For the last few years, I had been using a modified XBox running XBMC.  This was great for streaming stuff (movies, music, etc) from my Ubuntu SMB server to my TV.  Now that I own a TV capable of high-def, I wanted more.  I also wanted to lower my cable bill.  Unfortunately, XBMC does not directly support premium video services like Netflix.  Further more, the 3rd party Netflix plugins won't work for XBMC if you're not running on a Windows or OSX machine due to the lack of MS Silverlight.  I decided it was time to switch -- I want a device that can stream from premium sources AND my local network.  Enter the Boxee.

 Why Boxee?

The biggest thing was definitely the network media streaming.  Very few of the media center appliances have this.  I have a file server that's full of my (legal, of course) music, movies, and TV shows that I've acquired over the years.  I want to be able to watch those on my TV, too. Plus, I shouldn't have to fire up my computer just to play a few MP3s through my stereo.  If I'm going to buy something to play media to my TV, it better handle local network media, too.

The second biggest thing was Netflix.  I wanted to replace my cable with something that I wouldn't get bored of.  I used to share a Netflix account with a friend.  I remember being blown away with the selection and quality of the media they offered.  The Netflix part of the decision was a no brainer:  it was mandatory.

Third, I own a high-def TV.  I wanted something that could handle high-def resolutions.  Even if Netflix isn't full hd, it might be some day.  Also, some of my local network content is high-def.  Not that I'm picky about connectors, but having a box that uses HDMI makes life easy. One plug to rule them all!

What's to Love?

I'm glad you asked!  First and foremost, the Netflix app is pretty awesome.  It's not given me any stability issues, it's easy to use with the remote, and the picture looks great.  Setup was a breeze.  The first time you power it on, you're prompted to sign into a wifi network, configure the output resolution, and a few other things.  I also like that I get recommended content in my home screen.  As of now, it's just free content from YouTube and a few other sources.  I'd like to see if I can modify that, but for now it's fun.  I end up finding some really cool short movies whenever I go flipping through the home feed.

The remote is pretty awesome.  On one side, it's a directional pad with a select and back button.  On the other side, it's a QWERTY keyboard.  The keyboard is really cool for searching for content.  My friend Tim used to launch Netflix through his Wii, and typing anything of length by using the Wiimote was a pain.  The keyboard is a cool feature.  In addition to the remote, there's also a built-in web server.  The web server does't put out human-readable web pages, but it does allow for 3rd party apps to control the Boxee.  For my Android phone, I found an app called Boxee Thumb.  Basically, it auto-detects the Boxee (if you're connected to the same network) and allows you to use swipe gestures, soft buttons, or your phone's keyboard to control the unit.  The swipe gestures are pretty cool -- I enjoy being able to swipe through play lists.

The Boxee also allows for 3rd party software.  The default software channel has 200+ apps.  You have the ability to add additional repositories, which provide additional software.  I have yet to try any third party channels, but I'm looking.  You can also write your own apps and either load them onto a channel or onto a USB stick and run them locally.  The interface is done by using HTML5/CSS3.  Python is used to access the Boxee's functionality and can be embedded right into the HTML to provide access to system functions.  Pretty cool!

What's to Hate?

A lot, unfortunately.  The Boxee has a ton of great features, but they're offset by the interface.  It simply sucks.  Most of my negative opinion centers around the interface's instability.  If I stay in an app, everything's golden.  As soon as I start switching apps and switching windows, the Boxee will freeze and need a hard reset.  What a pain!  If my phone crashed  that often, I'd throw it at someone.  Fortunately, I don't venture from app-to-app too often, so it's tolerable, but leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Some parts of the interface are also rather ugly.  Local media browsing is one of those places.  When it works right, it looks nice and is able to pull episode, movie, and track information from the web.  When it doesn't work, it's a pain.  Manual resolution sucks.  Some of it is my fault for not having things properly labeled, but I should be given a better interface (perhaps web?) for fixing unidentified media.  Also, scanning of network (in this case, SMB) shares causes a noticeable lag.  I'd rather have a slower scan that doesn't bring down the system than to have a faster scan that doesn't share the CPU well.

I hate to say it, but the box itself is almost as ugly as some of the UI components.  I don't think it's attractive at all.  Instead of rounding corners, I simply have one sliced off.  The appearance is awkward at best.


This thing's saving grace is all of the codecs and external media features.  Overall, I'd give it a 3.75/5 stars.  The interface gets a 2/5 for sucking so bad, and the feature set gets a 5/5 for being so rich and complete.  I would recommend this unit for those who are more tech savvy, have more advanced needs, or are simply patient and are willing to wait for these things to be fixed via updates.

- bstempi