The Boxee Box is like Apple TV blown wide open, streaming media to your TV from all corners of the net – and your computer. With performance theoretically approaching Blu-ray standards, it has the potential to be the ultimate entertainer.
Setup a snap
Getting the Boxee Box up and running is a snap thanks to the integrated Wi-Fi and a simple configuration wizard. However, unless your wireless strength is very good, you’ll find making a wired connection is preferable, both for online and network-streamed content. Wi-Fi can involve a lot of buffering and hanging, even over 802.11n.
There’s a host of useful set-up stuff in the menus, including video test patterns to align the picture correctly to the screen and fine-tune the image quality. You can adjust overscan and aspect ratio (it even allows for cinemastyle 21:9 screens), and change your audio output options to suit either a specialist AV amp or a more basic setup. It'll recognise and play just about any format of music, video and photo.
[The remote seems brilliant: the double-sided design fits neatly in the palm and features a simple clicker-based cursor/controller on one side, plus a full QWERTY keypad on the other. In practice, there are moments when you’ll be juggling between the two control interfaces – but even so, this is way better than the Apple TV's.
Boxee works like a content aggregator, bringing together the best free web content into one platform. You get plenty to choose from, but some online content suffers from patchy picture quality. There’s a proper web browser in here, complete with search engine (Bing), so you can also pull up web pages, maps and more.
Aside from online offerings or your own downloads, Boxee also gives you free movies to watch, usually from independent studios and almost always ad-supported. Picture and sound quality can be ropey, though.
You might have hoped for a slick, app-style experience with iPlayer and the like, but it doesn't work as well as it should. Your content starts playing in a mini-window, exactly as it does on your laptop: you then have to cursor over the ‘full screen’ icon (not easy) to blow up the image.
With twin USB and SD inputs, the Boxee Box isn’t just a streamer: it’s also a local media player, able to replay directly from, say, a USB hard disk. The Boxee will browse your content, pull out the playable media and arrange your viewable files in an easily accessible folder structure, with thumbnails where relevant. It’ll do the same with any NAS drive on your network, too.
That’s great for convenience and also means the Box – plus a suitable hard disk full of content – will travel well: even if you can’t go online, you’ll still have plenty to play.
All this flexibility is great, but it clearly demands a powerful processor (Intel’s Atom CE4100), and in turn that means fan-cooling, unlike Apple TV. The Boxee Box doesn’t get hot in use – unlike the last-generation Apple design – but it’s always humming to itself, whatever you’re watching. That, it must be said, can get irritating.