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{mospagebreak toctitle=Introduction, Tour, Setup}

Boxee TV

At a Glance
Product Boxee TV [DSM-328]
Summary $99.99 Media streamer with dual OTA/clearQAM tuners & beta cloud-based DVR
Pros • Simple setup
• Dual OTA tuners
• Free three month trial for DVR feature
Cons • Limited selection of apps
• Limited video formats
• Beta DVR recording features and playback quality needs improvement
• No DLNA or network share playback support

Introduction

With the seemingly never ending price increases for cable TV services, readers are often interested in products that offer the promise of eliminating some or their entire cable bill.  The new Boxee TV (BTV), available exclusively at Walmart or at the Boxee web site, could be the right solution for some, but will fall short of being a total solution for many.

The Boxee TV is yet another $99 internet media streamer.  Like many media streamers, including the recently compared NETGEAR NeoTV and the Roku 2XS, Boxee TV has both Ethernet and wireless network connections.  BTV unique value-proposition are its dual OTA (over the air) HDTV tuners to let you view live broadcast TV or unencrypted basic cable signals provided by your cable provider. 

A new, unique feature for media streaming devices, is a cloud-based DVR that lets you record and play back some TV shows from the cloud.  However, the DVR feature is currently in beta and only in eight markets. (Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas/Ft Worth, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. )  During the roll out of the “No Limits DVR” feature, three months are included free.  After that, unlimited video storage will available for $9.95/month.  And if you have multiple Boxee TV devices, all are included in the same price.

Product tour

The Boxee TV isn’t the first Boxee hardware product.  D-Link, which manufactures the Boxee TV also produces and markets the Boxee Box (DSM-380).  As compared to the $229.99 Boxee Box, the Boxee TV is a very different product.  The image below shows you the rear panel of the Boxee TV.  The rear panel has a 10/100 Mbps Ethernet port (without link/activity indicator LEDs), two USB 2.0 ports for attaching local storage devices, HDMI output port, power jack and an antenna connector for the built-in TV tuners. 

Boxee TV Rear Panel

Boxee TV Rear Panel

There’s also an unlabeled push button.  No, that’s not a button for WPS (Wi-Fi protected setup), it’s a reset button.  Normally, you expect to access the reset switch through a pin hole with a paper clip.  By comparison, the Boxee Box has a 10/100 Mbps Ethernet port with link and activity indicators, two USB 2.0 ports, power jack, HDMI port and two audio outputs:  stereo RCA jacks; and an Optical output jack.

The rear panel of the Boxee TV has a number of triangular shaped holes for ventilation.  You also find similar ventilation holes covering the majority of the bottom of the device as well as about a third of the top of the device.  Even so, the Boxee TV feels quite warm to the touch, though Boxee assures me that it falls within CE heat standards.

The Boxee TV includes the simple non-backlit IR controller shown below. Following the trend of remotes for other recent streamers, this one has dedicated buttons to launch Netflix and Vudu.

Boxee TV Remote

Boxee TV Remote

Setup

Setup is fairly easy.  You just connect the HDMI port (cable not included) to an available HDMI input on your TV set and connect the LAN port to an available port on your router (Ethernet cable not included). My test device downloaded and applied the latest firmware upgrade.  Next, you are instructed to go to boxee.tv/setup using a web browser.  If you don’t have a Boxee account, or have an account from a Boxee Box, you need to create a new one. 

After creating and signing into your account, you enter the five digit PIN code that appears on your TV screen.  This activates your device and links it to your account.  During the account setup process, you are prompted for credit card info to pay for any premium services, such as video rentals or the DVR feature.  You have the option of skipping this step.  

After your Boxee TV is activated, you can set up your TV settings or skip the settings and start Boxee.  I attached the included telescoping antenna to the antenna jack, placed in on my desk, selected “Antenna” and let the device scan for channels to find “over the air”.  The figure below shows the local channels detected by the antenna. 

Over the air channels received at my office

Over the air channels received at my office

By moving the antenna around, I was able to receive different channels or correct the “weak signal” and image tearing found on some stations with marginal signals.  Positioning the antenna closer to the window helps, as would, probably, a better antenna.  Should I decide to keep the device, I’ll probably invest in a better antenna to at least get all of the broadcast stations.  With the antenna in one location, I was able to receive CBS and NBC, but not ABC.  In another location, I lost NBC, but picked up ABC and Fox5.


Hands On

When you start Boxee, you land on the page shown in the screenshot below.  The interface is fairly simple.  You choices are:  TV; Recordings; or Apps.  If you continue to navigate across the top of the screen, there’s also a etup “gear” icon that lets you reconfigure the settings for the Boxee TV.

Boxee TV landing page

Boxee TV landing page

TV

This menu choice lets you view live TV signals off the air or from unscrambled cable.   The available channels in the figure above are from an antenna scan.  You can scroll through the channels and click on the key in the center of the navigation rectangle to go to the channel.  You also have the option of scrolling down and seeing the schedule lineup for your available channels for the next two time slots.

