Feature Tour - Video
A tougher nut to crack than music is video. There are a lot of video formats and codecs out there, so it's hard to get one system to handle them all. But this is where boxee has an advantage over other network media players. Since boxee uses software decoding, it handles a much broader set of supported formats than a hardware-based system.
The downside, of course, is that it requires a relatively powerful CPU to do the heavy lifting. I again won't list all the formats supported here (see Wikipedia for the list). But suffice it to say, the list is extensive and even includes the ability to play back ripped DVDs with navigation menus intact.
In short, boxee was able to play everything I threw at it; and my video collection includes a lot of formats and encodings. Figure 8 shows a video selection screen where my movies are being browsed.
Figure 8: Movie Selection
Much like the music menus, all of the metadata was automatically associated and added, which was a real nice feature. But once again, after the initial database build was done, there were a lot of errors. I have a number of movies with identical names such as Hitchcock's two different versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much. In these cases, boxee gave both the same metadata and I had to sort it out later. (I'll note that I had a couple of crashes when sorting out duplicates, however.)
There were also cases where a corrupt image or a foreign-language movie poster was selected instead of an English version, and this wasn't correctable. And like music, if a movie can't be identified, it won't show up at all. Since I have hundreds of movies in my library, it wasn't obvious when something was missing.
The metadata for movies (Figure 9) is from the IMDB so it's quite good. But I have to wonder about boxee potentially violating the IMDB terms-of-service, since it is a commercial entity.
Figure 9: Movie metadata
Since there was a ton of metadata associated with the movies, I had hoped that I could search for movies via actor, director, genre, year, rating, etc. But as of now, searching is very crude. The only way to find a movie is by name or the date it was added to the library(?!). With my large collection, this was really inadequate and made finding a particular movie difficult.
For television, boxee uses TheTVDB for metadata. When I brought up my menu of TV shows, it was nice to see that boxee had added images and descriptions to some of my obscure British documentaries. But once again, anything that didn't have metadata available didn't show up at all, which essentially cut my collection in half.
You might wonder if boxee can handle HD video. It can, but since all decoding is done in software, it really depends on the power of your CPU. Figure 10 shows playback of my 720p recording of last year's Final Four.
Figure 10: HD Playback
My 2 GHz Core Duo MacBook Pro played it back, but both CPUs were typically running at over 70% utilization. I would also see an occasional stutter as the data streamed over my 802.11g wireless network. Also note that If you want to fast-forward or reverse while playing video, you might want to wait for another release. These features were only barely usable with jumps, stuttering, pauses, etc.
As with other content types, "social networking" menus are available for recommending and rating video.
boxee has a long list of supported sites for streaming video from the Internet. Figure 11 shows the selection menu for Internet video.
Figure 11: Internet Video
Of particular note is the support for Netflix' "Watch Now" feature that is gaining support on numerous hardware platforms including the Roku Digital Video Player, Blu-ray players from LG and Samsung, Xbox 360 and TiVo's HD DVR.
I don't have a Netflix account so couldn't try out that option. But I did watch a full-length movie from the Hulu server. It played, but it was a bit laggy and the quality wasn't the greatest. But Internet video is an area to keep an eye on. It's a pretty safe bet that it will eventually take over from plastic discs. But we ain't there yet!
Pictures and more
If you want to view your digital photos on your TV, boxee has it covered. For locally-stored pictures, you'll need to use the Browse feature to find a directory of pictures and then boxee will cycle through them in a slideshow.
Display options are available for several different parameters such as display time, pan/zoom effects, etc. There is also support for several online picture web repositories. Figure 12 shows a collection of my pictures from Picasa, which has a more attractive interface than the local picture viewer.
Figure 12: Picasa support
The Internet menu also shows support for flickr, The Big Picture and oddly enough, iPhoto, which is actually your local iPhoto directory structure.
Features I'll mention but not cover are a Weather App which will show your current conditions, Download which is designed to do Torrent downloads (but it didn't work for me), Screensaver options, and the ability to Skin the interface to make it look the way you want.