Review: Boxee Beta

by Damian on January 8, 2010 · 5 comments

in Reviews

If you follow the world of gadgets you have probably heard the name “Boxee” mentioned more then a few times of late. Boxee is a media center application based on the xbmc open-source project. Boxee plays media from your computer and other devices in your home network, as well as connect you to various Internet sources that allow you to stream or download movies, TV shows, music and photos. For more then a year Boxee has been in alpha status, but about a month ago Boxee announced that not only were they going beta, but they had also partnered with D-Link to create the first Boxee Box. I have had the opportunity to get early access to the Boxee Beta, and now with the official public release of Boxee beta I can finally go ahead and put a little writeup together. Boxee is available for download on all major Operating Systems (Apple, Linux, and Windows but you must register first online). I tested on my Windows 7 x32 machine, using my MCE remote to handle most operations.

User Interface:

If you have used the Boxee alpha the first thing that will stick out with the beta version is a complete revamp of the UI. The layout is very simple and clear to follow. Shortcuts to your content are laid out clearly along the top third of the screen, with the bottom two thirds of the screen devoted mostly to the social aspect of Boxee (featured videos, feeds, etc…). I personally have no interest in the social aspect (you can “follow” other Boxee users which means that you would be able see their activity on the Boxee home screen, as well as be “followed”). I also wonder what happens to Boxee in the event there is no Internet connection, can it run without issue or is an “always on” Internet connection required. I guess I could just test that out by yanking the Internet connection out from my PC, but I was already running into stability issues with the beta (will discuss further along) and didn’t want to add further problems.

Aside from the main menu there is also an abbreviated main menu that you can access at any time while navigating around Boxee. This abbreviated menu is broken out into 3 rows. The top row has shortcuts to your settings, favorites, etc… The middle row has shortcuts to your media content. The bottom row has shortcuts to various apps that you can add and delete from.

Setting Up Media:

Pointing Boxee to where your media is stored is relatively easy to do.  Going into the Settings screen, there are several different options you can choose to manage. In this case you want to go into the Media option

Once in the Media Options you can either add a Local Source (somewhere on the PC where Boxee is installed), a Network Source such as a shared WHS folder, or manually input the location of the source.

When setting up a share you can specify what type of media is present as well as dictating when file scanning should be done.

Once done you should see a list of all media shares that have been set up. My one gripe is that once shares have been added there is no way to tell if Boxee was scanning for files our not. It was frustrating to have to keep clicking in and out of the Videos section to see if all my files had been added, and even as of now there are still movies that don’t appear to have been added to the library yet.

Local Content:

Now that all media has been scanned lets take a look at how to access the media. Local media is sorted into 4 main categories - Photos, Music, Movies, and TV Shows. Within each category you can apply filters, change how sorting is done, and change views (currently there are two views, List and Thumb. I would hope for some more robust views down the road).  The id3 tag gets used from the music tracks to display coverart, and Boxee scrapes IMDB to provide metadata/coverart for movies and TV shows. Since IMDB is being used for scraping,it is important to make sure all video files are properly named (refer to the “Prep Work” section of my MetaBrowser writeup  to get a sense of best practice naming conventions).

Photos:

The Photo section is straightforward, simply navigate through your photo collection, rotate, zoom in, are play as a slide show. All my photos in grouped into separate folders, and I noticed that thumbnails of some of the photos in each folder would appear but only after you entered the folder. This may have been done by design as a well to let the user know what folder they had/hadn’t accessed, not really sure but I found it annoying (you can see from the screenshot below what I am talking about).

Music

The music section allows you to group your music collection by Artist or Album. You can then further sort alphabetically or by recently added, and filter by genre. You will notice in the screenshots below a toolbar along the left of the screen. When not is use the toolbar hides itself so you have full use of the screen.

Thumbs View

 

List View

Album detail view

Movies

For me the Movies and TV Section  is the most important since this is where I would spend most of my time. Navigating through my movie collection is fast, and the IMDB scraper Boxee uses takes a lot of the guess work out of gathering metadata. From what I could tell almost all of the metadata was pulled in correctly. However there are a few areas where it falls short. The first is the lack of views, where you can only view your library in thumb or list view. I would like to see Boxee get creative and add a few more views down the road. Another issue was lack of fanart, which made navigating through my movie collection dull. Lastly was  the basic layout of information when viewing movie details. Now keep in mind, all this is just personal preference. Boxee does a great job at presenting the movie collection in an easy to navigate fashion. For me I am just spoiled by the “wow” I get from Media Browser, MyMovies, XBMC, etc… so the simple layout comes as a let down to me.

Thumb View

List View

When selecting a movie this blah screen appears

Clicking the “i” icon will bring up more information on the movie

This is the information screen that used to show in the Alpha version. I much prefer this to the current version shown above.

TV Shows

As with My Movies I am disappointed with the lack of “wow” in the TV section. However, there is some really neat stuff going on here. TV Shows gets broken up into two categories – My TV Shows which would be TV shows that are part of your local content and TV Show Library which is made up of TV shows that can be accessed from online sites such as Hulu, ABC, CW11, etc… You heard right, Hulu can be accessed in Boxee. A few months ago Hulu got stripped out of Boxee due to Hulu’s request, however it looks like Boxee is getting around this by embedding a web browser which then accesses Hulu and displays the requested show in full screen. In this way Boxee is doing nothing wrong, as what it does is no different then a user accessing the Hulu website. Another neat option, when accessing an episode Boxee will tell you all sources that are available for that episode, so you can choose what source you want to use.

