box, we made several tweaks to its settings. All of the settings can be accessed by pressing the menu button on the remote and selecting the gear icon at the top of the screen.
Video: Out of the box, the Boxee sets itself to a video resolution of 720P. We changed it to 1080P/24Hz to match our Samsung LCD. Version 1.2 also added a number of video options to better work with an HDTV. There are now options for EDID (to auto detect your panel’s capabilities or disable it if it doesn’t), color depth and color space options (YUV, RGB).
Location: You will need to update your location for the weather app to work properly. For some strange reason, the default timezone for the box is Anchorage. We changed it to sunny ol’ New England.
Audio: We’re using the optical audio connector but it’s not enabled by default on Boxee. Under “System”->”Audio”, we enabled both DTS and Dolby Digital for the S/PDIF port. If you’re using HDMI to connect to your receiver, you’ll need to tell Boxee which formats it can handle (Dolby TrueHD, DTS, Dolby Digital Plus, etc.)
|Our tweaked video settings (click to enlarge). Are they right?|
The Home screen on the Boxee is fairly straightforward and easy to navigate. There are six high level categories: Friends, Watch Later, Shows, Movies, Apps, Files. From anywhere within Boxee, you can always press the remote’s menu button to bring up the on-screen display (OSD). At first, it’s a little confusing to get around the OSD menus. The top level menu headings break down into subcategories. On the OSD, there’s also access to the box setup, search bar and shutdown/sleep menus.
|Boxee Home Screen|
|Boxee Overlay Menu|
Unlike most streaming boxes on the market, the Boxee provides some commercial content via streaming without requiring any monthly fees. Only the Roku has a comparable amount of free commercial content. Most boxes including Apple TV require you to subscribe to Netflix or purchase shows through iTunes. Some of the shows available for free viewing on the Boxee include selected episodes of The Daily Show, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Seinfeld and Babylon 5. The content is in standard definition – but you get what you pay for.
Boxee has wide selection of more than 200 apps. The latest version, 1.2, added categories so you can better navigate the large number of apps. On the paid side, it offers apps such as Netflix, VUDU, HBO Go and Pandora. On the free side, you can get Crackle, TWiT, and TED among others (there’s also a TNT channel app but we could never get it to work). Boxee is one of only two streaming boxes that offers HBO Go (Google TV is the other). There’s a notable absence of both Hulu Plus and Amazon Instant (the regular Hulu site is blocked). Even when browsing directly to the Amazon web site, you can’t play videos for some unknown reason. Boxee is also one of the few connected devices that offers a fully-functional web browser that runs Flash. This is what allows the Boxee to easily use services, such as HBO GO, and provide a lot of its free content. Mind you, navigating around web pages to get your content is clumsy at best. It requires some degree of coordination to get to the content you want in HBO Go. Personally, I’m not a big fan of browsing the web from my couch but it’s an area where Boxee differentiates itself.
Boxee runs the HTML5 Netflix interface that’s now popular on newer devices. The animated app is extremely responsive on Boxee. It supports HD (720p) and subtitles. While there are options for surround sound, they are grayed out on the menus. Boxee has told us that surround sound is coming in the future but has not provided a date.
The other place the Boxee distinguishes itself is that it can play media from the local network or through locally attached storage via USB or SD card.
Before the 1.2 upgrade, you needed to share your files over SMB (aka Samba or Windows). After 1.2, the Boxee can now connect to a variety of sources: Appletalk shares, NFS, SMB, UPnP and their own Boxee protocol, which requires that the new Boxee media manager is running on a PC or Mac. The Boxee Media Manager is also used to serve videos to the new iPad app.
One of the powerful things about Boxee is that it can look at a number of network shares and/or local storage and provide one view of your movies, TV shows, photos and music. While it was fairly easy to add network shares to Boxee, it was challenging to get the scanning process to work properly (it’s responsible for finding and organizing your content). We eventually got it working properly after some low-level troubleshooting detailed here. For Boxee to properly identify your shows and movies, the files must follow a naming convention, which may require some time renaming files.
