Boxee Box by D-Link ($229.99, dlink.com)
I love the alliteration in the name Boxee Box. I also love the design. It looks like a box that’s trans-dimensionally embedded itself into the surface it's "resting" on. Or if you prefer a translation from Nerdspeak: it's like a melted cube.
It's smaller than it looks in pictures, a little smaller than one of those square tissue boxes. The remote is excellent, like a big version of the Apple TV remote, with the same amount of aesthetic polish, along with more actual polish (cause it's shiny, get it?). The rocker pad has a play button above and menu button below. If you flip it over, there's a QWERTY keyboard, roughly the size of the slide-out keyboards on many cell phones. You type with your thumbs, ideally, and the soft buttons have a satisfying click. Of the bunch, it's the best remote in this roundup. Sadly it's not backlit. In the settings menu there are test patterns, decent ones, which is unexpected and very cool.
The best way to think of the Boxee Box is as a home theater PC, with badass form factor, no noise, and an excellent bespoke interface. As such, it has a web browser, as well as other capabilities the Apple, WD and Roku boxes don't.
The built-in web browser lets you navigate sites such as ABC.com, CBS.com and the like. Sadly, only NBC.com and FOX.com actually allow you watch any of their videos. Video is highly compressed, and though technically 720p, it's barely better than SD. But hey — it's free. The idea of a web browser on a TV is definitely not new, and like all the others it's not great here either. Performance is extremely slow, and as cool as the included remote is, no thumbpad/rocker can replace the ease of a mouse.
As you search through the Boxee interface, you’ll find tons of channels of content from major providers like Comedy Central, Cartoon Network, Fox and FX, PBS, TBS and more. What you soon realize, as you click through, is these are little more than styled-up links to the company's web pages, from which you can their stream ad-supported content. This isn't a knock, as it's better implemented here than it is by Google TV. Picture quality served via these channels is all over the map. Fox stuff is soft 720p HD, but watchable. The Daily Show would be unwatchable on a screen the size of a phone (and I’m talking phone circa 2002), so forget anything bigger (like an actual television). Web access like this is a cool feature, and certainly a big part of Boxee's push into this space, but the quality is so inconsistent that I can't recommend it on this feature alone. It's more like a bonus.
Streaming content from a "real" Internet content provider, such as Netflix, the Boxee does really well. The interface is of the latest variety, with big cover art and search. Picture quality is decent, though scaling is pretty mediocre (par for the course here). Like the WD Live Hub, the Boxee will output Netflix at 1080p. Like the Samsung BD 6700 Blu-ray player, it can even output it at 1080p/24. This is a cool bonus, and on the cutting edge of Netflix implementation.
The Boxee acts a lot like the Roku, in that it has tons of apps with specialized content. VUDU goes a long way towards replacing Amazon Instant Video (or the iTunes store), but current TV selections are sorely lacking here (save for those provided by the networks via the Web). The biggest difference between the Boxee and the Roku is the addition of network streaming of audio and video. The user interface helps you find content on your network, then loads a list of what's there. It's about as easy as the Western Digital's version of the same thing. The content lists, with big artist or album art images, are the best going, even better than Apple's.
With its extensive streaming options — dubious picture quality notwithstanding — the Boxee comes closest to the dream of a device that lets you cut your cable/satellite tether. But "comes closest" is a lot like saying I'm an Olympic diver because I hit the water when I jump at a pool. It still leaves a lot to be desired. As far as how I'd use it, well, there really aren't a lot of things here that would make me give up my Apple TV. That said, there are a lot of little things I like on the Boxee, like 1080p/24 output of Netflix and the cool art-based, network music-streaming interface. Were someone looking to start from scratch, I'd say to seriously consider the Boxee. Not sure if it's worth more than twice as much as an Apple TV, but it does have a lot to offer.
Main Streaming Content Sources: Netflix, VUDU, Vimeo, YouTube, Pandora, many other "Apps" for content, SD card, USB, your computer. Hulu Plus (Boxee claims) will be available soon.
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