TV Show Library in thumbnail view

Episode detail view. As you can see, Boxee is telling me that I can access this episode locally, via Hulu, or via Fox

When playing an episode from Hulu, you will briefly see the Hulu website appear, but then go to full screen mode.

Apps:

One of the exciting features of Boxee is the Apps section. Here Boxee has put together a catalogue of various online content that you can access through Boxee.  I did run into a few issues though when trying to launch some of the apps. With Netflix a message appears about pairing your Boxee Account with your Netflix Account. I entered in my NetFlix information and nothing happened. When I click on Netflix again nothing happens. This may be an issue with the NetFlix app itself as reading around other people mentioned this problem as well. Another issue I encountered was with Last.fm. I entered the app which then ased for my username and password. I entered the necessary information but had no clue what to do next, there was no submit or ok button, I just kept cycling though the log in screen. Finally after hitting every button possible on my remote something happened and I was able to get into Last.fm

One thing I like about the Apps feature is that you are not only stuck with the Apps provided. You can add and remove apps. I found this great site Boxee Repository site where you can view apps created by different users. Once you find a repository you like, simply type the url into the My Repositories section of Boxee and those apps will now appear.

To test out I decided to add Fuzz The Destroyer’s Repository because I was interested in his HD Movie Trailers app. I typed in the url and voila, Fuzz’s repo showed up in Boxee!

By clicking on an app you can now add it to the My Apps section, as well as add it as a shortcut to the abbreviated main menu. A very nice feature indeed!

Miscellaneous:

Stability:

Unfortunately this is the biggest problem I encountered. While navigating through different screens, stopping and starting videos/music, etc… Boxee constantly stopped responding. It took me about two hours last night to get all the screenshot you see in this post, and I had to shut down Boxee over five times in those two hours. Hopefully this is something that can be sorted out soon, as no matter how nice a media center Boxee is if it can’t be stable it loses much of its usefulness. The beta has only been out for a month and was just released to the general public today, so I expect the stability to greatly improve in the coming weeks/months, especially with the Boxee Box right around the corner.

Hardware Acceleration:

If you are a Windows user one of the downfalls of using Boxee was the lack of Hardware Acceleration (DXVA) when playing back local videos. The good news is that DXVA has finally been added, and I confirmed in the screenshot below, worked flawlessly when playing back HD content (I used the opening scene of Quantum of Solace Blu Ray as a test, CPU usage hovered around 5-10%).

Summary:

Overall I have to say that Boxee Beta is a big leap forward from the previous alpha version. The user interface is well thought out, and navigating throughout the ecosystem was a breeze. There is still some work that can be done in the App Library (Netflix seemingly not working, Last.fm confusion logging in, etc..). I would also like to see some more views added to the Media Library and more thought but into the movie details page. For someone like myself who likes to be able to customize and have more control over the experience Boxee just doesn’t quite do it for me. However for the person who just wants something simple that is easy to navigate and not have to worry about some of the complexities involved with other media center applications, Boxee might just be the answer. If Boxee can clean up some of the stability issues I ran in to, this combined with the upcoming Boxee Box could make for an excellent product that could finally bring the media center concept into the mainstream, something AppleTV failed to do.

Pros:

  • Well thought out layout/design
  • Fluid navigation throughout the media center
  • Extensive App library with access to a variety online content
  • Automatic IMDB scraping
  • Nice integration of online content into the TV Shows section

Cons:

  • Stability, frequent crashes requiring a restart
  • Limited amount of views
  • Somewhat confusing initial setup for some of  the apps
  • No way to monitor media scanning




Article by

Hi, my name is Damian, and I'm tech gadget addict! Although I always had some interest in technology, it wasn't until I got my EX470 and more importantly found Mediasmartserver.net, that my interest became an addiction. My goal, aside from world domination and to see the Mets/Broncos win another championship, is to set up the perfect digital home where all my media is available at the click of a button. When I am not writing for Mediasmartserver.net you can find me over at my blog at http://www.adigitalhomeblog.com or follow me on twitter


{ 5 comments }

Alex Kuretz January 8, 2010 at 4:45 pm

Nice writeup as usual, thanks Damian. I’m bummed to hear that Boxee is still having stability issues, this has been the biggest complaint of people I’ve talked to about it.

Damian January 8, 2010 at 6:11 pm

I agree Alex, the stability was a bummer for me as well. I don’t remember having such stability issues with Boxee before but honestly this is probably the most I put Boxee through so I could get the review done. Obviously this has to be a top priority if they are going to ask consumers to spend money on the Boxee Box.

JesD January 9, 2010 at 1:33 pm

Great Review…You mentioned AppleTV..Well I have three and becuase of this I have all my movies ( 500+) and TVShows (200+) in .mv4 format. Can Boxee stream this and can you give us some examples on wht devices it can stream to like Xbox360, PS3, etc etc.

Damian January 9, 2010 at 1:45 pm

JesD,

Yes, you can install Boxee on the AppleTV. I have actually done this, but as of now I think only the alpha version of Boxee is available for AppleTV.

As far as what devices Boxee can stream to, Boxee is not a streamer/server so it doesn’t stream to other devices. It is used for playback, just like Windows Media Center. Boxee should be able to play back .m4v, and the Boxee Box which is due out in Q2 could make for a great media player, of course if they fix the stability issues.

Jmpage2 January 11, 2010 at 8:50 am

This looks very promising. I’m going to hold off though until we see the ability to receive Sling feeds on these types of devices. I have a Sling Catcher which is pretty craptastic, so I need to kill two birds with one stone and replace it with a device that can do other streaming services but also catch the feed from my Slingbox.

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