D-Link's Boxee Box
When it comes to software battles, the Open Source community has its fair share. KDE vs. GNOME, vi vs. Emacs, Firefox vs. Chromium—there seems to be countless rivalries. In my house, one of the biggest rivalries is between XBMC and Boxee. This month, I take a look at Boxee, specifically the Boxee Box from D-Link.
Although Boxee itself is a software package, competing with software like XBMC, Front Row, Plex, MythTV, GeeXboX and so on, the Boxee Box is a hardware device competing directly against things like the Roku, AppleTV and GoogleTV. When compared to the other hardware options out there, it really does shine.
The most noticeable physical feature of the Boxee Box is its odd melted-ice-cube shape (Figure 1). It looks like someone took a cube and put a corner of it on a hot surface to make it melt. I'm sure it's very artsy, and I've read that it efficiently manages the cables in the rear. But for me, it annoyingly doesn't stack anywhere in my entertainment center. I know creative-yet-impractical designs work well for some companies, but I'm of the opinion that square is good. I'm often called a square, and it works for me—but I digress. It's a design choice and really doesn't affect my opinion that much.
In contrast to the Box's design, the remote control is a thing of beauty. It's like the mullet of remote controls—business on the front and party on the back. The top side has a very simplistic button design (much like an Apple remote to be honest). The flip side of the remote has a complete qwerty keyboard. It's not something you'd want to write the Great American Novel with, but it fares about as well as a cell-phone keyboard does (more on the keyboard later).
As you can see on the back of the Boxee Box in Figure 3, this unit is designed for high-definition (HD) systems. The only video output option is HDMI. Thankfully, there are both optical and analog audio outputs to go along with the HDMI audio, but if you have a television without HDMI support, you'll need to be creative with adapters and such.
The unit also has some USB ports in the back and an SD card slot on the side—or perhaps the SD card slot is on the top. With the melted-ice-cube design, it's really hard to determine what's considered up. Add to that a wall-wart power supply, and you have the contents of the Boxee Box's Box.
Because the Boxee Box is an appliance, the internal hardware isn't really as important as what it does, but we're all geeks here, so this part is interesting if nothing else. Originally, the Boxee Box was going to use the NVIDIA Tegra2 for video playback. In a last-minute switch, however, the Boxee team went with the Intel CE 4100 and a PowerVR GPU. The Boxee team is confident with its decision, and as long as it performs well, the end user really doesn't interact with the guts anyway. The Box boasts:
Atom processor, at 1.2GHz.
PowerVR SGX535 graphics processor.
1GB of RAM.
1GB NAND Flash memory.
HDMI 1.3 (audio and video).
S/PDIF optical audio.
Composite (RCA) audio.
Two USB ports.
SDHC card slot.
100Mbps Ethernet port.
Two-sided RF remote control.
The remote that comes with the Boxee Box is really a perfect addition to an entertainment device into which you occasionally need to type. Those of us who have typed on the Nintendo Wii's on-screen keyboards fully understand how frustrating it can be to “type” with nothing more than directional keys or a pointing device. Although the idea behind the two-sided remote is brilliant, it does have its flaws.
The simplicity of the top side makes for a simple browsing experience, but unfortunately, it's so simple (and symmetric), it's easy to grab upside down. When you grab the remote upside down, up becomes down, right becomes left, and because the remote uses RF instead of infrared, it doesn't matter if the remote is facing the wrong way. When you press a button, it registers. There is a raised logo on one side of the remote, but it's not really clear which end is up on the logo either, so you have to look closely to tell which is up and which is down. It's not a terrible problem, but it's annoying at times.
The keyboard is rather nice for something so small. It's not too bad to hold, and the keys give enough feedback that you can tell you're typing. The enter and arrow keys aren't in obvious positions, so you have to look when you're typing. That's not a big problem either, unless you happen to be in the dark. The keys don't have any backlight, so typing in the dark is just about impossible. Because typing isn't required for normal operation, that's not a showstopper, but I'd like to see future versions have some sort of illumination for the keyboard buttons.