In Defense Of... the Boxee Box by D-Link
There is no perfect anything. Even your most cherished things in life: your smartphone, your spouse, your choice of entertainment... all of these things can and do have downsides. You just overlook them because the good outweighs the bad. Hopefully.
Set-top media devices are a shining example of a product that, depending on its feature set, can appeal to a wide variety of consumers. For some people, a DVD or Blu Ray player with built in Netflix and Hulu capabilities are more than enough to keep them happy forever. For others, an inexpensive Home Theater PC type device that will play their local files is more desirable. Still others still are chasing after the holy grail of these types of devices: a set-top box that will play both local files and all available web content.
Unfortunately no such device exists, nor do I think we'll ever see one (at least not until a couple generations of network TV executives die off). While not blatantly doing so, the Boxee Box from D-Link appeared to be hinting at it being "the perfect device for all". As a result, a handful of very vocal customers have been quite displeased with the product, and in its current form it most certainly is not perfect. You might be seeing some harsh comments in tech forums or in the reviews section on Amazon.
If you're still on the fence though, allow me to attempt a different spin on it.
This Customer's Background
I currently have more Netflix-capable devices than I actually have disc players, and I have at least four ways to access Hulu and Hulu Plus. As far as getting internet content to my eyes, whether it be on a computer or on my TV, I'm set. The bane of my existence has been local files.
I've been attempting to archive my VHS collection of rare movies and TV shows for a good 10 years or so. And over time, file formats have come and gone, each purporting to be the next big thing in digital media but eventually are abandoned for the something else. Trouble is that once I've archived something, I've disposed of the original tape. So often times I'm stuck with some goofy format that now needs to be converted to some new format that takes 18 hours to render while using 100% of my computer's processor. Or the devices that are connected to my TV are only compatible with two or three basic types of video files and therefore my movie won't stream. The constant converting, transferring, burning, realizing that a certain player doesn't like a certain brand of disc reburning, etc. process I was going through was driving me insane.
My initial solution worked fairly well for a while. Once the Xbox 360 launched and the original Xbox was discontinued, I bought up a slew of the cheap systems and converted them to XBMC players. XBMC is a feature rich media player than runs on a number of devices. Unfortunately XBMC support for the original Xbox has been discontinued, as the software has outgrown the limitations of big black beast's original hardware.
Enter the Boxee Box
The Boxee Box is a product that I'd been looking forward to for a while as a long term solution to my problems. "Powered by XBMC!" is what the teaser site proclaimed. That was certainly appealing. And you could download a version of the Box's software for your computer to tinker with in the meantime. While it wasn't as feature rich as XBMC, the software was still in Beta, and so clearly it would only be getting better.
What we got at launch was a bit of a mess. No Netflix or Hulu... two of the most popular components that were available on the computer side of things. Also, the UI was revamped almost entirely from what we'd been tinkering with on the PC/Mac side, and in some ways not for the better. Focus had been shifted from local media management to online video, and there just wasn't any notable online content available unless you like foreign documentaries about goats with a hot chick on the cover to trick you into clicking on it. Shifting the focus of the software only highlighted the fact that the big boys weren't playing ball yet.
There are a slew of web apps currently available, most of which have little to no interest to me but can be a treasure trove of media to others. Online workout videos, plenty of tech and entertainment related podcasts, hell even adult entertainment if that's your thing. It's not mine of course but... is my wife still reading? No? Okay... there's porn here too! Yay porn! (You can block adult content, if you're a prude or have kids or just hate pretty things.)
Recently added was the VUDU app, which is Wal-Mart's video on demand service. This is a very slick app that gives you access to a ton of movies (at a price). While I can't see myself paying upwards of $5.99 to stream an 1080p HD rental, there are plenty of catalog titles available for less and there's even a daily $0.99 special.
The Actual Box
The most important distinction that needs to be made here is that this is two different products. Boxee is the software (which needs work). The Boxee Box by D-Link is a piece of hardware running that software. I have absolutely zero qualms about the box itself.
However, the included remote is both genius and a bit stupid. The back of the remote is a full QWERTY keyboard, but it's not backlit or even made with any kind of luminescent lettering. So often times you end up turning on a light somewhere when you need to use it, and that can break the zen like flow of a properly set up home theater experience.
And it comes with a HDMI cable. Holy cow a device with an included HDMI cable! I know you can get them from online retailers for cheap, but still... suck on that Apple, Sony and Microsoft!
But Does It Do What I Want?
So if you've been following along, you're like me and want something to play all your local files without any file conversion or hiccups of any kind. This is where the Boxee Box is worth its weight in gold. I have yet to find one single file out of the thousands and thousands that I've tested so far that won't play. That's. Awesome.
On the flipside, organization of my media has been somewhat of a nightmare. I can't understand how something "powered by XBMC" can ship with simple things missing like the ability to disregard articles like A, An, and The at the beginning of a title. While this "feature" has since been added via an update and now works like a dream, the fact that something as simple as that wasn't included at launch furthers the theory that the Box was taken out of the oven way too soon.
The aformentioned VUDU app further demonstrates Boxee's appearance flaws. VUDU is organized amazingly well. It's clean and fast, and gives cast and crew info for the movies listed which you can click on to take you to other available movies in the library. It's even connected to Wikipedia. THIS is what your library of local files should look like!
It sucks to be an early adopter just to end up having paid money to become a beta tester. This is essentially what happened to those of us who jumped in at the beginning. The alluded to features of the software just weren't there, and it's been a struggle ever since just to get the box to accomplish basic organizational tasks.
But unlike XBMC, which really isn't an organization per se, Boxee is a legitimate company, and as such they'll be updating the box's firmware at regular intervals. There have already been three HUGE updates, and now they're releasing smaller ones in between to address specific problems. They're clearly working on it and are passionate about getting it right, and so I can get behind that. Plus, Netflix and Hulu ARE coming...
Is it naive to think at some point this will be an amazing bit of tech? Maybe. But so far I like what I've seen, and the potential is definitely there. For my needs it's the best product currently available for less than $200, so I'm here for the long haul. Hopefully Boxee will be too.