Technology Tuesday: Boxee TV – Yawn

I have been a pretty vocal proponent of Boxee for several years now. Initially, I really enjoyed using the XBMC forked software on a cheap Asus EeePC. When development and support for the stand-alone PC software ended, I figured it was a good time to pick up dLink’s Boxee box which was the company’s first hardware product. The $160 or so I spent on the Boxee ranks right up there as one of the best purchases I have ever made in terms of value for the dollar and overall enjoyment. Being able to wirelessly stream all my downloaded video content, regardless of format, and pretty much anything available online to my HDTV is priceless.  Unlike many competitors in the steaming space like Roku & Apple TV, there’s not much video that Boxee can’t handle. Hundreds of apps, full web-browser, QWERTY keyboard/remote that works well and a great merger of locally owned content with online sources are but a few of the many Boxee features.

Boxee has now announced their third major product: Boxee TV. Initially I was excited about this new offering which touted unlimited DVR storage in the cloud, dual tuners and a handful of the most popular apps including Netflix. However, my elation was short lived after digesting and understanding what exactly Boxee TV is all about. Unfortunately, I will definitely NOT be buying a Boxee TV and am saddened at this new product.

What is it in a nutshell? A set top box that acts as both a DVR with unlimited storage in the cloud as well as a media streamer with apps like Netflix. The retail price of the box is $100 with a monthly subscription price of $15 for the DVR.

So what’s not to like? Unfortunately: lots. Here’s just a handful of the things that really bug me about this product:

Local Files Boxee used to pretty much be able to play back literally anything you threw at it. Format, resolution or where you downloaded it made no difference. If you had  a video file on your drive, you could likely play it with the Boxee. The new Boxee will not support most types of video files and seems that it is not actually designed to make it easy to play those files at all. I have scores of concert videos that I have accumulated from many different sources and this was the primary reason that I initially even started using Boxee. I could download mkv, avi, mp4, Blu-Ray, mpeg, DVD, flv files or any other type and know that it would play back. Not so anymore.

Limited Channels I love DVRs. I use both TiVo and Verizon’s DVR and can’t imagine not being able to “time-shift” and skip through commercials. What makes the Boxee TV limiting is that it is only over-the-air channels like NBC, CBS, Fox, PBS and others like those. I do sometimes watch those channels but most of my viewing is not from broadcast TV channels. Having unlimited storage available is nice, but in all practicality, there’s just no reason that I need “unlimited” storage for those channels. With the plummeting price of storage, I’d rather pay an additional $100 and have a 2TB storage drive built into the box. Why? Two reasons:

1. Monthly Cost Your unlimited storage does not come free with the box. Your DVR ability comes at the steep cost of $15 per month. So for the luxury of being able to toss your network shows into the cloud for the next three years, which seems a reasonable lifespan of the product, that will cost you $540 assuming the rates never go up. Now, the $100 box doesn’t seem so cheap anymore. I would have rather paid more up front and store the content locally.

2. Long Term Availability Let’s face it, you can’t really bank on Boxee staying around forever. Just as the PC software and the dLink box were abruptly and unceremoniously yanked when that model didn’t work for the company anymore, so too could the Boxee TV. Then, what happens to all your recordings in the cloud? Poof. They are gone.

Limited Apps The current Boxee has more apps than you can possibly imagine. Many of them no doubt cater to a small, niche market, but it is one of the things that makes Boxee so great. In addition to the hundreds and hundreds of official apps bringing content from virtually any online source, one could also access unofficial apps from third-party repositories. Now, with Boxee TV, you will only be able to enjoy a handful of the most popular apps including Netflix, Pandora, YouTube and Vudu. So long to all the niche apps that catered to specific interests. It is kind of like a library 86ing their entire collection but for a couple recent best sellers or only being able to use your web browser to navigate to the ten most popular websites: the rest are off limits.

Glitchy Boxee has not proven that they can release a product and then rid it of glitches and bugs. Don’t get me wrong though – as I said, I still love my Boxee box. However, it does freeze after it has been idle for a while requiring a reboot (fortunately, though, never when actually streaming). It does lose connection to my network periodically or not able to access my media folders. Again, this requires a reboot. Things don’t always work perfectly with Boxee but users were always eager for the next software update to solve these problems. Yet, this existing product which is far from perfect, is having its development cut leaving existing users stuck with no additional updates. It is tough to take a leap of faith and plunk down any additional money with Boxee knowing how slow previous updates were and their inability to make everything work flawlessly. Given that your recordings will be stored in the cloud and streamed on demand makes it that much more imperative to have a system that works well. Boxee hasn’t proven that they can do that yet and initial reports from the new product already report a sluggish, glitch-ridden interface.

No Web Browser Another major item that has been eliminated from the new Boxee is the web browser. I used this feature quite a bit and while it wasn’t great for casual web surfing, it was perfect for navigating to online content that was being streamed such as iClips concerts, YouTube live events or anything else that you wanted to watch from the web. This is a major omission and one that might have made a purchase decision a little easier for some.

Encryption Oddly, the entire spirit of the Boxee box seems to have been flipped upside down. With the existing Boxee box, you can easily play any video source of any format that you already own. You own the files – they are yours –  you play them when you want. Now, with the Boxee TV, who really owns them? When a recording is made, the files are encrypted and transcoded with some proprietary format and stored on the Boxee servers. In essence, they are no longer your files. They are Boxee’s to tell you what you can do with them.

Not future proof  The ability to record TV’s basic channels is predicated upon those channels remaining unscrambled. While that is the case now, the FCC is notoriously fickle and ever changing in what they will allow. Big Cable will do everything possible to ensure that this does not remain like this forever, rendering the Boxee TV useless.

It is not revolutionary I fail to see the excitement here or what makes it revolutionary. DVRs have been around for over a decade. Slingbox, and other solutions, do a fine job of allowing you to watch your content on different screens (another feature of Boxee TV). Widgets for Pandora and Netflix are baked into cable company set-top boxes, DVD players and practically every other electronic component I own. Unlimited storage? I have that already: It is called buying new external hard drives.

Limited Markets The Boxee TV rolls out in November, in limited markets including NYC, LA, Dallas, Atlanta, Houston, Washington DC and Philadelphia. (While I am not certain, I suspect it is because Boxee will simply record everything on all the channels they cover 24/7 in each market and they want to ramp up slowly. This way, storage on their end will be exponentially decreased.) Regardless, if you don’t live in one of the markets that Boxee will be offering DVR services, there’s no reason to buy a glorified Netflix streamer.

Bottom Line So what are we left with here? A box that will likely appeal to a gross total of nobody. TV enthusiasts will want more channels. Cable-cutters and budget conscious consumers are not going to pay $15/month to store their TV shows in the cloud. Gadget freaks and hackers will be completely turned off by the closed nature of this and the inability to play local content. End of the day, the Boxee TV doesn’t really solve any problems or add any features to most people’s existing set-up. I will continue to happily use my Boxee Box, despite the bugs, but am disappointed that over time it will become useless as there will be no additional support or updates. I really can’t fathom what Boxee was thinking with the move, and believe we are seeing the beginning of the end of a once pretty extraordinary company.

Boxee calls it “No Limits DVR”. I call it “No Thanks DVR”.

Boxee.TV $99


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2 Responses

  1. I too love my Boxee Box. Now that they are basically abandoning support for it they should open source the software so community developers can support it.

  2. Great article!

    Very, very accurate.

    Do not reward Boxee by buy this “sub-par” product.

    They have completely abandon their loyal customer, having broken so many promises about releasing updates to buggy software for the Boxee Box.

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