When I spoke to Boxee CEO Avner Ronen in the run-up to the release of the Boxee TV, it was hard not to see the nascent set-top box as the best new tool for those wanting to ditch cable. It would have apps like Netflix and YouTube, sure, but it would also be a Boxee, so it'd play downloaded videos in that great, clean way Boxee always has, and then it'd have this cool new cloud DVR so it could record live TV shows and play them back on any device. That's everything! But Ronen repeatedly insisted that the Boxee TV was not a cure-all for cord-cutters. He said it was just a component, not a complete solution. I thought he was just trying to play nice with the content providers like Comcast and Viacom, feigning modesty so they wouldn't see Boxee as an enemy.
But he was kind of right. The Boxee TV isn't the one-size-fits-all solution I'd thought and hoped it would be. That doesn't make it bad, though--as a component of a larger cord-cutting scheme, I think it has a lot of merit. What does make it bad is that the thing is nowhere near ready for retail. It performs like an early alpha--as it stands, it is not usable. Boxee has done this kind of thing in the past with the Boxee Box, which was also basically broken at launch and was slowly fixed with firmware upgrades, but that doesn't make this acceptable. Boxee TV is in stores now, and in its current form, I can't recommend anyone buy it. I've been chatting with Boxee as I test the unit, and they keep telling me firmware updates are coming, but that's not enough. You can't buy a product with the hopes it'll work later--it has to work when you give someone money for it. So don't give anyone money for it, not now.
The pitch for the Boxee TV revolves around the "cloud DVR." The device, a little flat black box about the size and shape of a VHS, comes with a high-def antenna, which, if you're in a major media area (like New York, where I tested it--the others are Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Houston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.), picks up a couple dozen stations. For $10 a month (right now; it'll be $15 later), you can record an unlimited number of shows--it records on an Amazon server out in the cloud, not on a hard drive in your house, so no need to worry about storage. (It also has two tuners, so you can watch one thing while recording another, or record two things at once if you're not watching anything.) Record every Seinfeld episode! Why not? Then you can play your recordings back on pretty much any device, from anywhere. You can even watch live TV from any device, with about a 30-second delay. (It is similar thematically to Aereo, except it's actually legal, and designed to play back on your TV rather than on a computer--though it can stream on a computer, or tablet, or smartphone.)
This is totally different from what Boxee has done in the past. Boxee's only other hardware product, the Boxee Box, was in spirit a do-anything Roku: it was designed to get content you already have (or have access to) onto your TV. That's the way all other streaming set-top boxes work, whether an Apple TV or a Roku or a Western Digital or an Xbox 360. You have videos you've downloaded, or a subscription to Netflix or Hulu Plus, and these boxes play that content. They're middlemen.
Boxee TV isn't that. Sure, it has a few apps, but that's not its focus. Instead, it behaves as a service, like Netflix or Hulu Plus or Amazon, except it requires specific hardware--a small $99 box--to work.
The Boxee TV is all about the Boxee TV service. When you look at your homescreen, you see a list of what's currently playing on all your channels, plus what's coming up later in the day. It's not a guide, exactly. More like a list of icons, each one showing an individual episode. It looks okay but takes up an awful lot of space with not very much information. Live TV plays in the background; there's actually no way to get it to stop (clicking the pause button gives a message that pausing live TV is "not available...yet."). Click the right button on the remote's directional pad, and you see your recordings, which are organized by most recent and by TV show. You can choose which shows to record on the web app (my.boxee.tv), but there's no way to do it on the Boxee TV itself. Watching something new and want to record future episodes? Go get your laptop. From there, you can record either just the one airing of a program (good for movies), all new episodes (good for dramas you'll never re-watch), or all episodes (good for building up libraries of Seinfeld and The Simpsons).
In New York, after a lot of testing and rearranging, my antenna picked up 45 channels. Pretty good! But the only channels of those 45 I'd ever really watch are the broadcast networks--NBC, ABC, CBS, PBS, Fox, CW, maybe Univision if I want to see how bad my Spanish has gotten since high school. The others are all local channels, largely in languages I don't speak or sometimes even recognize. Boxee will tell you that you'll get the vast majority of the top shows on TV with those channels, even though you won't have access to basic cable channels like FX, TBS, CNN, Comedy Central, or MTV, let alone premium channels like HBO and Showtime. The idea is that you can record Parks and Recreation, Revenge, and a profanity-free and commercial-added showing of Men in Black, and then get the rest of your TV a la carte from Vudu (which works like iTunes or Amazon--TV shows cost a couple bucks each) and the rest of your movies from Netflix.
