Review: Boxee Box by D-Link offers media streaming with style
At a Glance
Editors' Note: Review updated on March 28, 2011, to reflect new services and content.
The Boxee Box by D-Link ($199, as of March 28, 2011) has finally become the first-rate media streamer that should have shipped last fall. Firmware updates since its initial release have boosted its appeal, even though the Boxee Box still had trouble delivering on its ambitions when I last tested it out: I ran into glitches with streaming 1080p content, and watching video on major network sites remains either impossible or difficult (thank the networks for that). But as of this writing it's the most full-featured and user-friendly set-top box around.
You have to give the Boxee and D-Link points for appearance alone. Despite the name and the square packaging, this media-streamer/set-top box isn't the cube you might expect. Rather, it's a shiny black polyhedron--a cube with a corner lopped off, which makes for an amusingly off-kilter shape when you set it on its rubberized green bottom. It's all very Frank Gehry.
Once connected to your HDTV, however, the Boxee Box works much like other set-top boxes that stream media from your network and from the Internet to your TV. You connect the box to your HDTV using the included HDMI cable, and to your network via either 2.4GHz-band 802.11n Wi-Fi or ethernet.
Four features distinguish this streamer from the competition: an impressive range of Web video offerings, both free and paid; support for 1080p video, which remains unusual in a set-top box; a slick, videocentric user interface; and an attractive industrial design that includes, besides the box itself, a petite, candy-bar-style remote with a keyboard on one side (to facilitate data entry) and a couple of simple navigation buttons on the other.
Like the Logitech Revue with Google TV. Boxee has a built-in desktop-quality browser that supports Web-based streaming. Unfortunately, I couldn't play CBS or ABC shows at all (my attempts to do so produced messages saying that my browser wasn't supported), and NBC and Fox shows looked awful.
On the other hand, the update has generally improved the Boxee Box's overall Web performance, while addressing a number of usability problems that I experienced when the Boxee Box debuted last fall. The update also delivers the Netflix and Vudu high-def on-demand commercial services promised (but not present) in the original version.
That's good, but Hulu is still missing. More annoyingly, my first experience with the Vudu HDX 1080p streaming service (the best of three video qualities that Vudu offers) was somewhat disappointing. Things started off fine when I used a complimentary $6 credit that comes with the update to rent Never Let Me Go in HDX: Noting that this was my first attempt to stream 1080p media, the Boxee Box offered a bandwidth test to determine whether my Internet service meets HDX requirements--and my hookup (Comcast top-speed cable and HomePlug AV) passed with flying colors. (I've read that 4.5 mbps is required, and 6 to 9 mbps is optimal.)
The movie started and looked pretty good (because the Vudu stream uses compression, its image quality isn't as good as a Blu-ray Disc's, though it was a definite improvement over 720p on my 1080p set). But 10 to 15 minutes into the film, the Boxee Box froze and I had to reboot to restart the movie (which appeared under the My Rentals section in the Vudu app. This happened three times before I could finish watching the film, which doesn't exactly inspire confidence in the service. I don't recommend trying Vudu HDX with the Boxee on a Wi-Fi connection.
Boxee tries very hard--and for the most part succeeds--in eliminating the geek factor you see in many set-top boxes, mainly through its use of attractive graphics. That said, the streamer is complicated enough that it would benefit from a full-blown user manual, as opposed to the tiny setup booklet that comes bundled with the product:. It took me a while to figure out that the menu button on the remote also functions as an all-purpose exit button, too. And documentation would have helped me get familiar with the many settings (including some calibration tools not typically seen in set-top boxes).
Setup is easy, though: Once you connect the cables and power the Boxee Box on by pressing a button on the box (or thereafter by pressing the menu button on the remote), the software directs you to adjust the display to fit your TV's screen, and to create a Boxee account. That account stores your information, including your account data for services such as Netflix, Pandora, Vudu, and YouTube. You can link your account to Facebook, and then share your media choices with Facebook buddies, while viewing the videos that they choose to share.
Boxee's home screen presents a menu of six icons aligned across the top half and a horizontally scrollable selection of screenshots from featured content on the bottom (you see three screens at a time). The menu items are Friends (which shows shared Facebook videos), Watch Later (for items you've tagged while browsing content libraries), Shows (TV programs), Movies, Apps, and Files.
Both the Movies and Shows items by default check for content at sources you've set up (for example, you can point to a hard drive or network location), so at launch all you see are instructions for identifying those sources. But submenus also let you click through to commercial and Web content; (for example, you can summon up popular movies or a list of movies available from all movie sources). When you select these options, the interface shows row upon row of what appears to be packaging for DVDs, giving the page the look of a video store. The shipping Boxee populated these pages mostly with old or relatively obscure movies and shows, but the update presents as much current content as you could ask for, drawing from various commercial and Web sources.
The Apps menu item leads to a large collection of Websites and services that deliver content, including Flickr, Netflix, Pandora, Vudu, YouTube, and dozens of other sites with news and music as well as video content. Boxee calls them apps because they've been optimized for Boxee (by the content provider, by a third-party developer, or by Boxee itself). They appear as large squares with logos. Some of these services require that you create accounts on their Websites before you can access their content on Boxee; some are ad-supported.
If a video site doesn't show up as an app, you can always navigate to it using the Boxee browser (which is itself an app). Like Google TV, the Boxee browser lets you search for video content (but with Microsoft's Bing search engine) or simply enter a URL to bring up a site. The firmware update has significantly improved the built-in browser: It's faster and less crash-prone, and it can play Flash games that didn't work on the original firmware.
But the Boxee remote discourages conventional browsing because it doesn't have a mouse or touchpad: You can move the browser's cursor only by using arrow keys on the keyboard or the navigation wheel.
The Files menu item lets you browse your local area network for multimedia content; it proved exceptionally capable at finding network shares, a problematic task on some media streamers. Videos on my PCs and NAS devices streamed smoothly via the Boxee Box. Files also lets you browse and play content stored on drives attached to either of the unit's two USB ports.
Once you've navigated to one of these areas, clicking the menu screen on the remote brings up an abbreviated version of the menu bar as an overlay--without the Friends option and featured content, but with a search field for entering a keyword or URL, along with small icons for settings and for shutting down the Boxee. In the upper-right corner of the menu bar you'll see the current time and weather in your area (taken from the AccuWeather app, based on localization information you provide during setup). You can always return to the full home screen via the Home menu item.
Overall, the Boxee Box is now a great addition to a connected home, and D-Link and Boxee deserve credit for fixing many of the bugs that I encountered in the original firmware. I like the petite, two-sided remote (although a backlight would have been nice for the keyboard side), and the interface is one of the best I've seen.
For user-friendly access to a wide selection of paid and free content, both on the Web and within your own local-area network, the Boxee Box may well be the polyhedron you've been waiting for.