What I Think About My Boxee Box.

I have to say, when the Boxee Box was announced, I was immediately extremely excited. I’ve been living with an Apple TV for a long time, and while I’ve enjoyed it, it’s only good for showing media that’s already on my home network – its terrible for showing any of the content i’m finding on the web during my day.

Boxee saves me. Their “watch later” functionality is fantastic- I easily installed their easy to use bookmarklet in Safari and for [almost] any video I see on the web, I can simply click the bookmarklet to effectively send that video to my living room for later viewing. Doubly awesome- Safari bookmarks sync to my iPhone, so I can easily add videos while reading RSS feeds on the bus to and from work.

Twitter lets me easily keep up on current events and news, RSS fills in the gaps and adds detailed analysis, and now Boxee lets me timeshift all of the videos I fiend wile reading #1 and #2.

Setting up the Boxee

Setting up the Boxee was a breeze. It even comes with its own HDMI cable. Unfortunately, it was a tad short for my use since my shelf is on the opposite side of my TV’s HDMI input. After a quick trip to Target for a longer cable, I was in business.

Once turned on and plugged in, the last step is to turn it on, watch the snazzy boot screen, and lastly log into boxee.tv using the fancy remote – which I’ll get to in a minute.

Web Content

Remember before the iPod when mp3 players were ugly, low storage, and ugly? that’s where we are with internet on the tv today.

For nearly any web content – read: anything not on your NAS – Boxee will literally load up the webpage, in possibly the slowest webkit I’ve ever seen, and show you the flash video in its native environment. 90% of the time it won’t even auto-fullscreen the video for you.

Even worse, Boxee shows a cursor on the screen for you to control with the boxee remote! I’ll slowly move this cursor until I had masterfully placed it over the fullscreen button, click the center “go” button on the remote expecting it to finally fullscreen, and, if i’m unlucky, the video will pause! If i’m lucky it won’t do anything. I’ve only gotten the onscreen “fullscreen” button to actually go fullscreen once.

So maybe the cursor isn’t there to be used? i’ve honestly no idea why they included it – to fullscreen a movie you need to instead press the menu button to show HUD controls and full-size from there (if that option even shows up, on some videos that option is noticeably lacking). If boxee is smart enough to provide you with a fullscreen button, then why not just always fullscreen? In fact, why would anyone ever not want to be fullscreen on their wall filling 1080p television?

For any web based content, it’s extremely obvious that the content was not meant to be watched on a tv.

  • As video buffers, there’s zero indication on the boxee side about the buffer, it’s all in the 50 different flash streaming UIs (if you’re lucky)
  • Flash sucks, and most of what you’ll watch on boxee will be flash.
  • Flash buffers very oddly and often with no feedback
  • Scrubbing through video is either a horribly punch-me-in-the-face experience, freezes the video entirely, or shows a “Seeking not available in this video” error message
  • Frame rates are very hit or miss. I’ve had really nice HD videos stream just fine, but it’s not always the case. When watching HD video from Vimeo, it lagged to at least 10 FPS ish. mostly hit, sometimes miss.

Often times, web/flash content just freezes or drops to incredibly low frame rates. I assume this is because (a) it’s buffering and giving you zero indication or (b) crashing your Boxee box. I’ve already had to hard reset my Boxee Box a number of times after a video has frozen on my screen for minutes at a time.

Search

…doesn’t exist. Or it may as well not exist.

There’s a search field in the main HUD UI, but i’ve honestly no idea what it searches. google maybe? who knows. It doesn’t search my movies, it doesn’t search my tv shows, it doesn’t search my favorites, it doesn’t search my watch later queue, it doesn’t search tv/movies from any of boxee’s content partners, and it doesn’t search apps.

Any time I’ve searched for a TV show, instead I get about 15 “clips” and that’s it, never the full show.

I end up browsing/scrolling through the available TV shows list until i finally found what i was looking for. To Boxee’s credit, there are hundreds of shows to scroll through and watch, but it does make finding that one show a bit hellish.

It’s funny, b/c Google TV is 100% about search and 0% about what I and my friends watch. Boxee is the opposite, it’s only about what I and my friends watch, but gives you exactly no way to find anything new to watch in the first place.

odd.

iTunes Integration

…or lack thereof. If you’ve followed Boxee at all, then you know they’ve never had iTunes integration. In fact, back in 2007 Avner mentioned it’s on their todo list, and I won’t disagree there – it is, in fact, still on their todo list.

