We´ve known Boxee for years as an Israel startup that provides a smart unification of media content from the network, initially on the Mac mini platform. During the last year or so, the company got a big push and lots of good press, having released a windows version of the software.
But the company got the biggest media buzz after announcing that will soon come out with the Boxee Box together with hardware manufacturer D-LINK. The unit not only has a unique shape and design, but its software and internals are quite a departure from other platforms such as streamers, media players, media centers or even standard physical media players (e.g., DVD and Bluray players).
The Boxee Box is, in fact, a new category and class of device - I think we can call it the first "social media streamer".
In this preview, Boxee actually discussed quite a few informal items with me, which sadly, I will have to keep to myself at this point as most will be announced within a few weeks. I think this review does reveal quite a few things, including a first real world view of the unit, albeit in a controlled environment and not "in the wild".
Design and connections
Lets start with the simple stuff - the unique design and remote. The design hints at a simple shiny black box that has melted into your multimedia shelf. Probably due to the hot Israeli weather these days... Although the pictures seem to suggest the box has the Boxee logo imprinted on it via silkscreen, in reality - the logo is actually an internal LED based light that can actually change colors based on the type of content the box is showing, and can also be dimmed during movie playback.
The skewed look means that a part of the bottom of the box is raised, and that part is yellow in color, slightly reflecting on the area below the unit, making it seem to be floating... The design is unique, with a single drawback - the irregular shape means it has to be the icing on the cake, i.e., at the very top of your equipment pile - nothing can be placed on top of the box. Note that the box itself is quite small, so this is not a serious issue.
The Boxee Box remote is also a deviation from industry standards in a few ways. First, it is really two remotes in one. The one side contains a full QWERTY keyboard, matte finished and designed so it can be held without touching the buttons on the other side. The other, shinier side is more conventional and holds arrow keys and menu keys. I did not check the remote in dark conditions, but I believe it is not luminescent. This magical trait of allowing you to quickly switch between arrow navigation and full on typing resolves many issues such as on screen keyboards (which are cumbersome at best) and long lists of contents. This trick is fast, neat and easy. The remote is comfortable to hold, slightly on the small side, but definitely more comfortable with mobile device keyboards we´ve been accustomed to of late.
Hardware wise, the remote is 2.4Ghz RF based, but it is not Blue-tooth nor does the device contain an IR receiver (you can use a standard remote IR to USB connection, though - such as the one Boxee uses on PCs). That, sadly, may preclude Logitech Harmony and Philips Pronto users from integrating the Boxee Box into their setups easily. iPhone users will be able to use the standard Boxee app to control the system.
The unit has a built-in 802.11n receiver, 100Mbps network connection and fully functional HDMI 1.3a connection. No analog video outputs nor DTV receiving options - the unit is to be used for watching network content only (or content via USB or SD slot).
Speaking of design, you can see clearly in the next picture that the fact that the remote has buttons on both sides does not cause problems when placed on flat surface - no buttons were harmed during the filming of this article...
Since pictures don´t reveal scale, we´ve included an iPhone 3GS to help show how tiny the box truly is.
Please note that this is not a production unit, which explains why there is a development status bar on most of these images.
I don´t think I need to elaborate too much on Boxee software. If you don´t have it on your media pc or computer, it´s free to try on Boxee´s website. It has endless options. You can see what your social ring is watching, list content to watch later (add to your queue), see what´s hot and review your history. Content sources are simply endless, and now with local content you can easly add your home computer, media PC and/or NAS (or even a USB drive directly connected to the unit). Once a new source is introduced (shared via SMB or DLNA - no NFS as of yet), Boxee Box starts to index it and retrieve information about each piece of content through the Internet.
Boxee Box has an uncanny ability to playback almost any type of online content that´s out there.
The huge number of sources presents a unique problem of finding content (that´s where the keyboard and social aspects of the unit really come into play). One cool feature is that the Boxee Box can let you pick and choose which online or local source you want to play a particular content piece from if that content is available from more than one source.
Boxee is aiming for its BOX to be one of the first (if not the very first) embedded units with full ADOBE FLASH 10.1 support on it. The demo I saw was impressive and focused on hardware accelerated H264 streaming of Flash content. Initial tests worked flawlessly and give me great hope that embedded Flash is going to be hugely successful (in particular given the low CPU loads I was seeing during even 1080P playback of Flash content). Interestingly, the system´s design (just as with the Mac mini and Windows version) uses Open GL to do it´s Graphical UI magic and not flash. The interface, though, is fun, animated and graphically delicious.
The implementation of Flash is augmented by the fact that the box contains a full Webkit web browser implementation. During normal operations this browser is essentially hidden behind the scenes, but it does come out to play when web content is used. That webkit browser, appears to a server to be yet another Google Chrome or Apple Safari browser showing a particular flash movie, when in fact that movie can now be scaled up to the entire screen. What does this mean? It means that websites can´t really distinguish between this type of device and a hometheater PC, there´s essentially no technical difference between the Boxee Box and any other computer out there...For example, a webpage hosting an embedded VIMEO movie, which streamers really can´t handle today (VIMEO is not as cooperative and adaptive as Youtube) worked flawlessly on the Boxee Box - you could briefly see the web page hosting the video (intended behavior on a development version), and then the full screen VIMEO video started in HD.
