There’s no shortage of streaming media devices on the market right now – from the Apple TV to the Roku 2 to the “Smart TV” services that are integrated into HDTVs and Blu-ray players. How does a company distinguish its offering in this crowded space? Well, if the company is Boxee, it targets a select audience – namely, those people who have cut or are thinking about cutting the cordand getting rid of their cable/satellite service. The Boxee TV is more than just a streaming media player; it combines live TV and streaming media in one integrated solution, allowing you to enjoy video-on-demand from companies like Netflix and VUDU and also watch broadcast TV through the same interface.
The $99 Boxee TV is somewhat of a departure from the company’s popular Boxee Box (which is no longer being produced). The Boxee Box focused primarily on streaming services (offering over 400 apps) and playback of a wide variety of personal media files. It also carried a higher price tag of about $180. The Boxee TV, in contrast, supports only 12 services: Netflix, VUDU, YouTube, Pandora, Spotify, Vimeo, MLB.TV, TED, WSJ Live, AccuWeather, Cloudee (for sharing and viewing personal videos), and File Browser (to play media files connected via USB). There’s currently no Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, Facebook, Twitter, or Picasa/Flickr (to name a few), and the Boxee TV does not currently support personal media streaming from a networked server. Boxee says that DLNA streaming is coming very soon in a major firmware update.
What you get instead are dual internal ATSC and Clear-QAM tuners to tune in broadcast TV channels like CBS, ABC, NBC, FOX, and PBS. Boxee even includes a tiny HD antenna in the package for pulling in free over-the-air signals. Boxee has also introduced a “No Limits DVR” service that, for $10/month after the first three months (which are free), allows you to store unlimited recordings in the cloud. Through this service, you can record programs shown on the major broadcast networks (the dual-tuner system lets you watch one show while recording another or record two shows simultaneously); you can also access your recordings on HTML5-compatible devices through the Boxee TV Web app on any browser. Unfortunately, “No Limits DVR” is currently still in beta and is only available in eight metro areas: Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington DC. Since I don’t live in one of those areas, I could not test the DVR service. The rest of us can still access live TV; we just can’t record it.
D-Link is Boxee’s hardware partner in manufacturing the Boxee TV. Its physical shape is a bit larger than recent streaming media players I’ve used, like the Apple TV and Netgear NeoTV MAX. It measures about 7 x 3.75 and 1.75 inches. The connection panel includes one HDMI output, an RF input to access the internal tuners, an Ethernet port for a wired network connection, and dual USB ports for playback of personal media files from a connected flash drive or USB server. The Boxee TV supports playback of the most common file formats, but it doesn’t have the level of format compatibility you got with the Boxee Box. The package includes a basic IR remote with just a few buttons: Home, Info, Return, Play/Pause, Enter, Navigation Arrows, and direct buttons for Netflix and VUDU. The buttons are almost completely flush with the remote, and there’s no backlighting, which made it challenging to use the remote in the dark. Boxee also offers a free iOS control app, but it basically just mimics the remote layout and does not add a virtual keyboard. At this time, the iOS app also doesn’t work within Netflix and VUDU, so I really saw no reason to use it.
Basic setup of the Boxee TV was quick and easy: selecting a language, choosing a TV resolution (the box is set for 720p by default, but it detected that I had a 1080p TV and asked me if I wanted to change the resolution to match), and connecting to your network. You want to keep your laptop nearby or be prepared to go to your computer because several of the setup procedures must occur online. You have to create a Boxee account and register apps like Netflix and Pandora via your computer. The only part of the setup process that took some time for me was the tuning of TV channels. With the supplied HD antenna, I was only able to tune in two major networks: the CW and CBS. Admittedly, my Colorado location is a challenging one for over-the-air HD: The closest towers are over 30 miles away and are scattered in different directions. I would’ve considered it a small miracle if the tiny Boxee antenna had tuned them all. So, I connected my Mohu Leaf antenna to the Boxee TV instead. The first re-scan resulted in zero channels; I noticed that the RF input was very hot, so I unplugged everything and took a short break. During my next attempt, the combination of the Mohu antenna and the Boxee tuner pulled in the same channels I get when feeding the Mohu directly into my TV, and signal reliability was about the same (not perfect, but pretty good). If you live in an area where you can easily tune in over-the-air channels, the supplied Boxee antenna may work just fine; but, if you face tuning challenges in your location, you should expect to add a separate antenna.