On really nice feature of live TV is that you can view your available channels from anywhere on the internet by signing onto your account at my.boxee.tv.  There’s about a 30 second lag between what you see on the screen connected to the Boxee TV device and on your computer screen.  It’s like having a (very) stripped down version of Slingbox.  The image below shows you the my.boxee.tv Live interface.    A few things are important to note:

  • You can only stream over the air broadcasts.  ClearQAM digital signals from your cable provider aren’t available for viewing or recording through my.boxee.tv.
  • The video quality that you see on your computer/mobile device is dependent on the quality of the signal that your Boxee TV device is receiving over the air, and your available upstream bandwidth.
  • Not everything that you receive over the air is available to view live or record.  This is most likely related to licensing.

You can view live TV on the web via your my.boxee.tv account

You can view live TV on the web via your my.boxee.tv account

Recording

The “Unlimited DVR” recording feature on the Boxee TV is currently in beta in the eight U.S. markets noted earlier.  This greatly limits the usefulness of an already limited product. There are still some rough edges that will undoubtedly be smoothed out during the beta process, but the recording feature shows a lot of promise.

You can access your previously recorded content by selecting the center “Recordings” tab on the home screen of the Boxee TV.  You scroll across a linear presentation of your previously recorded programs.

Boxee TV Recording
Boxee TV Recording

You schedule all of your recordings via your my.boxee.tv account.   There are several ways that you can record a program.  First, you can click on TV and list of channels that you can record appears.  As with live TV, these channels are the ones that you receive over the air and that your antenna can “hear”.  It’s also a subset of all channels that you might be able to receive.  You’ll note in the screen shot below that NBC doesn’t appear.  With my antenna placement in my office I can’t receive NBC.  Below the list of channels available for recording is a horizontal scroll bar.  This allows you to scroll through only about 12 hours of the TV schedule for the current day.  To record, you merely scroll through the time line and channel list, select a show that you want to record, and click on the “REC” circle in the upper right hand corner.

You can record directly from the TV menu on my.boxee.tv
You can record directly from the TV menu on my.boxee.tv

An options screem appears that lets you choose to record a single episode, a series or just new shows.

Boxee TV recording options
Boxee TV recording options

If the program you want to record is outside of the 12 hour “live tv” window, you can click on Recordings and then fill in the name of the show in the search box.  At its current stage in the beta process, managing recordings is a bit difficult.  You can’t, for example, view upcoming recordings for the current day.  Nor can you see all of the series that you’ve previously scheduled.  The current way to see those series is to search for the show again and see if it’s scheduled.  Even when you do that, it looks like recordings aren’t scheduled too far in the future. 

In the image below, I entered in “Letterman” in the search box and the results show that I have a series scheduled.  However, even though I selected the “New Episode” option, only two new episodes are scheduled.  Other options missing that DVR users are accustomed to include the ability to “pad” the recording start/end times to accommodate live shows, or shows that start late.  A prime example of this is CBS’s Sunday evening schedule that regularly gets pushed back due to football games running beyond their scheduled time slots.  Clearly, scheduling and managing future schedules is something that needs improvement in the beta cycle.

Managing scheduled recordings is difficult

Managing scheduled recordings is difficult


Playback

Playback of recordings was a bit of a mixed bag.  During my testing, I recorded eight shows.  Most of them were recorded on CBS, which seems to have the strongest over the air signal in my office.    Of course, the caveats noted above apply.  Your recording is only as good as the signal you receive and your upstream bandwidth.  Since I’ve observed no video or audio dropouts on CBS and since my measured speed is about 34 Mbps down / 10 Mbps up, my test environment is probably not part of the problem. 

For my tests, I played back the same recordings (not at the same time) on the Boxee TV device and via my.boxee.tv web site on both my desktop computer and my iPad.  On all devices, I noted that at the start of playback, there are some video and audio dropouts as well as times that both the video and audio pause briefly.  There are also times when a section of program content is skipped completely. 

I had the best playback and fewest interruptions using my desktop.  The Boxee TV and the iPad playback experience were approximately the same.  I also noted that running the same test at different times during the day yielded either better or poorer results.  In general, however, after the first minute or two of watching a recording, video streaming stabilized and the recordings were very watchable on all three platforms.  This leads me to believe that there might be some buffering or back-end issues. 

The Boxee TV Unlimited DVR feature is still in beta, so it’s difficult to jump to too many conclusions.  Still, the DVR recording experience isn’t as good as I have with my cable-based DVR or my Tivo, and the playback experience falls short of either of those devices as well.  From a streaming perspective, I frequently stream NetFlix and Hulu to my computer, my Smart TV and other media streamers without the video/audio problems experienced with playing back Boxee TV recorded content.

