Over the last couple of weeks I have been making an effort to really finish out my home entertainment center. This required the purchase of a few things (I’ll cover those in another series of posts), today I want to give some attention to my new home theater PC (HTPC) running the popular Boxee software.
What is Boxee
Boxee is a piece of downloadable software that runs on Linux, Windows, and Mac OSX. Boxee allows you to watch videos off your network, and gives you easy access to videos from online sources like Revision3, ABC, other video sources online. It’s designed with the use of a remote in mind and is based on the popular XBMC (XBox Media Center) project.
Boxee is very easy to use. I was able to get it installed (on Linux), was quickly able to point it at my network shares containing videos and music files. It index my videos, grabbing information about them from various online places (like TheTVDB and IMDB). It comes with some nice default installed plugins and applications, my favorite among those is the Pandora application which is quite nice. The fact that Boxee automatically downloads video information and reviews for various albums it finds is quite nice and means that a new user needs to spend no time on organizing their collection with things like NFO files and thumbnails.
Navigation through the application is nice, simple, and if you’re using a remote it is easy. When browsing movies or TV shows you can see nice thumbnails for the movie or TV show. You also can see summaries for those movies and television show episodes. They also grab reviews and ratings so you have a good idea of what you’re getting ready to watch or listen to.
The plugins are extremely nice and if you are willing to add third party application repositories, you can really fill out your Boxee experience with a large amount of content from all of the internet. Things from CBS, Revision3, Cartoon Network, even MIT’s Open Courseware. There’s lots of content here and as Boxee grows in popularity, the amount of plugins will continue to grow.
While Boxee might be based on XBMC, it pulls some of it’s best features out. For one thing if you’ve set up your video collection and have it all ready for XBMC with fanart, NFO files, and thumbnails: Boxee doesn’t use these files at all. So when Boxee starts loading up your movies it ignores the NFO file and will on many occasions find info for the wrong movie. For example, my wife purchased the current Rob Zombie remake of “Halloween” but Boxee insists on showing the poster and info for the original film from 1978, even after telling Boxee that it is the recent remake. It doesn’t use DVD order for TV shows (example, Firefly). It also completely ignores some movies (like in my case “1408”). And the recommended “naming conventions” are just about worthless.
Why on earth would you gut XBMC and take out one of it’s best features. Considering that XBMC was designed for exactly the kind of thing Boxee wants to do, to have Boxee turn off or rip out such an important piece seems like a poor decision.
Another thing that seems to be missing is XBMC’s ability to skin the interface. There are some really nice skins for XBMC (see Aeon). I guess one reason to not allow skinning is to control the UI completely and on some level I get that, but the kind of people that would use an alpha product are the kind of people that want to customize. I would personally love an Aeon like skin, it really impresses when showing off. This isn’t really a deal killer, just kind of a “nice to have” because customizing the experience is kind of nice.
In the end, Boxee offers a lot, and the fact that it’s in alpha means that one can kind of forgive some of these things that I consider drastic oversights. Hopefully the beta (due next month) will resolve some of these issues. I think as the product grows and matures it has the possibility to bring something nice to the area of HTPC software. However, if XBMC gets a nice Pandora app/plug-in, I’ll probably switch back to using that full time as I’m more familiar with it and like it’s skinning abilities.