Access to Web services has become a coveted feature in the home entertainment world. A good portion of new HDTVs and Blu-ray players include some type of Web platform that provides access to streaming video and music, photo sites, social networking tools, and more. It's certainly a value-added feature that brings the wide world of the Web to your big screen. But what if you purchased your entertainment system before this latest craze? What if you're otherwise happy with the HDTV and Blu-ray player that you already own? Do you have to upgrade your gear in order to enjoy all of this Web-based content? Not at all, thanks to standalone media players like D-Link's Boxee Box.
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The Boxee Box helps you find and play Web content--be it from pay providers like Netflix and VUDU (with Hulu Plus coming soon) or from free services like YouTube, Pandora, last.fm, Picasa, and Flickr. Search D-Link's robust App Store, and you'll find plenty of content choices to suit a variety of interests. The Boxee Box is also a hub for your own digital media: It can access the music, photos, and videos on your networked computers, as well as files stored on USB drives or SD cards.
The user interface is really the key to a system like this, and D-Link has developed a smart, generally intuitive system for browsing and accessing local and Web content. The Boxee interface actually existed before the Box. In fact, it's still available as a free software platform that you can download and install on a PC, a Mac, or even an iPad. As the name suggests, the Boxee Box takes the same platform and puts it in a freestanding box that can sit in your equipment rack. So, it's your choice: Buy the Boxee Box for $199.99 or load the free software onto your own device and then connect said device to your A/V system. I did not perform a direct hands-on review of the Boxee Box, but I did download the Boxee software to my Mac to explore the interface. The general functionality should be mostly the same--although, from what I've read elsewhere, there may be some very slight differences in navigation speed (depending on your computer's abilities) and menu layout in the box version.
If you do opt to buy the Boxee Box, its connection panel includes an HDMI output, optical digital and stereo analog audio outputs, dual USB ports, an SD card slot, and a LAN port for a wired network connection. The unit also has built-in 802.11n for a wireless connection. The box can output a resolution up to 1080p. The package includes a clever, two-sided RF remote. On one side, you'll find a very basic button layout that offers only a navigation wheel, a menu button, and a play/pause button; flip the remote over, and you get a full QWERTY keyboard that makes text input much easier when searching content or chatting with friends via a social networking tool. Unfortunately, the remote lacks backlighting. Android and iPhone remote apps are available to control the Boxee Box or your Boxee-equipped computer. The unit's form factor, which looks like a cube with two corners cut off, seems to be pretty polarizing. The design is certainly distinctive and eye-catching if you want to show it off, but it's not necessarily an ideal shape for an equipment rack.
The Boxee interface has a simple home menu that includes icons for Photos, Music, Movies, TV Shows, Apps, and Files. Below these icons are thumbnails for featured video content, be it a YouTube clip or a hot new title recently added to VUDU. Select Photos or Music, and you're taken to screens that allow you to browse and play the media files from your connected devices. You can choose to view items in a list or as thumbnails. In my case, the My Music page contained all of the content in my iTunes music folder, arranged by Album or Artist and accompanied by cover art when available. It's very easy to search, but I would've liked to see a list of my iTunes playlists, as well. If you also keep music in other folders, you can easily add those sources through the "Manage Sources" button, and the setup menu allows you to dictate how often you want Boxee to re-scan your computer's folders to look for new content.
Where things really get interesting are in the sections for Movies and TV Shows. In these cases, you can choose to browse My Movies or My TV Shows to access personal content (again with thumbnails or other available art), or you can go to the Movie and TV Show Libraries to browse Web-based video-on-demand options. The Boxee interface combines content from different providers and presents it in one clean list, so you don't have to search through different apps to see if a certain title is available. In the movie realm, the Boxee interface presents thumbnails for movies, arranged by most popular or recently added; click on a title, and you're told what service is offering the title and how much it will cost to rent or buy. At this point, VUDU is the primary provider, but there was also content from MUBI, myLifetime, OpenFilm, and more. Unfortunately, Netflix content is not integrated into this list; to access Netflix titles, you have to go into the Apps menu and launch the Netflix app directly. (Likewise, if you prefer the way VUDU presents its content for browsing, you can simply launch the VUDU app and navigate directly from there.)
Read more about the performance of the Boxee Box on Page 2.