Boxee does a great job finding samba shares on a network. It found my Mac Mini and it’s associated external harddrives w/o a problem at all. But it doesn’t do a great job staying connected to that share. When I came back the next day all of my videos were mysteriously gone from the Boxee. And now it can’t connect/see those original shares at all. At this point I’ve given up trying to connect to network drives, I may try again later on, but I’ll just keep using my Apple TV for that content.

When do eventually important content, you have the option of importing as “Video” “Photos” or “Audio”. Boxee then proceeds to auto-import, identify, and categorize all of your content. Pretty cool in theory.

If you’ve pirated all of your content from torrents, and have Gb upon Gb of files named “Haxx-HDMI-DVDrip-1080foo-whatsit-S01E04.mkv”, then you’re good to go. Boxee will impressively parse out the show title “whatsit” and the season/episode numbers 1 and 4, and file it away in your TV Shows section.

However, if you’ve spent hours meticulously encoding your content, adding every conceivable piece of metadata, even adding artwork, importing into iTunes so it can auto-organize your files and folders for you, then you’ll be happy to know that Boxee will spend nanoseconds meticulously ignoring all of that meta data, and will file every single episode of your TV shows into the Movies section.

That’s right, Boxee 100% ignores your meta data that’s saved into your files. high fives!

I was in love with the idea of importing my current obsessively organized video library, and then letting Boxee organize whatever I import from here on out. Instead I’m faced with a decision: should I continue to obsessively import into a nicely organized iTunes library, or should i unorganized my entire iTunes library just so that Boxee can properly import it. As much as i want to love Boxee, i’m still betting on Apple for that one.

The Remote

I really  like the idea of the remote, and it’s very simple and easy to use unlike some competitors 🙂 .

That silver boxee logo is slightly raised – and this is a good thing. the remote is otherwise symetric around the D-pad and the two buttons. So in your dark media room when you grab the remote off the coffee table, it’s not immediatley obvious just by touch if you’re holding the remote flipped around backwards or not. Alas, the slightly raised boxee logo does help orient it your hand, but i’d prefer a slghtly raised dot on the home button – much like the dots on the F and J keys on a keyboard.

On the back of the remote, Boxee has included a full keyboard:

There are a few places in the Boxee UI where typing is needed (search being the obvious case) and it’s nice to have a full keyboard – however – the keyboard is not backlit. So in your dark and cozy media room it’s near impossible to actually figure out which key is which, and I’ve actually just withdrawn to using the onscreen keyboard with the D-pad on the front side of the remote.

All in all, it’s awkward to use in a dark media room but still a nice remote, and a perk of Boxee is that you can also use the Boxee iPhone app as a remote.

Netflix and Hulu

So There’s already a Netflix app on Boxee for Mac/PC, but for some reason it’s not available on the Boxee Box. Licensing problem perhaps? No idea – either way, incredibly frustrating. I bought the Boxee Box for two reasons: Netflix and Hulu. Unfortunately I have to wait till early ’11 to try either of them out. Boxee promises they’re coming, but they’re not here yet.

And this problem isn’t limited to just Netflix and Hulu, I’ve fogotten the name of the app now, but I was browsing “available” apps on the Boxee Box itself and tried to install one I thought was interesting. Instead of installing I was shown the error message: “it is not currently available on the Boxee Box. Check again soon!”

that. sucks.

This has only happened very very few times, but its very odd to me that some apps wouldn’t be installable. A) why isn’t any app installable and B) why even show me the app as an option if it can’t be installed?!

One of the biggest reasons i’m betting on Boxee in the long term is their app strategy. It’s so easy for developers to extends boxee’s functionality with new apps, it’s a huge huge feature. It’s so strange to me that only some apps aren’t blessed, and its not clear what sets them apart.

Sharing

When watching a video on the Boxee, one of the potentially cool things was a Share button next to the video. Click that and it lets you type in a short Twitter length message and shares that content to…. someone? I’m not sure where it goes. I thought it’d post a link + my description to my twitter account (which I’ve paired with my Boxee account), but nope. I guess its just a Boxee only sharing thing, and anyone who’s subscribed to me (currently no one) would see it?

Who knows, but this needs to be expanded on pronto. Let me tie Boxee to my Facebook and Twitter accounts. When I share a video, post my message + a link + a thumbnail out on those streams. To limit sharing to just the Boxee ecosystem of friends is very restricting to say the least.

