To say the D-Link Boxee Box is the most anticipated piece of hardware since Apple's last product launch is an understatement. Boxee has a large and loyal following online. Before now, Boxee was a software firm that offered a media-centre experience for people running Mac OS, Linux and Windows. The software, which is based on Xbox Media Center -- an open-source hack, initially designed to bring media playback to the first-generation Xbox -- is socially orientated and graphically well thought out. So, that explains the excitement.
Can the hardware live up to the hype, though? Made by D-Link, it has little to do with the Boxee people, save that it's running their software. The device runs an Intel Atom processor and is, at the most basic level, like a very small, low-powered PC.
Selling for £200 at its introduction, the machine compares well to players from the likes of Popcorn Hour, but it's more expensive than Western Digital's likeable media players.
The Boxee Box is nothing if not awesome to look at. It's a cube, but one that appears to melt into your table. It's a neat design, and successfully conveys the rebellious nature of the Boxee crowd. The compact box even manages to fit an SD card reader, HDMI, Ethernet connection and a pair of USB sockets. You also get stereo audio out, plus an optical digital feed, to send audio to a separate receiver.
On the front is a Boxee logo that illuminates when the box is on, and changes colour to indicate the status of the box. Green is for 'online' and orange is for 'offline'. There's apparently a red light, too, for hard restarts. As far as aesthetics go, we're really impressed.
Out of the box, and we hit the first road block
We want to lay this out as honestly as possible here, because this is your money on the line and we take that very seriously. From the moment we tried to set up the Boxee Box on both our office wireless network and our home wired and Wi-Fi set-ups, we ran into problems.
The most noticeable are this machine's issues with wireless networks. In our home test environment, we have a pair of 802.11n routers that handle different aspects of our test network. One is for AV gear, and the other is for NAS hardware and our PCs. Both work flawlessly when connected to hardware, and we've never had any problems with wireless devices, either.
Despite that, the Boxee Box refused to see our first router. The annoyance factor of this is multiplied by the fact that the router is made by D-Link. Despite seeing the second router, it refused to connect to that wireless network.
The next job was to try our wired network, but there was no joy here, either. What's more, trying to manually enter settings left us frustrated -- the box initially accepted our input, but then seemed to completely forget the settings as soon as we pressed save. This also happened with the wireless interface, which, despite announcing it had been configured successfully, turned itself off as soon as we left the network set-up menu.
It's interesting to note the number of complaints about the wireless system on the Boxee forums, with people saying the system is either very slow or drops the connection on a regular basis.
Eventually, we managed to coax the box onto our non-D-Link router, but discovered something about the password entry that made us blind with rage.
Shocking wireless-password interface
In the normal settings, there's no way to see the wireless password as you type it. The password doesn't even appear briefly, one letter at a time, as you type. Instead, it's completely blacked out, so there's no way to tell if you're typing it right.
To compound the problem, we later discovered that the keypad on the Boxee remote works in a very counter-intuitive way. Our wireless password is formed of three capital letters, followed by a sequence of numbers and another three letters at the end. To type this, we assumed we could press the 'Caps' button, type the letters, then press the 'Alt' button to access the numbers -- which sit on the top row of the Qwerty keyboard. We later discovered this is not the case -- if you do it this way, you don't get numbers in the field, but symbols that obviously don't match your password.
We only found this out by going through a different set-up route that allowed us to view the password. This is a complete failure of user-interface design, but the only reason we were able to work out what was going wrong with our network connection.
One of the great things about Boxee is that it supports the BBC iPlayer via a plug-in app. One of the not-so-great things is that the app that handles this is a mess. At first, all looks well. You're dropped into the BBC's big-screen interface, which is ideal in that it's designed for TVs. After that, though, you get dropped into the standard iPlayer website, which means you must navigate around using the cursor. This is exceptionally clumsy and unresponsive, which is a massive shame.
One advantage of switching to the full iPlayer site is that you can access the HD stream, where available. We tested this and it looked okay, but the main problem was the frame rate, which didn't hold up especially well, with motion that was juddery. We don't think you'd want to seriously watch content like this. Standard-definition material works well, though, and is much smoother.
The other disadvantage of using the Web version of iPlayer is that you lose control over playback, so fast-forwarding, rewinding and even pausing the video becomes impossible. We appreciate the fact that Boxee has access to so many services, but we're disappointed these apps aren't a little more polished.
When we first laid our hands on the Boxee remote, we were impressed. The front surface has a few buttons for directional navigation and menu access, as well as a play/pause control.
On the back, there's a full Qwerty keyboard. This enables you to input text, which you'll end up doing plenty of if you use the search feature to find content. The keyboard itself is passable, but we found it stupidly easy to press the buttons on the front side while we were typing. We promise you, if you end up doing that in the middle of a manual IP config, you'll turn the air blue in pure rage.
As we've already mentioned, the Boxee Box is a PC in a tiny, melting case. Although the molten appearance of the case is fake, to avoid real melting, D-Link has fitted a fan. It is quite loud.
We're not talking Xbox loud or anything, but when the unit is on in a quiet room, you can hear it whining away with a high-pitched tone we found mildly irritating. Other media players we've tested have avoided fans, but a combination of high-end hardware and a small box mean D-Link had little choice. It's just a shame it couldn't fork out for a quieter fan.
Podcasts and Web video are the Boxee's strengths
Boxee is very focused on Internet content, which means you get access to an awful lot of online shows. These range from the excellent -- like content from Revision3 and the BBC, to services we've never heard of. There's plenty of interesting content to discover.
There are also catch-up video services too. These are searchable, and can be improved as time goes on. Boxee is also smart enough to know where in the world you are, and will show you relevant content for your country. Our box suggested Misfits, for example, but were we based in the US it might very well have suggested we catch up on Fringe.
Flash-enabled Web browser
One of the other neat things about Boxee is that it has a Web browser that supports flash. This means you can catch up on TV shows from the likes of ITV and Channel 4 via their websites. We tested this, and it did indeed work on an episode of I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here. The only problem was, at some point during playback, the Wi-Fi stopped working and playback ceased. After that, ITV player demanded we reload the page before we could watch any more, but doing so would restart our playback.
Look and listen
First up: the sound. There's plenty to like here. The Boxee Box can pass lossless audio and the likes of DTS and Dolby Digital to a separate amp with no problems. That's fantastic news, and it means you'll get fantastic quality out of this device as part of your home-cinema system.
Watching 720p video on the Boxee was also a pretty pleasant experience. In comparison, the image was neither as sharp, nor as natural-looking as video from our much-loved Popcorn Hour C-200. It's not bad, though, and you could certainly enjoy video on this device without feeling it's insulting your eyeballs more with each passing second.
Higher bit rate video, encoded at 1080p using x.264, looked utterly fantastic -- the increased bit rate provided a picture we couldn't really find fault with. It also compared brilliantly with the Popcorn Hour.
New firmware coming
It's common with these media players for there to be bugs and problems at the start. We're told by a D-Link representative that a new version of the firmware will be out shortly, and that it may address many of the problems we've seen here. We're hoping to hang on to the unit, and when new firmware becomes available, we'll update the unit and this review. For the time being, we urge caution when it comes to buying one of these devices. As much potential as it has, and as excited we are about it, we just don't think it's ready yet.
If you can't live without Boxee, the best way to get it on your TV is to buy a home-cinema PC. If you want a decent media player, we suggest you try one of the Popcorn Hour devices, like the A-200 or C-200. These are both excellent at media playback, and cost around the same as the D-Link Boxee Box.
Edited by Emma Bayly