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    This is the Boxee Box.

     

    image

     

    No doubt you have seen it and read reviews about it.  Instead of boring you with the usual review my goal is to setup the Boxee Box and test it with Windows Home Server.  Pretty Simple.  What you will see here is a whole lot of un-professional photos of the actual screens and not a whole lot of stock photo screens.  Let’s get busy.

     

    Quick and Dirty History of Boxee Box

     

    First there was software.  You can make your own Boxee Box with free software and a free iOS app for a remote.

     

    Next came the Box.  At first it was going to be based on the NVIDIA Tegra 2 chip but it had issues with HD playback.

     

    Boxee Box hit the shelves November 10th, 2010 with the Intel Atom chipset.  Two weeks later it got it’s first update. And another, and so on.  A huge update landed January 19th.  It’s the reason for the delay of this article.

     

    An iPad app is also due out for it soon.  It will allow you to stream content to the iPad which sounds pretty cool.

     

    Here is what you get.

    • Double-sided remote control
    • HDMI out (HDCP, cable included)
    • Ethernet Port
    • 802.11n Wireless
    • 2 USB 2.0 ports
    • Optical Digital Audio (S/PDIF)
    • Composite Audio Connectors
    • AC Power Connector

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    How about some blurry un-boxing pics?

     

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    If you just glanced by the contents it does come with an HDMI cable which I thought was awesome.  I didn’t have to go digging around for one.

     

    I chose Windows Home Server for a reason.  Protect my stuff, play back my stuff.  I have tons of photos, music, movies, and videos stored on my WHS.  I’m also a media center user so I have recorded TV on the server as well.  I am more interested in playing my stuff rather than Internet content.  This article will be heavily slanted in that direction.

     

    I know you have probably seen it before but the Boxee Box will play almost anything you can throw at it.  Here is a quick rundown of the formats supported.

     

    Video Formats

     

    Boxee supports Adobe Flash 10.1, FLV/On2 VP6 (FLV/FV4/M4V), H.264 AVC (TS/AVI/MKV/MOV/M2TS/MP4),

     

    VC-1 (TS/AVI/MKV/WMV), MPEG-1 (DAT/MPG/MPEG), MPEG-2 (MPG/MPEG/VOB/TS/TP/ISO/IFO),

     

    MPEG-4 (MP4/AVI/MOV), DivX 3/4/5/6 (AVI/MKV), Xvid (AVI/MKV), and WMV9 (WMV/ASF/DVR-MS).

     

     

    Audio Formats

     

    Boxee supports MP3, WAV/PCM/LPCM, WMA, AIF/AIFF, AC3/AAC, OGG, FLAC, DTS, and Dolby Digital/Dolby True HD

     

    Image Formats

     

    Boxee supports JPEG, PNG, GIF, BMP, TIFF.

     

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    Another shot of the back panel.

     

    My initial test environment was a crappy 19”, 720p TV.  It sits by my desk and allows me to test stuff while being close to a computer and an Ethernet connection.  It’s a horrible TV actually.  Lesson 1.  The Boxee Box cannot make a bad TV look better.  While I was putting it through it’s paces the January 19th update landed.  It changed everything about the Boxee Box in my opinion.  Lesson 2.  Well, there is no lesson 2.  I just wished I would have had the update before I started.

     

    Setup

     

    Getting the Boxee Box up and running is a breeze.

     

    Boxee booted up and detected an upgrade.  Downloaded it, rebooted, installed it, Rebooted again.

     

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    It all happened fairly quick.  It will guide you through screen alignment and setup of your user account.  Yes, you have to create an account to use it.  They claim it’s because of it’s “social” abilities.  Unfortunately, you have to validate your new account via e-mail so if your at your TV doing this you have to fetch a computer.  While your at the Boxee site you can setup your social networks if you want to.

     

    image

     

    I setup Twitter and it allows me to watch video that anyone tweets about.  I guess that’s cool.  Facebook is much the same but more content rich.  Again, setup seemed easy and intuitive.  The mini keyboard on the back of the remote was super handy during the process.

     

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    Prior to it’s first update.

     

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    After the update.  Not quite as nice looking if you ask me.

     

    Startup Time

     

    Startup time was 1 Minute 7 Seconds until you can use the remote.  A few seconds more for it to load thumbs on the home screen.

     

    When do I get to watch my stuff?

     

    The interface is very easy to understand so the first thing I did was add media locations on my network.  The Boxee Box will see everything on your network that is capable of sending it video, photos, or music.

