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Boxee Beta is cleaner, better, still closed

Media-viewing app gets new interface in beta version, but you can't get it yet. The beta will open to all around the time of the Consumer Electronics Show.

On Monday, the media-viewing app Boxee is going into a closed, private beta test. This app has been in private alpha testing for about a year and a half, and has won praise while generating some frustration among its test users. At first, for example, it was a great interface to the Hulu service, but Hulu made its content unavailable to Boxee users (there's a less-elegant workaround baked into the current product). AppleTV users who hacked the app into their system have also hit speed bumps--the app won't work on the newest updates of the AppleTV product.

Boxee soldiers on, gaining fans and adding content from other sources. I recently covered the Boxee version of Clicker, for example, which shows us how the Boxee platform might some day do a credible job of replacing users' TiVos or cable boxes.

The Boxee experience is improving, too. Monday's new beta has a completely redone interface that is far superior to the alpha's. The idea of the slide-out toolbar menus, an anachronistic throwback to Windows and Mac desktop operating systems, is thankfully gone, replaced by a more visible and consistent interface.

The app also gets new features. If you tell Boxee your Facebook and Twitter IDs, it will scan your friends' posts continuously, and tell you what they're talking about in a new "recommended" column on the Boxee home screen.

The home screen also shows your queue, which can include content that pops up based on shows you're subscribed to. It also has a "featured" column that Boxee can use to promote new content, included paid placements--a new revenue stream for the company.

Boxee can also now search the entire Netflix online inventory. Previously, you could view your online Netflix shows and see a smattering of new ones. Now you can see and stream everything, assuming you're a paying user.

There are also new content partners: The Escapist (which makes the Zero Punctuation video), and SuicideGirls. (I wasn't aware until I got the beta demo that Boxee supports adult content; the NSFW feeds don't appear until you disable the parental controls.)

The new Boxee begins to address my biggest gripe about the system, which is that it can be hard to find content from the multitudinous streams that feed into the platform. A new TV menu combines content from the user's hard drive as well as subscription and streaming sources, and it has a useful search feature. There's also an improved table of contents for shows. But Boxee still doesn't have a global search to find everything it can play, so in some cases you need to know which "application" (Boxee content stream) has a show you want to watch. Boxee VP Andrew Kippen did tell me it's an ongoing goal to improve the search process on the platform.

Kippen says the company recommends the Mac Mini as the best platform for the app at the moment. There are also OS X and Linux versions, and a Windows port, but it's for 32-bit installations only. The Linux port will be used in the dedicated Boxee hardware, details of which are being announced shortly. In the meantime, Roku has a somewhat competitive hardware-based product now shipping, and it has the additional benefit of offering access to a user's Amazon streaming-video account, which Boxee doesn't do.

Boxee is still closed to most new users. Everyone, even existing alpha users, has to sign up for the beta lottery to try it out. The beta will open to all around the Consumer Electronics Show time frame, in January.

New Boxee home screen Boxee

The new show browser searches both locally stored and streamed content. Boxee

A new control menu can pop up above any playing video. Boxee