Boxee has the ability to search across a number of sources: YouTube, VUDU and your local videos (it does not appear to search your music collection). Basically, if a show isn’t available for free, it directs you to VUDU. It would be nice if content from apps such as Netflix were included in the search results. But no one out there has created a serach function that can search EVERYTHING (even TiVo – which does search Netflix – can’t search Hulu Plus).
|Boxee’s Search Results|
Boxee demonstrates forward thinking with its social media integration. In addition to being able to share videos you’ve watched to Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr, you can also see what videos your friends have shared on the various social networks. You can also share these videos easily within your social network. I’m sure we’ll see Google Plus support down the road. This also ties in nicely with their iPad app.
With version 1.2, Boxee released a dedicated iPad app that lets you view some of your content on the iPad. Specifically, it gives you access to the social media functions and streams media from any PC or Mac running the Boxee Media Manager. Any video viewed in the iPad app can be redirected to your TV screen by using the beta AirPlay feature (this needs to be enabled in the Boxee’s settings first). It would be nice if you could redirect video already playing on the Boxee to the iPad. None of the Boxee apps function on the iPad app. It’s definitely a work in progress but it’s a good start. Our friends at Streaming Media have done a thorough job walking through all of the functionality in the new iPad app.
Audio and Video
Boxee is capable of outputting up to 1080P resolution in a number of different frame rates, including 24 FPS for the film buffs out there. For home theater audio, it can pass through Dolby Digital TrueHD, Dolby Digital Plus, DTS-HD and LPCM 7.1. The Boxee has some of the best audio and video codec support out there being able to play MPEG2, MPEG4, Quicktime and AVI files among many others. The complete list of codec support can be seen here. Only the Western Digital Live media streamers rival its codec support at this price point.
As an example of how the Boxee can handle any file format thrown at it, the Hub was pleased it could play Ogg Vorbis music files. Back in the day, I ripped a good number of my CDs to my MythTV box in Vorbis format (and stopped when I realized there was a lack of good device support). Streaming via the Boxee, the music sounds awesome. The Hub wishes the music app would be enhanced to offer additional options for visualizers and playlists.
Boxee has some basic parental controls. By default, the box filters out “adult” applications. You have the option to enable a parental passcode but it doesn’t appear to block adult apps when they are enabled. Instead, it appears the parental lock out feature is designed to stop the streaming of any file that is properly tagged with MPAA ratings. So, it’s probably not going to block any content within apps.
To sum up, the Boxee has the following strengths:
- Good selection of free content
- Great selection of apps
- Social media integration
- iPad app
- Lots to configure and therefore lots of control
- A keyboard-based remote control that is usable
- Can play almost any file thrown at it
On the negative side:
- A little buggy
- No Hulu Plus or Amazon Instant access creating some content holes
- Search app does not include Netflix and other services in results
- Lots to configure
To expand on the “little buggy” bullet-point: it’s all relative. I think the Boxee is more stable than, say, an HTPC but I would not put it in the same category as a TiVo or an Apple TV for reliability. The long view would be that Boxee is only going to get better with age. The Boxee team has released several significant updates since the box was launched (some folks on the forums wish there would be a release focused on stability). There’s also a vibrant community out there that supports both this box and the freeware version of the product.
If audio and video quality is important to you, the Boxee has all of the proper building blocks: 1080P, 24 FPS support, a wide range of audio and video codec support and access to VUDU, which is the best video streaming service in terms of audio and video quality.
What about the alternatives out there? The two closest competitors are the Logitech Revue and the WD Live products. All of these boxes can stream media from the local network. While the Logitech Revue’s price has been slashed to $99 and it is built on similar hardware, Boxee beats it on execution. The WD Live Hub is an interesting alternative at the same price. It’s more of a plug-and-play solution than the Boxee, has Hulu Plus (as well as CinemaNow and BlockBuster) and provides a terabyte of local storage. On the other hand, the WD doesn’t have Boxee’s wide selection of apps, content (no VUDU, HBO Go or free content), social media features, included keyboard remote and a web browser.
In a sea of rectangular boxes, the Boxee box does stand out. The more I use the Boxee box, the more I like it. However, the Hub likes to tinker and configure for fun. If you’re the type of person who just wants to plug it in and have it work, the Boxee is not for you. If you’re someone who has a terabyte of ripped video and music, the Boxee is a great way to get that content into your living room – especially if you don’t buy into the Apple ecosystem. Bottom line, if you’re a geek, you’ll enjoy the Boxee.