Media-streaming boxes are certainly plentiful on store shelves right now, but with the notable exception of Apple, very few vendors pay any attention at all to the physical design of their streaming boxes. They're generally just the cheapest small form factor box that can be procured from a Chinese factory. If you're lucky, somebody's given thought to where the USB ports should be, but even that can't be taken for granted.
Not so with D-Link's Boxee Box. It's fair to say that it doesn't look like anything we've ever seen in the media streamer space before. For something that carries such a nondescript suffix as "box", D-Link's gone all out (with help from design firm Astro Studios, which also puts together the originaldesign) with a cube-style design that's had most of one face chopped away, revealing a bright green interior. If you didn't know any better, it'd be easy to suppose that Boxee Boxes were meant to clip together in pairs. Where the design gets really quirky is that the bright green chopped away side is actually meant to be the base of the unit, hiding some of its most lurid features. As a box, you can always place it any way you'd like, but to make the most sense out of its cables and power button, green face down is the way to go. The green rubber bottom also gives it a fair amount of grip.
We really like the visual design of the Boxee Box itself, with only one obvious caveat. It's much taller than competing media streamers, and it's also an irregular shape, meaning it won't fit well within a lot of AV cabinets.
The remote control is likewise well designed while still being a little quirky. From the front, you're faced with the Boxee logo below a four-way pad with a central selector, menu button and play/pause button. So far, so regular. Flip the remote over and you'll find a full QWERTY keyboard, including cursor keys. You might think this is a recipe for accidental button presses on one side while you're using the other side, but in our experience this was pretty rare, thanks to the remote's thin design and solid construction.
It's important when talking about the Boxee Box to split the software out from the hardware. The hardware part — the Box, in essence — is a simple nettop-style device, running an Intel CE4100 Atom 1.2GHz processor with 1GB of RAM and 1GB of flash memory. The Box is just a streaming device with very limited cache, in other words. Out the back of the Box you'll find 10/100 Ethernet, HDMI, optical and RCA audio output and power connections; 802.11n Wi-Fi is also supported if you don't have Ethernet anywhere near your TV. As media-streaming boxes go, the Box itself is quite powerful with support for 1080p video, something that even the Apple TV can't manage.
Then there's the Boxee software, and this is both the genius of the Boxee Box and its biggest single sales flaw. Boxee is a free media centre application based itself on the open source XBMC media centre software. It's free to download and works across a variety of hardware types. If you want Boxee's features but don't want the box itself, the only thing stopping you doing so is a little time and patience. Boxee is constantly updated, adding new features, and also supports a robust apps-based model for accessing all types of web video. This goes well beyond the features that get added in dribs and drabs by other major players, and it's a big plus for the Boxee. Basically, if there's a video format or video-playing website out there, the Boxee Box will most likely play it, and if it doesn't, it almost certainly will soon. The notable exception to this are files with embedded Digital Rights Management, such as downloaded movies purchased from most online stores.
From an in-built applications viewpoint, Boxee will aggressively seek out video files on the local network for playback and then seek out relevant cover art and synopsis information for each file it finds. It's also possible to synchronise your social media accounts with your Boxee Box, allowing you to view videos recommended from most feeds directly on the Boxee itself. If you don't like the remote control for whatever reason, it's also possible to download free remote control applications for iOS or Android smartphones, using the touchscreen to run the full Boxee experience wirelessly.
The Boxee software will download movie posters and descriptions automatically (Credit: D-Link)
The Boxee interface, even on first install, is very slick and easy to manage. Once we'd sorted out our network connection, the Box noticed that a newer version of Boxee was available, and set to downloading it. This was slightly less refined than much of the rest of the install, with the word "CALC" displayed in plain type, followed by a countdown that froze a few times while downloading. As it counted down, it became apparent that the text should be giving us an approximate time to download, but for whatever reason, it didn't have a large enough text box, telling us instead that it would take "7 mi..." to finish.