Quick Review: Boxee Box
Recently I bought two Boxee Box players – one for a friend and one for myself. It’s a mixed bag of impressions. The system was reasonably simple to connect and configure. No major workflow issues there. One feature request is to have Boxee automatically detect the audio output being used (component or SPDIF) and configure the appropriate audio-out setting. By default, Boxee Box will assume you are using the component audio, so if you connected SPDIF, you will hear no sound until you fiddle with the system audio settings. Non-technical users may find this a bit frustrating. Another minor annoyance is that from time to time Boxee seems to forget your username and password it uses to connect to the Boxee service. I have no idea why this is happening, nor do I care to find out. Just be ready for some aggravation.
The major problem with Boxee Box is the remote control. Aside from the occasional difficulty figuring out top from bottom in a dark room, the remote is a nice piece of hardware, with simple button layout on one side and a full QUERTY keyboard on the other. When it works. But it has an annoying tendency of stopping working for no apparent reason. It may work just fine for a week or two and then – nothing. Replacing the battery doesn’t help. Rebooting the Box doesn’t help. Resetting the system to factory defaults doesn’t help either. The main problem is not firmware or software updates that the Boxee team has a tendency of pushing out without adequate testing, but the build quality of the remote itself. In a nutshell, the Boxee Box remote is a cheap piece of junk: a good idea made on a budget by people who love to see good ideas crash and burn just so they can save a few cents on some piece of plastic.
In most cases, the only “fix” is to replace the remote. To do this you will need to replace the entire system, which means you have to reconfigure it from scratch and re-scan your entire video collection. If you had to replace the oil in your car the same way, this would have meant getting a new car every three thousand miles. Using your iPhone or iPad as a makeshift remote using the Boxee app is not a workable alternative: the app is half-baked and unstable. The keyboard and volume controls seem to appear and disappear whenever they please. The “currently playing” button only works on Mondays before 6pm, at least in my experience. Not sure what happens after six.
Two more obnoxious glitches of Boxee Box: flaky performance when scanning videos from SMB shares and video buffering that does not adjust automatically to network speed. Let me elaborate.
Adding network shares to Boxee Box is not the simplest of tasks. The scanning takes a very long time and sometimes stops for no obvious reason. When this happens, the fix is to delete the SMB share, re-add it and re-scan the whole thing. This takes time and effort that could have been better spent watching TV and drinking beer. It should be noted that Boxee application for PC has no such problems, as far as I can tell running it on Ubuntu and Windows 7.
The buffering feature per-loads a chunk of the movie to ensure smooth playback when network performance is unstable. Usually, the amount of the video file in the buffer would depend on the current network performance. If network is slow, the player would buffer more data before initiating playback. If the network is fast – it would buffer less. A simple concept. A concept that Boxee Box doesn’t get. It seems to buffer the same amount of data regardless of network speed. If you have a lousy wireless network, Boxee Box will stop playback and buffer the video every few seconds. It is too stupid to determine your effective network speed and buffer enough for uninterrupted playback. Once again, the PC version of Boxee has no such problem. It would seem that Boxee had to have some of its brains surgically removed to run on that little lopsided box you got from Best Buy for a hundred and eighty bucks.
Now that I am done whining, for fairness sake I should mention that I am comparing the performance of Boxee Box to that of a home media PC I built for $1200 using my years of SysAdmin experience and running on a gigabit network with enterprise-class Cisco switches, connected to a Solaris NFS server. So, perhaps, I am not being entirely realistic. Still, some of the technical issues with Boxee Box could have been fixed if the dev team was paying more attention to addressing the bugs rather than adding “features” of dubious value. In the final analysis, for the price and ease of use, Boxee Box is the best in its class and price range. You just need to be mindful of its limitations and buy it in hope of future improvements to its usability.
Update (Feb 1, 2012): As I mentioned above, the Boxee team has a dreadful habit of pushing out updates without proper testing. The latest mandatory update was a few days ago (version 220.127.116.1115) and it’s a disaster. What it lacks in stability, it makes up in poor interface design. Oh, wait… For example, the opening intro got more obnoxious, with annoying sound effects and bouncing cubes. After playing an MKV file, the sound volume resets to the maximum. Perhaps to make sure you haven’t fallen asleep. Or your neighbors. And those across the street as well, if you have a decent amp and some floor speakers. The local TV Shows interface switched to tiny episode thumbnails and no descriptions, which makes it as useful (but still slower to load) than just a simple file list. When you are done watching an episode, the next time you open the same show, you have to navigate to the season and episode you watched last. Apparently, Boxee could not be bothered remembering such nonsense. The new interface is different. It is not better, nor is it much worse than the old interface. It’s just different and, therefore, pointless. Once again, Boxee Box developers go carried away with design (but they lack a sense of aesthetics), and made improvements to functionality an afterthought.