Boxee – Jeckyll and Hyde, a Tale of Performance and Hairpulling
I’ve taken to the concept that you should always give a unit a real, serious try. It’s too easy to just sit with a unit in a day, write up a review and say “this is everything there is to know about X”. It does the product a disservice and if you’re going to recommend it or not to someone who spends money on it, they will spend real time with it, and hard earned cash, trying to make the unit work as they expect.
About a week and a half ago, arriving at my doorstep was D-Link’s Boxee Box, a small, Intel Atom based Media Streamer, running Boxee. Boxee, a free media platform available on Windows, Macintosh and elsewhere provides people with a quick interface to access your media over a network, and since it handles CODECs for you, you don’t have to worry about that. Boxee’s low price tag of $199 MSRP makes it a potential way for end users to get their content out to the TV, and sort through everything they have easily and quickly. But like a lot of the media streamers, Boxee is a true Jeckyll and Hyde; it hits some real high points, and some low-lows, which made spending time with this unit a combination of interesting, frustrating, fun, and maddening.
So, let’s talk about Boxee (the following photos are STOCK, and are not taken by me, but just for reference)
The Boxee unit itself is a small semi-cube. The top is at a slight slope and bright, fluorescent green. This is of course, a design decision by D-link to make the unit stand out. And it does do that. Because of it’s design, it doesn’t easily fit on the shelf with other components, and it’s bright look makes it definitely stand out in your livingroom. The unit features an HDMI output, Optical, and stereo outputs in the rear. You’re also provided USB ports to connect an external hard drive to the Boxee. You will require an HDMI ready TV/Receiver, Boxee, like many of these devices does not support Component HD.
On the side of the unit is a standard SD Media Card slot, and the unit comes with a dual sided remote.
That’s right, a dual sided remote. There are times where I thought this was really innovative, and times where I cursed loudly at this remote control. An RF based remote, the Boxee remote can function from almost anywhere in your room without having to be aimed directly at the Boxee. The remote control is two sided; on one side, a simple option of Menu, a Play with an up/down/right/left and a return button.. (of sorts)
On the rear of the remote is a full keyboard, to help make your web browsing experience easier and if you want to search for media, it should be easier too.. right?
That’s what I thought originally. But instead, the remote feels clumsy in your hands. It’s a bit too small, and so it doesn’t have enough weight to really put any balance in your hands, and because it’s so small I found myself constantly initiating letter keys from the reverse side of the remote while I worked the front. This created a lot of frustration as I would try to move forward or backwards and suddenly find the dropdown key input window appeared. The remote itself is also wildly inaccurate and doesn’t provide any information on how to make certain functions “go”. For the life of me, after a week and a half, there is some basic functionality of this unit that just seemed to escape me because I couldn’t see how you’d pull it off on the remote. I’ll get to some of that later.
So what makes the Boxee stand out?
First, I want to get to some of the pros. D-Link, in a handy guide they sent along with the unit wanted to point out that “there is more than iTunes!” The guide sent to me pointed out the Boxee’s ability to display almost all media types and provide full support for X264 and VC1 as well as Bluray Streams and content over a network. These kind of features are the kind of things that users are after. Like it’s Microsoft and other competitors, D-Link also provides a means where your saved movies and content can be linked to posters, theater art, guides, descriptors, cast searches, etc. In short, this is the kind of feature that really makes something like a Media Streamer work. The D-Link does this pretty effectively. The unit quickly scanned my Windows Home Server, grabbed titles, content and other information and quickly produced it’s list of available content.
But I really wanted to cover the bases. Because D-Link has a 10/100 Network card, and not a gigabit card, I had some concerns over how it would handle full-flow HD content, via MKV. I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised. The Boxee was able to correctly pass through DTS, DTS-MA, DTS-EX, DD, TrueHD, and LPCM audio streams to my receiver. It had no issue with most MKVs I sorted through, and even at high bit rates, it managed to power through.
I suffered MINOR lost frames on heavy titles (like Star Trek, Avatar) but on most titles, it was flawless. The D-Link was able to resync audio relatively quickly after a fast forward or a rewind, though the lag on other media was not as positive. Those titles played without any major issue from a USB2 based HDD, so in that case, it is just an issue with how it streams or handles them over the network.
The Boxee was also able to sort out other audio formats without issue. TMBG’s newest album, available in FLAC came through nice and clear, and FLAC audio tracks within MKV were also functional. The Boxee pretty much handled almost all media types I through at it – save one. It does not support or read WTV (Microsoft’s TV format) or DVR-MS (older TV Format). For those, you’d need to be running something like MCConvert to get it to the boxee.
One of the Boxee’s real strength outside of file system support is that the unit makes MPEG2 (DVD) based content look outstanding. In fact, short of the oppo and my media center, this has one of the best MPEG2 upconvertions I’ve seen. The content looked sharp, crisp and brought new life to it. Compared to watching the same content off of a standard Phillips DVD player in my bedroom, the Boxee looked very, very good.