As a service, I like the idea of Boxee TV. Over-the-air HD is surprisingly high quality, and with unlimited storage, I can have Jeopardy! marathons or just set it to record all Seinfeld episodes and eventually build up a multi-season library. It's easy to schedule recordings, and when it works, video quality is excellent. Even for a TV snob like myself, there are lots and lots of shows I want to watch that air on broadcast TV. One problem: I already have a Hulu Plus subscription, and Hulu Plus has access to most of the broadcast shows I watch. Also you can't see what's scheduled to be recorded. Also there's no recommendation service, like TiVo or even Netflix.
Another problem: Boxee TV, at the moment, is one of the buggiest devices I've ever tested. The recordings section says it's in "beta." Nope. No, it's not. The cloud DVR is the complete sales pitch for this device; without recordings, this is an extremely expensive antenna with Netflix. You don't get to say "this is beta," offer it for free for a few months, and have a free pass when it doesn't work. Make it work (at least mostly work) before people buy it. You can't sell someone a car with two wheels missing and promise they'll be delivered later, then tell them they can sit inside and use the air conditioning, which works great right now. Cloud DVR is the Boxee TV. It's not a bonus feature that's allowed to not be ready.
Boxee had problems with the Boxee Box when it was first released, tons of bugs that killed its launch momentum, so I was hoping Boxee had learned its lesson and would deliver the Boxee TV all polished and pretty, but man is it ever not.
There's a weird crackling/skipping of both audio and video when I watch recorded shows on my computer. Neither the iPhone nor any Android devices can currently play back recorded shows (Boxee says Android tablets larger than 7 inches will work, but a) nobody uses those and b) it's not true, because my Google Nexus 10 doesn't work either), and the iPad version sometimes skips and ruins the audio/video sync. There's no way to pause live TV, which is extra annoying because live TV plays in the background, at full volume, when you browse. Shut up, Cash Cab. Recordings are not faithful about actually starting and ending when the show starts and ends; it's almost always five seconds before or after, and it doesn't adjust if a show is pushed back because of a football game or something. The antenna seems not great: when I watch recordings of some shows, they'll vacillate between a "no signal" error and perfect HD. What the hell? Which one is it? I even substituted a Leaf antenna, which are supposed to be amazing, to no avail (you can use any antenna you want with the Boxee TV, though it includes a decent little one.) And the playback of recordings doesn't have any kind of smart buffering system like Netflix or Hulu or Amazon, in which quality is slightly degraded in the case of a slower connection to give you smooth playback. If your connection isn't up to par (which apparently mine wasn't? It's not great, at around 10-15mbps, but it's fine for other uses), it'll just stop playing, so I'd imagine unless you have a stellar 4G LTE connection, this is pretty much a no go on smartphones. There's no automatic commercial-skipping feature, and fast-forwarding through them is really awkward: it takes awhile to load the video each time, so you have to skip a minute at a time, wait a minute for it to load, see that it's still playing a commercial, skip a minute more, and repeat. I know why that happens--it can't cache locally, so it has to restart the stream each time you skip--but that doesn't make it less annoying to use. Recordings are sometimes schizophrenic; one episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia bounced back and forth between the show and a commercial for a local legal services operation, not staying on either one for more than a few seconds, so it was totally unwatchable. Another time, I watched an episode of The Mindy Project that froze and muted so often that I gave up and thought I'd just watch something on Netflix. So I exited the episode, pressed the Netflix button on the remote, and the Boxee TV froze.
Oh, right, the Boxee TV hardware repeatedly freezes, so you have to completely restart the machine. When I say "repeatedly," I don't mean "more than once during my week of testing," I mean "when you do pretty much anything, and sometimes when you do nothing at all." Like, multiple times per half hour. That's bad for any hard drives you have attached to the USB ports, and the Boxee TV, while quicker than the Boxee Box, is still not very quick to boot up. On the plus side, there's a reset button, rather than a hole you have to press with a bent paper clip. Did Boxee know users were going to have to restart the box about every four minutes? And the hardware gets insanely hot--there's not a lot of metal on it, but the coax jack gets too hot to touch within minutes. And you're supposed to leave this thing on all the time!
Boxee tells me they're working on fixing bugs, that the cloud DVR is a very new idea and that they did all the testing they could before launch but of course there'll be problems with anything this new. But there's no way these are all new bugs, totally unknown during beta testing, and besides, lots of them have nothing to do with the cloud DVR. The thing just wasn't ready before launch, that's all. (Look at these user reviews!)
