Boxee Box IRL
The way you watch TV is going to change, that is if it hasn't already. The Boxee Box is my best guess on how it will change.
I have to thank Santa for bringing this to me this year. Honestly I was getting tired of running the laptop out to the TV and connecting it with a mess of cables every time I wanted to watch some Online content. Boxee Box has changed that... I just hope I don't get zinged with another case of Early Adopter Fail.
The setup of the machine is dead simple, you even get an HDMI cable for the hookup and it has both a wireless ('N' even) and LAN Connection. You need to setup an account on the Boxee website and you'll be prompted for that once you startup the machine. The upshot of Boxee is that you can install the software on any machine you like, so you can run it on the same machine you have XBMC on. Not to bad, no hardware purchase required. XBMC shares some similar DNA with Boxee (Boxee is a fork of the XBMC project) but it strives to be easier to setup and use.
Once you login (and update the firmware, I heard that the software it ships with is kinda buggy) you get a simple Home screen. Your main choices of attack are Shows, Movies, Apps, and Files. I haven't delved into how useful the 'Friends' option is yet. When it comes to the Shows and Movies Boxee turns into a Screen Scraping Flash player. Which is both good and bad.
Local Network Media
Perhaps the biggest prerequisite I have with any media player that I would consider is the ability to grab media from a network. I'm happy to say that it reads a Samba mount no problem. (It does have a bit of trouble with uPnP access and SMB connections that do not require a username/password) outside of that it is pretty straight forward.
Boxee will also grab information (movie posters, synopsis, album cover art etc.) to tag your content with. I pointed it at 200 Gigs of media and it managed to ingest it and sort it all in probably 5-6 hours. If you're not expecting the metadata lookup it comes across as a bit spooky.
Picture of Artists always classes up an MP3 collection.
I'm still on the fence as to how useful Boxee Apps are. If I could boil it down to the most simple explanation I can:
They deliver video content harvested from the web from various sources wrapped in a light presentation layer.
My favorite so far has been "A Little Touch of Internet Archive". I've watched a few out of copyright gems with names like Atom Age Vampire, and King of the Zombies. You could easily spend hours and hours (and gigabytes of monthly cap) browsing and watching all the content.
While I was clicking around the menus of Boxee I came across an option to connect to a VPN. This really piqued my interest. IP blocking is a rather arbitrary way to stop people from watching certain content and as far as I know the Boxee Box is the only set-top box to support VPN (PPTP) right in the interface. Once you activate a VPN connection you'll be reminded of it in top status bar of the software.
Here is a quick case study on why your IP address matters. Here is what happens when I view what shows are available to me with a direct Canadian connection to the web:
Now when I use an American VPN:
It really boils me that so much content is restricted in Canada. I guess we are still in the infancy of web based TV so everything is up in the air and licensing in Canada is problematic.. etc.
This situation also demonstrates how good Boxee is at aggregating web content. That is, 300ish shows that are currently available to me if I browse to individual websites like ctv.ca or citytv.ca, now in Boxee they are placed conveniently in one nice looking menu. As I mentioned earlier once you select a show it pops open a web browser pointed at the online Flash player and tries to 'Fullscreen' the video. Sometimes it works, sometimes not so much. The end results (for me anyway) are worth the work of manually full-screening if necessary.
Here is a quick look at the differences between what sort of movies I can view on the Boxee. First direct Canadian connection:
Now with VPN:
What does that tell you? Well for me it screams Americans don't have access to the NFB!?!! Oh no's. They'll have to ILL Neighbours for story time at the Public Library.
Seriously though, I started with something like 800 movies available, after VPN connection it spikes to 2000 titles.
I like the Boxee box. Some day soon it will support NetFlix and Hulu. It does a great job of displaying your networked content and it screen scrapes like a champ. The physical design is pretty awesome. The box looks like it is sinking into the credenza and the remote is bad-a. It has a full QWERTY on its underside. Many will point out all the drawbacks it has but all I will say is that haters gonna hate. For 200 USD it is the best Internet connected device. The only imaginable downside is that this thing chews up bandwidth. If not careful I could easily decimate my 60 gig monthly cap. As the chart shows, 5 Gigs gobbled up in 3 days. Curse you CRTC, when will you deregulate ISPs so I can get a service provider with a sensible monthly quota!
Bye Bye Bandwidth!