The Boxee Box: Not ready to replace a cable box (yet)
D-Link's $200 Boxee Box is an impressive bit of engineering, bringing remarkable simplicity to the complex task of moving video and music from the Web or a home computer network to the TV screen. But for the time being, it suffers from the same limitations that afflict all the entrants in the online-TV derby: It's at best an alternative to cable TV, not a substitute for it.
That's not Boxee's or D-Link's fault as much as it is the reality of this moment in time, when many TV programmers are doing their best to protect cable and satellite operators from being undermined by the Net. Major TV titles either aren't available online or, if they're made available through Hulu, they're blocked from being displayed on a TV screen. (Not that it's always possible.)
The situation is gradually changing as Hollywood figures out how to make money from online distribution without sacrificing too much revenue from pay-TV services. Boxee has announced plans to add Hulu Plus, a $8-a-month service that includes much of what's currently on the broadcast TV networks and a handful of major cable outlets. And more cable TV content may become available (for a fee) as a byproduct of the Comcast-NBC Universal merger.
In the meantime, Boxee offers an overwhelming amount of made-for-the-Internet programming, plus the limited number of titles the networks have made available through their websites. And by overwhelming, I mean overwhelming.
The D-Link box runs Boxee's software without the help of a computer -- all that's needed is a broadband connection. It can retrieve and display hundreds of different Web pages and Web-based applications that offer video, music or photos, as well as pulling audio-visual files off of devices connected to the same home network.
The Boxee home screen offers six different routes to finding something to watch. The centerpiece is the Shows menu, which includes nearly 1,000 series of TV-like programming from broadcast networks, cable TV and the Web. These can be browsed by genre, channel or popularity. Alas, the episodes are drawn mainly from TV's past, not its present lineup. Some of the most popular series on TV are available -- "NCIS," "CSI" and "Two and a Half Men," for example -- but only a few episodes at a time. Or in the case of shows such as "Survivor" and "Rescue Me," only as reruns from a much earlier season. But hey, if you like "MacGyver," Boxee offers an ample 59 episodes.
Similarly, the Movie menu offers 2,239 titles, but few of them would likely be found among the new releases at Blockbuster. Instead, they're a mix of foreign, obscure or older titles. More recent and better-known movies are available to Netflix subscribers through the Netflix Boxee application, one of 150 apps on the box; in the near future, the company plans to add a movies-on-demand app by Vudu that will make a more complete library of films available in high definition on a pay-per-view basis.
Most of the apps are for online entertainment sites, user-generated content and Web-based talk shows on tech, academic or cultural topics, with a smattering of clips from cable TV networks. (There are a dozen music apps and half a dozen for online photo services.) Two noteworthy ones enable viewers to watch live Major League Baseball and NHL games, albeit for a fee and with some league-imposed blackouts. But that's about it for sports on Boxee, aside from podcasts of highlights and sports talk shows. (Users can choose from among 6,000 different podcast feeds on Boxee's website. The ones they subscribe to are displayed by the Boxee Box through an RSS feeds app.)
The box also enables users to mark programs as favorites, putting a link to their episodes in a separate menu (it's like bookmarking Web pages in a browser). And although there's no recording function, the Boxee software lets users save links to programs for later viewing. In fact, a Boxee plug-in for browsers lets users mark videos they encounter while surfing the Web on their computer for viewing later through the Boxee Box on their TV.
In sum, the Boxee Box brings a vast amount of content to the TV set -- far more than the "over the top" offerings from Roku or TiVo. Its offerings are less recognizable than the typical cable TV lineup, but they may be no less entertaining, depending on one's interests.
Yet this cornucopia presents another problem. Unfortunately, there is no unifying program guide for the Boxee Box. (The Clicker application that's available for Boxee's software on a Mac or PC is not yet in the box.) Nor is there a preference engine that recommends videos based on what you've watched, as TiVo and Sezmi provide for TV programming, or what people with your tastes have watched, as Netflix does for movies.
Instead, Boxee uses social-networking tools to bring programs to your attention. You can set Boxee to pick up the clips posted by your Facebook friends, the people you follow on Twitter, or the Boxee users among your Gmail or Yahoo mail contacts. The problem there is that you don't add people to your e-mail contacts or Facebook friends because their tastes in video are like yours. You can also follow Boxee users directly, adding their recommendations to your personal Boxee feed. But Boxee doesn't let you judge their tastes in video either -- you can't see what shows they've previously recommended, for example.
If you already know what you like to watch online and are eager to move that programming onto your TV set, then the Boxee Box might be perfect for you -- assuming you don't already have a computer plugged into your TV. But judging by the five most popular feeds on Boxee, two of which are about Linux computer software and one is devoted to hacking, chances are good that the target market for the Boxee Box already does.
One other limitation worth noting is picture quality. For most of what's available through the Boxee Box, it's standard definition at best. Again, this isn't D-Link's or Boxee's fault; they're stuck with the choices made by their programming sources. To its credit, Boxee does a fine job expanding a website's small video window for the sake of full-screen viewing. I ran into a few hiccups, but in most cases it took just a few clicks to go full-screen.
On the plus side, setting up the box was a breeze. Granted, it took a few tries to get the box to be able to play files stored on my Macs, but that was because Macs aren't set by default to use the communications protocols that the Boxee Box relies on. Once I fixed that issue on the Macs, the box retrieved content from my home network seamlessly.
I also liked the Boxee remote control. One side is a stripped down version of a TV remote, with buttons to move up, down, left, right and back and to pause or play a video. The other side is a mini QWERTY keyboard, which comes in handy when searching for specific shows or navigating across a page to call up the full-screen version of an embedded video.
The Boxee Box will be a more compelling product once Hulu Plus and Vudu become available. At that point, it becomes (in combination with an $8-a-month Netflix streaming subscription) a more credible low-cost replacement for cable, at least for viewers who don't need ESPN or regional sports networks. And if the Justice Department requires Comcast to make Fancast Xfinity TV -- a package of cable networks delivered through the Internet to Comcast subscribers -- available to all Internet users for a fee, then Boxee users would be able to assemble a more comprehensive substitute for conventional pay TV (albeit at a price that would approach a cable subscription).
The more intriguing question, though, is whether the public's appetite for entertainment is evolving enough to make networks like ABC and USA dispensable. As Boxee makes clear, there's plenty to watch on TV, even without the networks that have defined "television." The challenge is sorting through the haystack -- a task that Boxee doesn't do enough to simplify. There's also the picture-quality issue, which online programmers will have to address if they want to compete with established networks on the big screen in the living room. Still, the longer it takes for mainstream TV programmers to make themselves available through devices like Boxee, the easier it will be for the rest of the Net to take their place.
For the record, 1:12 p.m.: An earlier version of this post said Clicker "covers only major TV shows and movies, not made-for-the-Web videos." In fact, Clicker indexes much of the made-for-the-Web content that's available through the Boxee software. Thanks to Clicker CEO Jim Lanzone for correcting me on that.
-- Jon Healey