In a perfect world we wouldn't need separate hardware to access the riches of the Internet on our televisions. Some newer TVs are beginning to offer exciting ways to grab Web content -- Sony has a new line of sets in the U.S. that come with Google TV built in -- but the fact is, most of us have already purchased a big screen in the last few years, and integrated Internet video functionality isn't a compelling enough reason to buy another so soon.
That means there is an opportunity for a discrete Web content platform like D-Link's new to flourish.
Released just last week at retailers across the country, the Boxee Box is a set top box for Internet content -- though, thanks to a funky, skewed design that makes it look like a cube that somehow materialized inside your shelf, it's a much more striking piece of technology than your average cable or satellite box.
The Intel Atom-powered hardware plays host to Boxee's popular media streaming software, an application that lets users easily find and watch Web-based movies and television shows. It's been running in beta form on Windows, Mac, and Linux PCs for the last year or so and has received praise for its social networking features -- it's a snap to share your favourite videos with friends and via services like Twitter and Facebook -- as well as its intuitive user interface and dependable support for just about every non-DRM audio and video file format around.
Here's how it works: plug the Boxee Box into your TV via the included HDMI cable, connect to your home network wirelessly or via Ethernet, and create a Boxee account. That's it. You'll be ready to begin watching Web content on your living room display inside five minutes.
The Boxee Box home page is a marvel of minimalism. The top third of the screen is reserved for big icons that act as gateways to TV shows, movies, and Boxee apps (more on those in a moment) while the bottom two-thirds hosts a reliably interesting selection of Boxee recommended videos. The simplicity is alluring. For example, select the "Shows" icon and you'll be provided a list of popular television programs that can be further sorted by channel and genre. You can generally find what you want with just a couple of clicks and a bit of scrolling -- assuming Boxee actually provides access to what you want to find.
Boxee's library of television isn't exhaustive, but it's not bad. With channels including CBC, Global, and Showcase, I was able to find plenty of current shows I'm interested in, ranging from Parenthood and Glee to House. However, episode selection is a little random. You can watch the last four seasons of Weeds in their entirety, but only the three most recent episodes of 30 Rock (plus a couple from the previous season). Pretty much everything I watched appeared to be in standard definition, but the Boxee Box supports 1080p HD as well. Resolution is up to content providers.
Sadly, thanks to the usual regional issues, movie selection is much less satisfying. Among the most popular movies currently available are the NFB's 1996 documentary Project Grizzly and a 2005 feature-length interview with Dan Aykroyd on UFOs. The poor variety is particularly chaffing given that American Boxee owners have access to , a repository of thousands of high-def movies, many of which are current blockbusters. Netflix is slated to join forces with Boxee in the coming months, but the selection of films available to Canadians through this service isn't quite what it is in the U.S.
On the bright side, at least we aren't teased with movies and shows that are inaccessible. The company's Canadian team actively reviews and removes items that our geography prevents us from watching.
Luckily, Boxee's custom apps help fill the void left by its meagre selection of films. There are more than a hundred apps available right now, including several that grab content from likes of the New York Times, Wired, and MLB.TV. Many of these apps capture the addictive, semi-random quality of the Internet; you begin by meandering aimlessly and end up discovering some really compelling short- and long-form media that you just won't find on television. I caught up on my music videos through , grabbed podcasts from , watched tech talks via the app, and kicked back to enjoy some faux newscasts courtesy of .
Everything is generally free of charge, though viewers are subject to the occasional ad (I watched about half a dozen Home Hardware commercials while viewing America's Funniest Videos -- a guilty pleasure). Some apps offer enhanced content at a price, like live hockey games through NHL GameCenter, but they're in a minority.
Users can also access content from their home network, a memory stick, or through Web searches via Boxee's simple Webkit browser. I didn't spend much time with these features during my brief two-day evaluation, but I liked how easy it was to find and play my daughter's ballet recitals that I'd stored on YouTube, and I appreciated that Boxee automatically gathered up missing metadata for my music.
The biggest technical issue I encountered is that video currently launches in windowed form in the browser rather than in full screen mode. I was told this will soon be changed through an automatic firmware update, and the fix can't come soon enough; moving a pointer to select a tiny "enlarge" icon using the remote's arrow keys is a drag.
On the subject of the Boxee's remote, it's a clever little RF control with a two-sided design. The "simple" side has just three buttons -- play/pause, select, and menu/back -- and a directional pad, and proved ideal for about 95 per cent of what I wanted to do. The five per cent that it didn't handle -- conducting searches for specific terms and entering data during setup -- was looked after by the other side, which sports a thumb-sized QWERTY keyboard. I loved it -- though if I had my druthers it would also have a small touch pad to make those pesky pointer movements a little easier.
The Boxee Box's suggested retail price in Canada is $239, but a D-Link rep told me he expected to see it selling closer to $199 at retailers offering holiday promotions. That's not a bad price, especially considering it's a one-time investment; no subscription is required. It doesn't quite offer a range of traditional content comprehensive enough to let it replace a cable set top box, but it's nice to have around as an extra option for living room viewing.