D-Link's Boxee Box
Those familiar with the Boxee software will recognize the Boxee Box's interface right away. There are a few big changes, but for the most part, it is similar to the traditional Boxee experience. I'm currently using the firmware released in mid-December 2010, which makes some significant (and welcome) changes. The big difference in functionality (apart from Wi-Fi working, which it did not for me out of the box) was a change in how the Boxee Box displays media. Figure 4 shows the dialog box that appears on boot, asking how you prefer to view media. This question is a little confusing, as it doesn't explain what difference your choice will make, but simply put, if you choose Local Media, the Boxee Box defaults to showing you media stored locally as opposed to Web content. You're still able to watch Web content, and it's not difficult to do so, but by default, Boxee points to local media.
The interface is functional, but it's not always intuitive or easy to navigate. For example, it takes a series of clicks to get back to the home screen, with no apparent shortcut to get there quickly. The menu button doubles as a back button, but it isn't labeled as such. Even with those frustrations, however, the menu system isn't difficult to figure out. I have read other reviews claiming the Boxee Box menus are sluggish, but I've noticed that only when identifying media or making significant system preference changes. Usually the remote and interface are quite responsive.
The video playback for local media is stellar. In my 5TB file server, I can't find a single file that won't play. Playback of 1080p MKV files is flawless, and even Web streams are clear and watchable. (That is likely due to my beefy Internet connection, but the Boxee renders the Web streams well, so kudos.)
Boxee, and in turn the Boxee Box, has the ability to use “applications” in order to access other on-line services. These are almost identical to the Roku's application system, if you are familiar with that. At the time of this writing, many applications exist that add value to the Boxee experience. Pandora Radio has a great interface, and many on-line sites, such as College Humor and Revision 3, have applications that will guide you through their catalogs. Netflix and Hulu are glaringly absent. By the time this goes to press, hopefully both on-line services will be available, but their absence makes the Boxee seem quite lacking, especially if you don't have an extensive library of local media.
Firmware updates certainly will improve the Boxee Box as time goes on, but the application framework is where the magic could really happen. Third-party applications turned the Roku from a Netflix-streaming device into a full-blown living-room entertainment unit. Because the Boxee does (or will do shortly) all the things the Roku can do, plus plays any local media you throw at it, it's really positioned to be the perfect set-top box.
The Boxee Box, like its software-only counterpart, Boxee, takes a different approach to media from XBMC. Where XBMC is fast, clean and elegant in its simplicity, Boxee does everything it can to immerse users into a multimedia universe. XBMC plays media, whereas Boxee is an entertainment system. Even after taking the Boxee Box through its paces, I'm not convinced one is better than the other. They're just different. At $199, the Boxee Box is an affordable way to get an extremely robust media center. Although I have XBMC on a $199 nettop device, and it runs fine, the integration of specialized hardware is hard to beat. I heartily recommend the Boxee Box for anyone considering an HD media center. Although the unit I reviewed didn't have Netflix, Hulu or even VUDU, by the time you read this, it should have access to all three, which really will make Boxee a tough box to beat when it comes to home entertainment.
My only recommendation before buying the Boxee Box is to download the Boxee software and see if you like its interface. Granted, the downloadable version is aesthetically different from the Box's interface, but it's a good way to see whether you are comfortable with the Boxee way of doing things. Some like it; some hate it. (See the Local Media, Boxee Style sidebar for a little more information.) It's free, so you can try it before you buy it. Check it out at www.boxee.tv.
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