     

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    Click, add, done.  Boxee Box will then index these locations and fetch all the items.  This will take some time to do initially.  The WHS user will be able to find your media shares very easily.  In the menus of Boxee you simply go to files and it will list all the shares you previously added.  When navigating these shares you can do it by a list or by thumbnail.  If you have done anything with streaming movies to Media Center you will have cover-art on the Boxee just as you do on Media Center.  I use MyMovies to manage my DVD collection and the Boxee used the cover art perfectly.

     

    Before we start playback of media let’s go back to that January update again.  Prior to this update I was having a lot of buffering issues.  I was using an Ethernet connection and not the wireless.  Playback of Blu-Ray content was practically useless.  It buffered, played, buffered played.  I was sad for the little Boxee Box.  I was going to give it some bad marks.  Let me tell you, this last update changed everything. What an improvement on Blu-Ray rips!  I am streaming perfectly from the WHS and even have a file copy operation going on with the server along with an RDP active.  Resume time is fast and start up buffering is hardly noticeable now.

     

    The Media I consume

     

    I stream a lot of ripped DVD’s and watch media captured by a Canon HG-10 HD camera and various Canon point and shoots.  That means a lot of MTS HD files from the HD camera and AVI’s shot with the smaller ones.  I also record content with Media Center and convert it to MP4 automatically in order to make it mobile.  There are many reviews of what this box can handle and they are not hard to find.  I tried to stay away from other reviews and concentrate on what I could throw at it and what it would handle.  Here is what I found.

    Media Center

    .wtv plays fine.  Forget about fast forwarding though.  It’s not a smooth process and would often pause the playback where you couldn’t continue watching.  Also, if your media is not named in a fashion where you can tell the particular episode number of the file you want to watch it could also be frustrating to sort through.  I have heard that the Boxee will somehow scrape TV shows for meta information but I wasn’t able to figure that one out.

     

    One of my .wtv files that plays just fine on an extender and a Media Center HTPC stopped playback at the 22 minute mark everytime I tested it.

    .dvr-ms Recorded natively to dvr-ms played.  Conversion from .wtv to .dvr-ms stuttered and was not watchable.  Occasionally these high bitrate .dvr-ms file would buffer.  It seemed it would buffer more the longer you got into the movie.  The buffer period was about 2 to 3 seconds with another second of waiting for it to play.  Test file was Ice Age movie recorded in HD off of Fox.  I would call this unwatchable.  *Note* I tried to look at the bitrate in the meta tags of this file and it was reporting a VERY large bitrate.  So large that I don’t think it’s correct.  It plays fine on the XBox360 as a Media Center Extender so that leads me to believe the meta is incorrect.  These files also seemed to agitate the Boxee.  It wouldn’t play anything else with confidence after struggling with the dvr-ms.  It had to be rebooted.

    .mp4 files converted from dvr-ms played fine.  These files were easy for Boxee at around 1300kbps bitrate.

    Ripped DVD’s to video_ts folders looked fine.  If you ripped with menus you will get them on the Boxee.

     

    Blu-Ray Rip, Harry Potter 6 at 23,717kbps bitrate played great and of course looked fantastic.  Boxee does not disappoint here.

     

    Another Blu-Ray rip that was a combined 39,128kbs bitrate struggled to stream from Windows Home Server.  This could be due to network or activity on the server but I tried it several times during several different portions of the day.  Still struggled.  When the rip was copied to the external drive it had no issues.

    .avi files played but would frequently experience audio cutouts

     

    .wmv files converted AVI files from canon camera.  Starts ok, but goes into slow motion with audio cutting in and out 9800 bitrate.  Could just be my conversion causing it.

     

    Movies tab in Boxee plays nicely with my DVDdirectory.  Cover art looks good.

     

    .MTS played fine bitrate was 15528

     

    .m2ts played fine bitrate was 15628

     

    .mov from an iPhone 4 played great

     

    .3gp from a Droid Incredible did not play.  Audio did, but not video.

     

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    The higher bitrate Blu-Ray that struggled.

    Notes on playback testing:

     

    Why would I have a .wtv file converted to dvr-ms?  I use MCE Buddy and it converts files to dvr-ms first in order to then convert them to MP4.

     

    Notice I didn’t test a lot of different audio setups.

     

    Attaching a hard drive

     

    It’s pretty simple to do it.  Power it off, plug it in, reboot.  Browse files.  You can see in the photos that I tested some of my media files via the hard instead of streaming.

     

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    Any changes in file testing?  AVI still sluggish, .3gp still no video.  DVD’s were fine.  Higher bitrate Blu-Ray rip played perfectly.