The other setup option is for cable subscribers (I have satellite, so I could not test this). You can tune in the basic unencrypted cable channels offered by your provider; just feed the coaxial cable from the wall outlet into your Boxee TV and select Cable (as opposed to Antenna) during the setup process. If you currently receive cable without a set-top box directly into your TV, it’s the same idea. Or perhaps you have a cable box in your main room but would like to get rid of the boxes (and monthly rental fees) in secondary rooms. Be warned: The FCC recently ruled that cable companies no longer have to offer unencrypted cable channels. If your cable provider decides to get rid of its unencrypted channels, that will complicate the Clear-QAM tuner approach. As part of its ruling, the FCC did mandate that cable providers have to work with people who own products that rely on a Clear-QAM tuner (like the Boxee TV) — either by providing some type of converter box (free for two years) or providing a software solution to the manufacturer (presumably available via a firmware update).
The Boxee user interface is very clean, colorful, and easy to navigate. The Home page includes two icons at the top of the screen for TV and Apps (DVR users will get a third option for recordings). Select TV, and you’ll see the live TV signal in the background, behind a translucent menu that provides thumbnails of what’s airing right now (provided the info is available), as well as what’s coming up in the next hour. Hit the TV icon or select a show to make the overlay disappear and watch TV. The remote’s up/down buttons change the channels, while the left/right buttons bring up a channel browser along the bottom of the screen, with thumbnails of what’s airing on each channel so that you can scroll through and find something to watch. It’s a helpful tool.
If you select the Apps icon on the Home page, a colorful grid of the 12 available apps will line up in two rows underneath, with Netflix, VUDU, and YouTube listed first as the featured apps. The Home menu also shows you the local time and temperature at the top right.
Read about the high points and low points of the Boxee TV on Page 2.
The Boxee TV integrates live TV with streaming services like Netflix and VUDU.
The box has internal ATSC and Clear-QAM tuners, and the package includes a small HD antenna to tune in over-the-air signals.
In select areas, you can pay $10/month for cloud-based DVR functionality with unlimited storage and the ability to access content via portable devices.
Wired and wireless network connections are available.
The box supports a 1080p resolution via HDMI.
The interface is clean and easy to navigate.
Via dual USB ports, you can play back personal media files.
The Boxee TV does not have as many apps as some of its competitors, including big omissions like Hulu Plus and Amazon Instant Video. There’s no Apps store to browse and add services.
Performance was not completely reliable; I occasionally experienced freezes, stutters, and other issues.
The connection panel lacks an analog A/V output and a digital audio output for connection to older, non-HDMI-equipped products.
The iOS control app does not include a virtual keyboard for easier text input.
The box does not currently support DLNA streaming from a personal media server, although hit may be added soon.
DVR service is currently only available in a few areas.
With the Boxee TV, Boxee is on the right track in creating a compelling set-top box for cord-cutters that unites live TV and streaming VOD, but the product is not quite ready for prime time. The cloud-based DVR service needs to become more ubiquitous, the platform needs to be a bit more stable, and Boxee needs to add some more apps to compete with the likes of Roku on the streaming side of the equation. If all you want is a box that gives you access to streaming services like Netflix and VUDU, there are better, lower-priced options out there. I’d say one of the main competitors to the Boxee TV right now is actually the entry-level TiVo Premiere DVR ($150), which also has an internal ATSC tuner, DVR functionality, access to streaming apps, and network streaming of personal media files. The difference is, with TiVo, you have limited storage, you have to pay the $15/month service charge (or a lifetime $500 fee) to use the service at all, and you have to buy the add-on TiVo Stream to access your recordings through a browser. With Boxee, if you don’t want the DVR service, you can skip the monthly fee and still use the box as a TV tuner and a portal to the streaming options. Again, it’s compelling on paper; the Boxee TV is definitely a product I’d like to revisit in six months and see what progress has been made.