Editors' note: This is an abridged review of the Boxee Box, as much of its functionality, including Netflix, Vudu, and Hulu Plus, is promised in future firmware updates. We'll re-evaluate the Boxee Box by D-Link after those updates have been added (at which time the rating may change).
Boxee got a head start on the Internet TV revolution, with many users becoming familiar with the open-source media-streaming platform because it was an easy way to add functionality to their first-gen Apple TVs (albeit through an unauthorized hack). But despite that head start, the finally released Boxee Box by D-Link is already playing catch-up in a product category crowded by Apple TV, Google TV, Roku, connected Blu-ray players, and game consoles.
Though it has an attractive user interface and supports playback of almost any kind of digital media file, it currently lacks popular streaming-media services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Vudu--all of which Boxee says are coming soon. Boxee also does a decent job of trying to collate all of the free video content available online, but the information is often outdated or inaccurate. There's no doubt that the Boxee Box has potential, and the company is promising many of the updates before the end of the year, but until then, buyers should hold off until Boxee catches up with the competition.
The Boxee Box's box
The Boxee Box's exterior design is like no other home theater gadget we've seen. It's designed to look like a cube, but one of the corners is chopped off, so it gives the impression that it's sinking into your TV cabinet. Its glowing green Boxee logo and sharp, protruding edges give it a geek-chic charm that's great for those who like to show off their tech, but those same qualities will make it appear garish to those who want their tech to blend in. There's no denying that it's eye-catching (you'll get a lot of "What is that?"), but its relatively tall height (4.6 inches) and "unstackability" make it less practical for cramped home theater spaces.
The ports are located around back, including HDMI, and analog and optical digital audio outputs. (There are no analog video outputs for those with older TVs.) Two USB ports are available on the back, too, for connecting a portable hard drive full of content. There's an Ethernet port, but also built-in 802.11N Wi-Fi, so you won't need Ethernet connectivity in your living room.
The included remote feels almost as convention-breaking as the Boxee's cubelike cabinet. Though the front side is pretty standard, with a directional pad, play/pause button, and a menu button, the back has a full QWERTY keyboard, to take the tedium out of entering search phrases onscreen.
The remote design seems genius at first, but it loses a lot of its luster in real-world use. All but one of the keyboard buttons are the same size and aligned in a grid, which means critical buttons like Enter, Menu, and Delete aren't easy to see at a glance. The lettering on the keyboard buttons is also a relatively dark shade of gray, which makes it difficult to see a darkened home theater. Backlighting would be great, but glow-in-the-dark or even just white lettering would make a big difference.
The remote's symmetrical design also makes it much too easy to pick up the wrong way; its double-sided design led us to accidentally press the front-side buttons while using the keyboard. The keyboard nicely gets around the problem of text input, but the Boxee Box doesn't have a similar solution for onscreen cursor control, which is needed for navigating Web sites. Instead, you have to use the directional pad, which is imprecise and slow; a minitrackpad like that found on many cell phones would be welcome here. The remote is RF-based, instead of IR, so it doesn't need line-of-sight for operation. That's great, but it also means the Boxee Box can't be controlled by a standard universal remote, like a Harmony.
That's a lot of criticism for a remote that includes some inspired design choices, but there's enough off about it that it can sometimes feel like a chore to use. The wireless keyboard included with the Logitech Revue has a much larger footprint, but at least we can fly around Google TV with its multifaceted control scheme.