I just barely caught this picture of the webkit browser showing the VIMEO screen just before it went fullscreen.
VIMEO showing the actual HD video
If you compare a standard NETTOP PC (which, incidentally, costs more than the Boxee Box) it´s hard to imagine how Boxee Box will be able to decode streaming HD video using Flash. Most nettops simply don´t have the necessary horse power to handle streaming HD video properly and therefore stall and stutter constantly. The Boxee Box uses a hardware decoder and ultimately does a good job at it, with astonishingly low CPU percentages during playback. I would say that the combination of that decoder with full fledged hardware accelerated Flash 10.1 is really the killer feature on this unit. Flash support is one factor (that and poor GUI decisions...) that prevents media streamers and network media players from mainstream acceptance. Flash has been notoriously demanding with regards to the horse power required to properly stream and decode HD video - with many PCs working hard (my own laptop seems to really heat up when I do this) HD video. Since almost every single site uses either HTML5, which is not difficult to support, or Flash (except those pesky but relatively scarce sites using Silverlight) - this box comes pretty close to universal support of online content.
YouTube HD demo of Tron Legacy looks awsome.
Please keep in mind that not all content on the net is high quality. It´s easy to get distracted and start watching content from various sources. Quite a lot of content is small in resolution or bit-starved and therefore will look pretty bad when scaled up full screen on your brand spankin´ new 63" flat screen TV. So, be discriminative.
local Israeli satellite company - YES showing low res content through Walla, their online partner
It works, but even on a 37" TV it looks pretty bad
As mentioned, the focus on the local network is the main feature that differenciates Boxee Box from previous Boxee software versions. In fact, Boxee is going into a market that has started to show real promise - the Network Media Player market (streamers). Although this market has been active for the last half-decade, players like XTreamer, Popcorn hour, DVICO and HDI/Dune have really come into their own. Media center has traditionally been able to play most contents but at a premium price, requiring codecs, supporting only a few specific formats with each player and/or having hardware decoding issues in various formats. Boxee Box attempts to resolve many of these issues by standardizing what can be hardware decoded and extending the range of supported formats.
The unit has a built in jukebox that scans and indexes what content is available to us via the local network and is able to pull information and thumbnail info from the network about the content.
Identifying content is not a trivial persuit. If a file is named in a certain way, it is not always easy to identify which movie it refers to. Standard named files are usually detected by the Boxee Box, and once that happens, it is able to pull the synopsis, thumbnail and ratings from Boxee´s servers. If it can´t positively identify the file, it allows the user to start typing the movie name or presents the user with possible choices. Once enough people mark a particular file name as a certain movie, the next person using it will automatically get the movie name properly...
During tests, I saw that many code pages for subtitles were properly shown and identifyied - both intenal subtitles (MKV) and external (SRT).
There are endless video formats, but the most important ones are DIVX, M2TS and MKV and in the majority of cases these will be hardware decoded effortlessly. Defining sources for local content is a piece of cake with the remote control keyboard.
Obviously, these are still early days - hardware and software were not yet tested in real world conditions, only in the lab. However, the large memory (1GB RAM and 1GB flash) allow quite a bit of queuing and caching that allows the unit to squeeze good performance out of the network.
On a 100Mbps network, tests were conducted using a Windows 7 computer, which shared an external USB drive via SMB. During tests, we were able to stream a variety of bit rates within the specs of pretty much every content that´s out there on the net. USB connection was even more efficient and allowed even faster data rates. Too bad the unit doesn´t sport a Gigabit ethernet connection - that would have been a blast.
For comparison sake, most media streamers stall around 50Mbps (there are some weaker units that stall at 20-30Mbps) whereas the top of the streamer range struggle but can pull off 70Mbps on a 100BaseT network. I would love to see how well the final product stacks up against these once the box reaches full maturity.
This actually goes to show that the unit can go head to head on performance with the leading media streamers and is not bottlenecked by the hardware decoder. Support for various formats is likely to be not a hardware limitation in as much as licensing issues or the will of the company to support specific formats.
Due to time restraints, as well as the fact that the unit was not a final product, but a pre-production development machine, we will obviously need to see how these tests pan out in unmonitored real world testing - which is the reason why this article is "a first look" rather than a ful blown product review.
A Boxee Box connected to a development system - that logo is actually a light source
I came to the Boxee offices expecting to see an early beta product - i.e., partial support for video formats, definitely not expecting such a pretty unit to be able to go and surpass the well established hoards of the media streaming world. I also didn´t expect to see a full Flash implementation, HD video hardware decoding et al. I really fell in love with this cute little box - it is not just pretty, but it definitely does the job without breaking sweat.
At a price point of less than $200, and with DLINK´s distribution channel, I expect this unit to be a hit come holiday season. This is really the ultimate box to put right next to your TV, its eye candy design will definitely raise some questions with friends and the user experience and performance make this unit a pretty sweet deal.
Again, I´m sure I sound overly enthusiastic, but this was a controlled first look - real world testig might prove trickier and I´m sure we´ll find the usual barage of bugs and issues just like with every other box out there. But given what I have seen so far, this just might be the first social media center (or social media streamer) for the masses.