Media-streaming boxes are certainly plentiful on store shelves right now, but with the notable exception of Apple, very few vendors pay any attention at all to the physical design of their streaming boxes. They're generally just the cheapest small form factor box that can be procured from a Chinese factory. If you're lucky, somebody's given thought to where the USB ports should be, but even that can't be taken for granted.
Not so with D-Link's Boxee Box. It's fair to say that it doesn't look like anything we've ever seen in the media streamer space before. For something that carries such a nondescript suffix as "box", D-Link's gone all out (with help from design firm Astro Studios, which also puts together the original Xbox 360 design) with a cube-style design that's had most of one face chopped away, revealing a bright green interior. If you didn't know any better, it'd be easy to suppose that Boxee Boxes were meant to clip together in pairs. Where the design gets really quirky is that the bright green chopped away side is actually meant to be the base of the unit, hiding some of its most lurid features. As a box, you can always place it any way you'd like, but to make the most sense out of its cables and power button, green face down is the way to go. The green rubber bottom also gives it a fair amount of grip.
We really like the visual design of the Boxee Box itself, with only one obvious caveat. It's much taller than competing media streamers, and it's also an irregular shape, meaning it won't fit well within a lot of AV cabinets.
The remote is dual-sided with a full QWERTY keyboard.
The remote control is likewise well designed while still being a little quirky. From the front, you're faced with the Boxee logo below a four-way pad with a central selector, menu button and play/pause button. So far, so regular. Flip the remote over and you'll find a full QWERTY keyboard, including cursor keys. You might think this is a recipe for accidental button presses on one side while you're using the other side, but in our experience this was pretty rare, thanks to the remote's thin design and solid construction.
It's important when talking about the Boxee Box to split the software out from the hardware. The hardware part — the Box, in essence — is a simple nettop-style device, running an Intel CE4100 Atom 1.2GHz processor with 1GB of RAM and 1GB of flash memory. The Box is just a streaming device with very limited cache, in other words. Out the back of the Box you'll find 10/100 Ethernet, HDMI, optical and RCA audio output and power connections; 802.11n Wi-Fi is also supported if you don't have Ethernet anywhere near your TV. As media-streaming boxes go, the Box itself is quite powerful with support for 1080p video, something that even the Apple TV can't manage.
Then there's the Boxee software, and this is both the genius of the Boxee Box and its biggest single sales flaw. Boxee is a free media centre application based itself on the open source XBMC media centre software. It's free to download and works across a variety of hardware types. If you want Boxee's features but don't want the box itself, the only thing stopping you doing so is a little time and patience. Boxee is constantly updated, adding new features, and also supports a robust apps-based model for accessing all types of web video. This goes well beyond the features that get added in dribs and drabs by other major players, and it's a big plus for the Boxee. Basically, if there's a video format or video-playing website out there, the Boxee Box will most likely play it, and if it doesn't, it almost certainly will soon. The notable exception to this are files with embedded Digital Rights Management, such as downloaded movies purchased from most online stores.
From an in-built applications viewpoint, Boxee will aggressively seek out video files on the local network for playback and then seek out relevant cover art and synopsis information for each file it finds. It's also possible to synchronise your social media accounts with your Boxee Box, allowing you to view videos recommended from most feeds directly on the Boxee itself. If you don't like the remote control for whatever reason, it's also possible to download free remote control applications for iOS or Android smartphones, using the touchscreen to run the full Boxee experience wirelessly.
The Boxee software will download movie posters and descriptions automatically (Credit: D-Link)
The Boxee interface, even on first install, is very slick and easy to manage. Once we'd sorted out our network connection, the Box noticed that a newer version of Boxee was available, and set to downloading it. This was slightly less refined than much of the rest of the install, with the word "CALC" displayed in plain type, followed by a countdown that froze a few times while downloading. As it counted down, it became apparent that the text should be giving us an approximate time to download, but for whatever reason, it didn't have a large enough text box, telling us instead that it would take "7 mi..." to finish.
Once that was done, we set up a Boxee account, which requires an email address you can verify from. This allows you to send RSS feeds of particular videos direct to your Boxee, as well as add your social-networking accounts so that the videos your friends send through can be viewed. Whether those videos are worth watching depends on the type of friends you've got — the Boxee Box can't do everything.
Once you've verified your account, the final step involves deciding on the primary way you'll use the Boxee Box. The choice is between choosing "mostly stuff from the web", "mostly my own files" or "I'm not sure", and it's possible to change this post-install; it primarily determines the way the main screen will come up at boot time.
The Boxee interface is easily one of the best on the market. The comparison with the Apple TV interface is an inevitable one, but the ability for Boxee to add applications (including web browsing) give it a boost over Apple's interface. Those of an adventurous mind should note that it is possible to hack the Apple TV to run Boxee, if you're keen.
From a local network media playback perspective, things were mostly positive with the Boxee Box. It quickly found our network shares and shared video, and grabbed synopses for the files it recognised. This included iTunes movies whose DRM the Boxee doesn't support, and there's no way to flag those files short of explicitly telling the Boxee not to index directories that contain them. It's also possible to directly navigate shared directories, but that way misses out on the ability to browse by cover art.
Long-term iTunes users are probably aware that it's not always the most accurate when it comes to picking covers and details, and this is a problem that plagues the Boxee as well. One of the family videos on our network that the Boxee Box picked up of kids in the bathtub was identified with the following description, based on Boxee's best guess from the file title:
Not quite, Boxee. Not quite.
The other noticeable chink in the Boxee Box's playback armour is that it pauses for about 10 seconds before playing back any file, irrespective of file size or codec. Compared to some cheaper players that take only a second or two to begin decoding, this is a little irritating.
The other side of the Boxee Box's offering is web video, and this is a much more mixed experience. On the plus side, it's a great way to find video on the web, with a constantly updated menu of movie and TV show choices. It's just that most of them aren't available in Australia. By default, the Boxee software shouldn't show sources blocked from your location, but we found plenty of videos that Boxee felt should be viewable that certainly weren't. In Comedy, for example, South Park was constantly at the top of the Most Popular list, but Comedy Central doesn't allow episode playback from Australian IP addresses. Again, those keen enough to sort out proxy details may be able to overcome this limitation, but they're probably more customers for a self-installed Boxee system rather than the ease of use approach of the Boxee Box.
If you're after a slick media-streaming box with a great user interface, it's easy to recommend the Boxee Box, but this does come with a few caveats. You're paying a premium for software that's free in and of itself, and if all you want is basic local network playback, there's no shortage of cheaper boxes out there. It's a great product, but it is priced at a premium level against its market competition.