In fact, I’d love an auto-read-my-twitter-feed feature in boxee that shows any video linked to from my twitter stream in a boxee stream – I’d bet that’d be far far more useful than their own Boxee-only sharing.

The Watch Later Queue

Avner made the point in the Boxee launch event that it’s no longer the “queue”, it’s just “watch later.”

I agree it’s not a queue:
1. it doesn’t autostart the next video
2. you have to manually remove watched videos
3. there’s no way to change order/move items in the queue
just like a normal video section. 3 points “normal” section, zero points “queue”

But it’s not a normal video section either:
1. can’t sort by popularity/recency/alpha, it’s only sorted by time like a queue would be
2. no thumbs vs list option like a section
3. no way to filter by show/source/type

New episodes from TV shows I subscribe to are automatically put into the watch later queue, which is nice. I’ve noticed on more than one occassion that duplicates of the same new episode would show up. Just a few days ago I had 3 episodes in the queue for the same new episode of Conan. And while it does auto-add new episodes from subscribed shows, it doesn’t track/mark/anything with shows you watch. You have to manually remove each video from the queue – there’s not even read tracking this-is-new-blue-dot next to titles or anything.

I do absolutely love the watch later bookmarklet that they’ve written. It makes it incredibly easy to add web video to Boxee and watch it later when I get home. It even works like a pro on from my iPhone bookmarks. It’s not too great at picking videos out of mobile versions of sites though, and oddly enough it won’t even pick up a <video> tagg’d .h264 video. What’s worse, there doesn’t seem to be a way to manually add a video URL to the queue, even if you know it’s properly encoded in a format Boxee can handle.

My First Software Update From Boxee

I’m quite excited. I wrote most of this post about a week ago, and I’m finally polishing it up. I turn on my Boxee to double check something and what do I see? An update screen! Hooray! Maybe some of my nitpicks will be fixed! Ok, let’s just click the Update now button… hrm… er- oh. It’s frozen. The Boxee has frozen/crashed on the Update screen. If nothing else, I hope this update fixes the update feature.

I’ll update this post later if/when I get the Boxee actually updated + I see something actually improved.

What I Really Want From Boxee

Some of this i’ll never get, but here goes:

  1. I want boxee to let apps add subscribable content. i want to download the Cruchyroll app, find an awesome anime, and subscribe to it. Then next time i open Boxee, I want it to notify me that theres a new episode + track which ones i’ve watched and which i haven’t.
  2. I want web content to not suck. Get rid of flash, or force everything into your own flash player like Plex, or at the /very/ least auto-full screen it + hide it’s hud, detect start/stop, and keep controls consistent in the boxee hud
  3. get rid of the crappy boxee browser. right now it’s only there as a failsafe, and it shows. i think the rest of boxee suffers from a “well, they can always just open the browser, so this is probably good enough for now” syndrome. get rid of the browser, and get rid of the excuse to not make fullscreen web video perfect
  4. Read tracking. show me what’s new when i’m subscribed to a show
  5. Search! let me find content and apps! you’ve won when you let me find content /in/ apps.
  6. Whenever you launch an app in Boxee – it shows you a menu with 2 options: (a) really launch the app for real, or (b) remove the app. I want to launch it. I only want to launch it. That’s all that I’ll ever want to do 99.9% of the time when I’m on my apps screen. This confirmation are-you-really-sure-because-I-really-need-to-know-so-I’m-gonna-ask-again dialog box is everywhere in their UI. “oh cool, new Daily Show episode, I’ll just click to watch- er, yes i will click again that i want to watch- phew, watching…” Same with movies, same with apps, same with pretty much every action you could ever take – you’ll see a confirmation dialog box.
  7. Import an iTunes library!!
  8. If not #7, then at least respect meta data on my files!

The Largest Problems

1. I don’t understand why it’s so hard to add content to Boxee

Adding videos to the Watch Later queue usually works, except when it doesn’t – and when it doesn’t you’re out of luck. Want to add files from a NAS drive? If you’re lucky enough to have Boxee see + connect to your drive, you’d better hope that 100% of your video has been downloaded from a torrent file and is named something like xVidHaxxLollerz-MyFavoriteShow-E01S02-AwesomevillePants.mp4. If you’ve obsessively organized all of your video and kept 100% of your files’ meta tags up to date – then you’re out of luck.