But it’s not all sunny in the world…
For the positives, though, the D-Link does have a rash of negatives to go along with it. The unit operates fairly slowly. Boot time is very slow for a unit of this level, but it was the organizational element that really brought this unit to it’s knees.
The moment I would click “TV” or “Movies”, the Boxee, presumably rebuilding from my network shares would take MINUTES to pull up a sortable menu. In fact, when I timed it in pulling up my TV folders, it took 2 minutes, 18 seconds. Now, that doesn’t sound like forever, but if you’re hunting for a TV show or you want to watch media now, waiting while a circle sits on your screen and rotates for almost 2 minutes while it brings up your network shares is beyond annoying.
The next annoyance is that the remote is, at a point so annoying that I thought about throwing it out the window. One thing I did not expect is that in many of the apps that come with the Boxee commercials come along. Browse Youtube? Prepare for a set of ads. Going to another thing? Ads. I realize that the Boxee is just relaying the web content, but it definitely seems as though the advertisers are targeting Boxees because it came up on almost ½ the videos I tried to watch.
Sure, that shouldn’t be so annoying, there is that little button on the screen, see it? That says “Click here to skip this ad?” It sits there through the whole 6 minute ad. Boy, if I could just.. can I just? HOW THE HELL DO YOU CLICK THE SKIP THIS AD BUTTON!?!?!? I sat with a remote control and weaved, tried up/down/left/right options on the rear of the remote and everything imaginable but praying to Allah, and yet, nothing functioned. For the life of me, I was going to sit there and watch a 3 minute ad on the Behind the Scenes of Hulu (which is not available on Boxee) but which came up repeatedly as I tried to watch anything else. Can I just.. could I.. nope. Nothing. I found nothing to undo this.
The other thing is that the D-Link Boxee is basically without a manual of any sorts. So, some features were very difficult for me to quickly figure out. After a fair amount of button mashing, I was able to find the control and setup menu to make changes, like tell the Boxee my receiver could accept HD bitstream audio formats, etc. But too much of what was available in the setup screen was worthless- I couldn’t make any real fundamental and sometimes basic changes in the way the unit works.
What do I mean by that? The Boxee remote can skip forward in the content you are watching with a right button press. You can also hold it down to fast forward. But the right button press is a 5 second jump. 5 seconds, frankly, isn’t enough. It would also annoyingly jump back a second or two often, creating a 2 or 3 second jump forward, while taking a second to resync with audio. I ended up giving up on the entire idea of skipping forward in a title when I realized I couldn’t change how far I could skip at a time, and 5 seconds wasn’t enough for me to waste the time with all the resyncing and occasional skipbacks.
While performance on MKV, X264 was great, VC1 performance was “OK” generating far more dropped frames the higher the bitrate went. But it was an old standby that really struggled. When dealing with older media formats, like DiVX3 or 3GP, the boxee would occasionally skip or look as though it was out of sorts, creating poorly rendered images. These files were made “just as a test” as most people don’t store in those formats anymore, unless they come from equipped cell phones, but still, it’s worth noting to those who do carry 3GP cell phones.
TV shows and archived TV shows proved insanely annoying to me. In choosing a TV show, you were presented with all the episodes – in reverse order. So, at the very top of your potential choices was the last show you have stored (say, Season 5, Episode 24) in order to get to Season 1 of anything, you have to scroll through everything that came after it to get there. This means going back and forth often. I looked for a way to more easily chose a show season by season, but I cannot find one. I also can’t find a way for it to remember the episode I left off with so it would move me down to that point in the list. For those that like to revisit old shows, the Boxee just isn’t for them. The organization of TV shows left a lot to be desired, and no real way to fix it.
Too Much Jeckyll, not enough Hyde…
The Boxee Unit is the kind of thing that has some real upside. The MPEG2 performance is great. The price is not significant. It does a great job of playing back MKV, sorting through MKV.. and handling multiple file formats.
However, the difficult remote, the inability seemingly to skip ads or to make UI changes to match the end user make it too frustrating for it to go in my livingroom or bedroom. The unit does exactly what it says it will do and it does a decent job about it. It provides a quick way to access stored content, SD and HD, organize it, and give you the end user a chance to find everything you’re after.
At $199, it’s at the same cost as a Microsoft XBOX or PS3 through gamestop, both of which will see network shares. While the Boxee provides better organizational functionality and better MPEG2 performance, it’s hard for me to push it above those. The big feature for boxee is it’s ability to sort through network bluray storage and HD content and bitstream audio. That’s a key feature over the PS3 or XBOX type devices. But it’s menu system and controls make it very difficult for me to recommend it above either.
Boxee now supports Vudu, Netflix, as well as it’s own custom apps with more promised on the way. So, if you believe this is a potential growth format, and you want to give livingroom media streaming a try, then you might give Boxee a chance.
Look for a video review of this product to be posted tonight or tomorrow.