Apps

Compared to the 263 apps currently included on the Boxee Box, the 12 apps included with the Boxee TV seem almost an afterthought in comparison.  The included apps are: AccuWeather; Cloudee; File Browser (for viewing content on attached USB devices); MLB.tv; Pandora; Spotify;  TED; vimeo; WSJ Journal and the three featured apps of Netflix, vudu HD and YouTube.  When you first scroll over to the Apps icon and select it, the three featured apps appear.  To get to the other nine apps, you scroll down one line.

Boxee TV Apps showing featured apps
Boxee TV Apps showing featured apps
I’ll comment briefly on a couple of the apps:

Netflix

The Netflix app is virtually identical to what you find on Netgear’s NeoTV MAX.  The first time you launch the app, you have to sign on with your Netflix account credentials.  Thereafter, the landing page lets you choose between Netflix or Netflix Just for Kids.  The search menu lets you search for Movies, TV shows or a person.   Load time for a movie that I’ve not previously viewed took about 12 seconds.  The quality was the same high quality, uninterrupted and in sync experience that I’ve come to expect from Netflix on all of my devices.

Pandora

The Pandora interface is different than what I’ve seen on other media players.  The image below shows the screen layout.  On the right side of the screen, you’ll l find the name of the station, navigation icons, track name and album name.  If you navigate to the bottom of the screen and select “Your Stations”, all of your stations appear.  You have the option of creating a new station based on an artist name, track or composer.   Thumbnails show you a short play history of recent songs.  While the interface isn’t bad, I still prefer the one found in the Netgear NeoTV.  It makes the best use of screen real estate and minimizes navigation clicks.  Audio quality, as expected, was very good and there were no dropouts.

Boxee TV Pandora Interface
Boxee TV Pandora Interface

File Browser

When you launch the File Browser app, your first choice is to select an attached USB device. Thereafter, you are presented with a folder view of your attached storage device. These are the supported files according to Boxee:

  • Supported Container Formats: AVI, MP3, MPEG2, MKV, MP4, WAV, WMV
  • Supported Video Codecs: MPEG-2, MPEG 4.2, MPEG 4.10 (H.264), VC-1

 I tested movie files and audio files and they played as expected.  The Boxee TV, unlike the Boxee Box, does not read SMB shares.  Nor does it support media playback from DLNA servers. Not all inexpensive streamers support the former, but it's unusual to find a current-generation media streamer that doesn't support DLNA

Director view listing of files on attached USB device
Directory view listing of files on attached USB device

Closing Thoughts

Let’s face it.  I’m not a “cut the cable” kind of guy, as too many of my favorite TV shows are on channels that are only accessible from cable.  But the Boxee TV is an interesting device.  It’s basically a media streaming device with dual HD OTA tuners. 

The USP (unique selling proposition) for the product is the still-in-beta DVR feature for live TV. But the key term here is “still-in-beta”.  The recording software needs to have scheduling features for recording added and the existing ones improved upon. Playback quality and buffering issues also need to be improved and availability expanded to all U.S. markets. Since none of the other video streaming devices I’ve tested or use regularly have video issues, I’m assuming that issues I experienced with playback are related to backend processing and buffering.  Hopefully these issues will be resolved as part of the beta process.

So, that leaves us with a media streamer that has the potential to be much better as it is.  As a media streamer, discounting the DVR feature, the Boxee TV really isn’t in a league with other media streamers – some at a significantly lower price.  With only a handful of media content “apps”, it’s far behind the NETGEAR NeoTV and WD TV Live and is even farther behind the Roku products or its namesake sibling, the Boxee Box. 

Even more surprising, neither Boxee product has Hulu Plus support.  Hulu Plus has a significant amount of up-to-date TV content – something that “cord cutters” would probably demand.  I suspect that it’s not a technology limitation of the Boxee TV or the Boxee Box, but rather a licensing issue.  I personally view a lot of content on Netflix, Hulu Plus, TED and from my network shares.  On that scorecard, the Boxee TV is two-for-four.

Given Boxee's past history of beta-style product development and its long battles with content providers, it's fair to question whether Boxee TV will ever become a fully developed product. The major networks continue to have a love/hate relationship with Hulu and cable operators are pushing viewers toward their own walled-gardens. So it's getting harder, not easier for potential cable-cutters to actually chop the cord that binds them. Try as it has, Boxee is still not a major player and has not amassed the pile-o-cash that is the only thing that content owners respond to. As the Magic 8 Ball says, "Outlook not so good".

I like the promise of an “Unlimited DVR”, but Boxee TV needs to improve a lot before coming out of beta.  I’ve also enjoyed OTA content in HD.  If you’re considering buying the Boxee TV, I’d hold off until it’s rolled out in more markets and comes out of beta.  And, of course, make sure that your market is supported for the BTV's DVR feature.

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