2. I don’t understand why my video box has such a hard time showing video

Sometimes Boxee shows a full screen option, sometimes not. Sometimes the onscreen mouse lets me fix the problem, sometimes not. Sometimes the video buffers, sometimes the box freezes and dies. Sometimes I can scrub through to where I left off, sometimes I’m not allowed to.

3. I don’t understand what the Search option even does

As I mentioned before, searching for shows or content on the Boxee is near impossible. It’d be pretty much the exact same product w/o the search function entirely. Fix it or remove it please.

Conclusion

I love the idea of Boxee, but I’m not a huge fan of its current implementation. As of now, I feel I paid $200 for a Watch Later queue that mostly works sometimes, and the ability to finally watch the Daily Show on my TV. I’m hoping that $200 will provide me w/ Hulu and Netflix in the near future. I hope hope hope.

Besides the above, the Boxee is largely a box of frustration. It doesn’t import content well, it doesn’t find network drives well, it doesn’t stream web video well, it doesn’t search well, it doesn’t have a streamlined UI, but it does freeze and crash.

If you’re thinking of getting a Boxee, don’t. Wait till they updated ther software alot or even until they build a version 2 (if they ever get that far). Better yet, buy a TV with Plex built in, or a Mini and install Plex yourself.

4 thoughts on “What I Think About My Boxee Box.

  1. Thanks. This post told me everything I wanted to know. Hey – I’ve got a questions for you that doesn’t relate but that you might now. I shoot home videos with a HD video camera (actually two – Sony HDR (tape) and a Cannon 7D. Everything I download, I’ve been converting to M4v to play on the Apple TV. Hopelessly time consuming and I downgrading my original stuff. Any thoughts or ideas. I’d give up the apple TV to not have to convert stuff.

  2. I end up only using my Boxee for its watch later queue. I thought I would watch my local media a lot more, and I’ve spent hours with Handbrake and MetaX encoding and tagging movies & tv to mp4 and importing into iTunes for my @tv, but honestly I never watch it. For what it’s worth, Handbrake and ffmpegx did give me really nice quality when reencoding.

    Usually I just rent movies or watch netflix streaming on the apple tv, or watch boxee’s watch later queue.

  3. Fully a year later and all these complaints are all still valid. Who knows what’s happening on the inside. Maybe they only employ one incredibly over-worked developer. From the outside though, this lack of progress is a telling indicator of the slide into obsolete-ville.

    Only just now I ran through this typical usage scenario:
    I wanted to watch a specific Ted talk. Clicked on the Ted app… waited. Waited. Waited. Oh, right. “Yes, I really want to run the bleeding app!” Clicked over to the search field, where I proceeded to search 6 times for various combinations of the title of the talk and the name of the speaker. Laughed incredulously as many strange results were found, none of which were the actual talk or the actual speaker. Exited out of Ted app, clicked over to the embedded search field. 0 results found. Debated internally about the rationale of expecting anything useful from Boxee Box at this point. Clicked to open the browser app… no wait, clicked to open the browser app. Bing? Really? Sidetracked myself with a fruitless search for how to get rid of Bing landing page. 0 results. Typed in google.com and pressed enter. Typed in my search parameters and pressed enter. Waited. Waited. Waited. Finally understood that nothing was happening. Oh, realized I had to position the cursor ON the “search” button and press enter. First result was correct. Fumbled around until the cursor was on the link. Pressed enter. Was directed to Ted.com, but still in the browser because it wouldn’t make sense to have the content sent to the Ted app, would it?

    Time to watch my Ted show: 10 minutes.
    Time to prepare to watch my Ted show: 10+ minutes.

  4. I’m a new Boxee Box user, and I must say I’m not very thrilled with it. The web browser, as noted here and elsewhere, is a complete joke. Still no Hulu or Hulu Plus app. Netflix and Vudu are good, but I already get that stuff on the Xbox. I did fork out the $50.00 for a Live TV adapter, and found some local content, but several channels don’t pull in well and are only sporadically available (literally, on the whim of the atmospheric condition at the moment). My biggest beef with Live TV is that for some reason, periodically, Boxee Box decides that it can’t connect to the internet (Oh nos! I can’t access the Intarwebs!!!), and wants to tell me about it WHILE I”M WATCHING TV FROM THE ANTENNA. This kicks me out of the Live TV “app” and disallows me to re-enter.

    So far, a waste of $225.00. However, the one positive thing it allowed me to do (even if only partially) was to give a big F**K YOU to Comcast.

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