Although I have been using Boxee for quite a while both as a user and developing apps the closest I have come to seeing a Boxee Box was holding a prototype in my hands, and it wasn't even switched on. So it was a great opportunity to take up PR agency 33 Digital's open invitation to go see one in operation in their offices in London. They are representing Dlink, the hardware manufacturer for the Boxee Box on the social media scene and run the @dlink_boxee_box Twitter account. It was a great chance to have a play with this innovative bit of hardware and explore what it can do.
Before looking at the software (which is slightly different from the desktop version) the first striking feature is the hardware. Calling it a “box” does not do justice to its unusual design. It is a box offset at an angle that it is floating out the table. This is a design that bravely leaves the established conventions of set top box design behind it, an unusual shape that would no doubt be a talking point as a living room feature.
It highlights the old fashioned nature of the term “set top box”, an idea that came from the days of bulky television sets that you could actually balance a box on top of. You can't do that with a modern television and yet many designs still follow the idea of being a small set top box or trying to be the size of a 1980s HiFi separate. In some ways the design of this box strikes me as being as significant as the design of Apple's original iMac when they challenged the world to stop thinking of a computer as an anonymous beige box and instead an aspirational object.
The innovation continues with the clever remote, on one side a simple remote with directional keys, an OK button and (a perhaps not so obvious) back button. On the other side a full QWERTY keyboard that allows you to enter what you want to search for quickly and easily with the pain of using an onscreen keyboard with a remote. When using it I found I could feel the keys on the reverse of the remote, but didn't accidentally press them when using the remote normally. The remote is an RF remote, not an infra red remote too, meaning you don't have to worry about pointing it at the box, but that might be a hard habit to break! Hopefully the remote will be separately available soon and someone will be able to write an LIRC driver for it for those of us with home-brew boxes.
The version of Boxee on the unit is actually one version on from the desktop version available today. This version has some quite significant changes to the way it works and its user interface. I wish this version was available for download to desktops as it would make the job of developers creating apps much easier! For example I wrote an app called “Your MP” which needed some changes to make it work with the Box. The Boxee folk were very helpful, but if I had the same version of the software to hand it would have been a much easier process.
After the cool looking boot screen has gone the new simplified home screen is loaded. I quite liked this as it felt slightly cluttered than the current desktop version, but I wonder if I would miss having things like the very useful Queue (containing the videos I've sent to Boxee through the “Watch Later” bookmarklet on the browser) and the Twitter and Facebook powered feed on the home screen? On the other hand it might make using Boxee a more friendly experience to those new to the platform.
Other changes include enhancements to the Boxee Browser so you watch video content from the web even if it is not available in a Boxee app or on a big screen format web site. I noticed that the remote could emulate a mouse so you could use traditional web pages. Although this is not ideal it is a very handy feature while website owners bring out versions of the sites adapted for the big screen. It will also come in handy if HTML5 becomes the preferred technology to power TV apps. The browser also has a wonderful search function where you can input a term and it comes back with a list of videos related to that term. I tested it with the words “Girls Aloud” and it instantly came back with links to several music videos and clips (so I was happy). Great for those moments when you return after a night out or are entertaining and you are showing off the idea of Internet TV to your friends.
My colleague Matt Rawlinson asked about playing local files. The unit does not have hard disc storage of its own so you would have to plug in an SD card, or connect it to an external hard disc. It will also find content on your local network too. It looks like the software doesn't yet have a feature to make playlists of local content which would be very handy. It would be great too to see a version maybe with an internal hard disc in future making it possible to store video and audio on the little unit without needing anything else. In Europe another couple of features that would be amazing would be a Lovefilm app and support for Spotify. It would be great to have these two services available on this platform.
The Boxee Box is currently retailing at £189.99 in the UK, making it a difficult choice for Boxee fans. This is a great little box that is nice to use and will make a great feature in the living room and simplifies many aspects of accessing video on the Internet. Enthusiasts might be tempted to buy a cheap Linux nettop instead for about the same money and install Boxee themselves. The price is even concerning Boxee themselves with CEO Avner Ronan reportedly looking at options for bringing it down. It will be interesting to see how this little box does.
Photo of the Boxee Box courtesy of dlink_boxee_box. Thanks to them for hosting us and demonstrating the Boxee Box.