     

    The remote

     

    Much has been said about the Boxee Box remote.  It is very nice.  Limited but nice.  I always seemed to pick it up the wrong way meaning, I had it upside down.  You learn it fast though since there are so few buttons!  The best part of the remote is what’s on the underside of it.  It’s a chiclet style keyboard that helps a ton during setup and will also be used for apps and web content with the Boxee.  If you have a ton of content it also makes it easy for searching.  The remote is a joy to use due to it’s simplicity.

     

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    Video Podcasts

     

    One thing I really liked about the Boxee was playing video podcasts.  I don’t need to spend a lot of time on it.  It plays them.

     

    Boxee Box is Social

     

    When you add your Facebook, Twitter account, etc. you are open to a whole new set of content.  I thought that was one cool aspect of the Boxee.  Twitter posts that referenced videos were in my friends feed and I could view them right on the Boxee.

     

    Apps

     

    If you are into online media Boxee Box has a few apps to feed your habit.  At the time of review the Netflix app was still non-existent but still promised.  Hulu as well.  I tried out the RSS feeds app and was able to add a feed and view web posts and listen to podcasts.  If the post had a media file attached like a podcast post will it automatically starts playing instead of loading the post in a browser.  It would have been really cool had there been a Play-On and an Amazon VOD app.

     

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    The Home Server Show Feed

     

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    The Wrap-Up

     

    One thing I can say about this review is it was time consuming due to my bad habit of starting to test the Boxee Box and ending up watching the content as entertainment rather than scrutinizing the Boxee’s ability.  I spent a lot of time going through old movies and getting caught up in the media instead of moving on to the next thing on my list.  I guess that is a good thing for the Boxee but it did eat up a lot of time!

     

    I didn’t break down the door here with tons of testing although this review took weeks!  I tested my content and I assume a lot of WHS and Media Center users will have similar.  If you have a file type you would like tested use the contact box on this blog and I’ll see what I can do.

     

    Is this a Media Center or HTPC replacement?  No, I don’t think so.  Is it better than the other streamers that are on the market?   I’ve read a lot about them and due to it’s balance of online and personal content I think it is but I haven't tested the others so don’t take my word for it.   I also think it could be a good compliment system to a HTPC if you like it’s features.  Why not?

     

    So really, can it replace your HTPC?  That all depends on your consumption.  If you like your live TV then forget about it.  This Boxee is not for you.  Playback of recorded TV although somewhat fussy at times does work.  Apps and online content are great with more to come from Boxee.  If you are social and into online content more than TV this is an awesome solution.  It has a good balance of playing your own content as well as online content.  I am also assuming from their last update that more updates will come and the Boxee Box will continue to improve.  It should be an easy call for you based on the bold items in this paragraph.  If it doesn’t fit you now there is a good chance it might in the future so keep an eye on it.

     

    Boxee Box Home page

     

    $199.00 at Amazon.com

     

    A forums topic has been setup for discussion of this review or if you have comments and questions.  Go here.

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    Great review Dave. Exactly what I was interested in. I'm more concerned with playback of my own content than streaming (except for the Netflix part. Netflix would be added awesome). I did have a couple of questions though. First, what format were your BR's in? ISO? Folder? Next you say this device is not likely to replace an HTPC. What about an extender (minus the TV part)? If you're using an MCE extender like a streaming box I would guess that Boxee would come out on top based on the wider format compatibility.
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    Nice review. I also have a boxee box as well as an HTPC with boxee on it. I use my movies for my dvd collection on my MSS. My problem with the boxee box is that it doesn't see the movies in my video folder. Boxee on the HTPC see them and plays them fine. Not sure what the issue is with the boxee box however. I have to manually go to the files list to play them. If you have any tips, I'd appreciate it.
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    Great review. I have a very similar set up (existing Windows Media Center connected to tuner, Windows Home Server used to back up some shows). Like you, when I try to view .dvr-ms native HD content on my Boxee box, it get a lot of buffering and stuttering. Not a good experience. You mention that you .mp4 files converted from .dvr-ms content plays well on Boxee. May I ask what app you are using to do this conversion? I've been looking at iPodifier, but have noticed that it hasn't been updated in a while. Have not found a good suggestion on the web after looking around. Thanks!
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    I liked the fact you didn't endorse the Boxee, you are right there are lots of other streamer boxes, and I am sure (due to experience) they have a better price performance. Most likely just better performance. I stream BR from a WHS and never stutter. You really get to choose one of two paths, products like Boxee that want to play mainstream, and pure enthusiast streamer boxes that are more flexible. It is a shame no one will embrace the rip and stream market and the OTT market in a single box.
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