Here's one big reason the Boxee TV isn't competing with Roku or Apple TV: it has twelve apps. There's Netflix, which works exactly the way it did on the Boxee Box (which is to say, pretty well, though the interface is a bit outdated), there's Vudu, which nobody uses but is pretty nice, there's YouTube, and there's Pandora and Spotify. That's it, as far as top-tier apps go. No Hulu Plus, no Amazon, certainly no iTunes. There isn't even a convenient way to watch movie trailers. Again, there are reasons; Boxee doesn't have Hulu because Boxee has an awkward past with Hulu (though from talking to Boxee, it seems like an eventual Hulu app is not out of the question), and it doesn't have Amazon because the Boxee's major retail partner is Walmart--and Walmart owns Vudu, a direct competitor to Amazon. But just because there are reasons doesn't mean that doesn't suck for users.
Boxee TV is very much not the Boxee Box 2, even though the Boxee Box is being discontinued now that the Boxee TV is around. The Boxee TV does not have AirPlay, the futuristic and very easy way to fling any video or audio from an iPhone or iPad up to your TV. It doesn't support DLNA to stream from your network, though Boxee tells me it will, at some undetermined point in the future. It has a file browser, and it can still play back any file you can throw at it, but it no longer organizes them in that nice way the Boxee Box did. The Boxee Box snagged metadata from all your TV and movies, got cover art from IMDb, and organized them all really nicely. The Boxee TV is just a file browser; you have to remember which hard drive your video is on, then which folder, then which annoying long filename it has. The Boxee Box was great for pirates; the Boxee TV has the same featureset for pirates as a tiny, cheap Roku, except much buggier. Are you supposed to use a Boxee TV and a Boxee Box?
Oh, and the hardware's worse. It no longer has dedicated audio-out; the Boxee Box supported both RCA and optical audio, the Boxee TV has neither. The Boxee Box worked with USB hubs, so you could plug in as many USB devices as you want. The Boxee TV has two USB ports and does not support hubs. The remote control is worse in every way; it loses that fantastic QWERTY keyboard on the back, gains a specific button for Netflix and Vudu (these are basically just free advertising, and in the Boxee TV's current state, pressing the Netflix button usually caused the Boxee TV to crash), and uses a different wireless protocol that forces you to point the remote directly at the Boxee TV. And there's no universal search, which the Boxee Box had and which even Roku has now.
I genuinely have a lot of respect for this company and for the products they've made in the past; I think they have the right ideas about the future of television and I think they have the capability to make some really outstanding stuff. So I find it sort of insulting that, for the second time (out of only two hardware products in the company's history!), they'd release a product that is nowhere near ready for release. This kind of thing is acceptable in the hacker communities that spawned Boxee; you can have the ideas, and then fix the execution later. A person who has serious opinions about SMB sharing would be fine with that. But the Boxee TV is not for that person; the company's retail partner is Walmart, for God's sake, and they've taken a lot of pains to get the price down to a competitive $100.
The Boxee TV is, as Boxee's CEO told me, "for the people, by the geeks." He also told me that Boxee's goal is to pass the "babysitter test," in which a stranger in your house can pick up the remote and figure out how to use it. And, like, maybe, because the Boxee TV is certainly simplified, but the babysitter won't want to use it, because it doesn't work. I don't even want to use it, and I wrote a goddamn 5,500-word article about how great this company is.
My roommate, who is a normal guy (meaning, not a nerd like me), has recently adapted to the Boxee Box. He understands it now, and he thinks it's great. He uses it when I'm not there. He was really excited when I told him I had the new Boxee. An hour later, after we couldn't play a video over AirPlay, after live TV skipped and stuttered, after the Boxee TV had to be reset twice, after a recording had the phrase "no signal" on a grey background for 10 minutes, and after we had to scroll through folders on a hard drive to play a downloaded video, he delivered his verdict. "This sucks," he said. And went to his room.
I was very hesitant to even write this review. I never review things in beta; I prefer to wait until I can speak about the product as a consumer will actually use it. And I actually do have faith that Boxee will fix many of the problems with the Boxee TV. In six months, I'll review it again, and I wouldn't be surprised if I like it quite a bit. (I also won't be surprised if it's half the price it is now.) But this product is in stores, stacked high on endcaps in Walmarts across the land, with big bold letters on the boxes promising that you can cut thousands of dollars from your cable TV bill if you only drop a hundred bucks on this box. People will buy it. Not a lot of people, probably, but some. And that's messed up, because this product is not ready for people to buy it. The promise of the product working later isn't good enough; the Roku works now, the Apple TV works now, the Xbox 360 works now. This isn't 2003 and their potential users aren't a BBS messageboard full of Linux users. This is Walmart and this is Christmas season, and this thing is not ready.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.