Boxee mini review

by editor @ AppleTVHacks.net on July 3, 2008


boxee Boxee mini review

Ever wish that Apple could have done much better with the Apple TV user interface? I had high hopes for it but I have to say I was a little disappointed. The thumbnail view of videos was nice but that floating text menu is quite unsightly; it is so un-Apple-like.

Apple should have consulted with the Boxee guys first. At least these guys know a thing or two about presenting different types of media in an organized and intuitive manner.

I had a chance to talk to Andrew Kippen and Avner Ronen at Boxee last Friday via a conference call. Like many of us, they expressed their discontent with current media software and hardware; none of them were built with user’s in mind. So the Boxee team set out to build what Avner described as “the best damn media center” software available. And they made it free and open-source.

The boxee guys explained that many people are starting to see the PC as an entertainment source – especially with mainstream TV now available from sites like Hulu, ABC.com, and CBS.com. In addition, people are sharing more and more experiences online today, from photos, to videos, to status updates. Why not what we’re watching? It is so much more fun to share. So, Boxee’s open source platform was designed from the ground up to include social networking features. With these features, you can keep track of what others are watching/listening to (both local content and content from the web – YouTube, BBC, etc.) and exchange recommendations about what you like.

The goal of Boxee is to run on as many platforms possible. Currently, the software is in alpha and only runs on the Mac platform. However, the Ubuntu Linux version is very close to being released, and, of course, a Windows version is in the works. The team has also reached out to the Apple TV hacker community looking for developers to port it to OUR preferred platform. They have gone through great lengths to make the source code very easy to implement and extend (it’s very developer-friendly).

I spent the last week playing around with Boxee. I am impressed. The user interface (which I totally dig) is well laid out, with a floating menu to the left and content displayed on the right. Like many media center software, Boxee is a full-screen application, putting every bit of screen real estate to good use. It is also Apple Remote-friendly. FrontRow is no match to this social media software.

The menu layout is predictable; it includes the usual ‘movies’, ‘music’, ‘photos’ and ‘settings’. However, it also includes a “What’s New” menu option in which you can observe what music others have listened to or what movies they have watched.

When selecting an item your peers played, Boxee does one of two things. If the media was a movie, it can play a trailer of that movie, otherwise if it’s music, it attempts to connect to the Last.fm service to stream the song, or music like it, to your computer. Since it’s open source all of these options are customizable so people could easily code it to work with something like a Pandora or and IMDB for movie information.

For movies, music and photos, you have the option of either browsing through your local files or connecting to online services. For example, under photos, you can browse through pictures on your local hard drives and networked volumes. However, you can also view photos from online services like Picassa and Flickr. For movies, the online sources include blip.tv, c|net TV and many others. You can imagine what they could do once they get a deal with someone like Hulu.

To me, what sets Boxee apart from all other media center software is the extra effort developers put in to make using it very enjoyable. One example of this can be seen in the thumbnail art used to display movies. Instead of taking a still from the movie clip to display as a thumbnail, it uses the filename (and perhaps its metadata) to fetch the appropriate movie “poster” to display. Another example is the ability to display the lyrics of the currently playing song. Very nice touch.

All that being said, I do have a few issues with Boxee. I’m not going to go into the fact this is an alpha and it crashes every now and then. It is to be expected with alpha software. My first issue is that you can only browse for media on the local computer using folder hierarchy. This is very XBMC-like. There is nothing wrong with this but it would be much better if there was integration with iTunes and iPhoto. Browsing through photos using the folder method is just not practical. Secondly, Boxee sometimes displays the wrong thumbnail poster for movies. For example, on my personal file I named “November 2002″, it displays a movie poster from the movie “November”. It would be great to be able to look through choices if a poster or CD label was wrong. Another issue I have is that, once Boxee is installed, I can no longer call up FrontRow up using my Apple Remote; I find this to be a tad bit annoying.

Overall, I like Boxee a lot. I think it has a great potential of being the new standard for social media center software. The development team’s effort can almost be compared to what Google is doing with their Android platform; to have it run on as many types of hardware as possible. With a little help from enthusiasts and outside developers, it won’t be long before Boxee’s vision is realized.

You can check out Boxee at http://boxee.tv. We would love to see this software running on the Apple TV soon. So start coding!

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  • http://xbmc.org Boxee newbie, XBMC oldie

    Hope some hacker out ther make Boxee run natively on the AppleTV soon.

    You did know that Boxee is “XBMC-like” because it is based on the XBMC source code, right? So technically speaking they did not design Boxee from the ground up, they took XBMC then added a very advanced social network layer on top of it, some additonal features and a new layout theme.

    Boxee already support IMDb poster downloads (just like XBMC), and folder hierarchy is not the only way to browse browse for media on the local computer in it, Boxee will scan all your media into a database which you then can filter and search in many different ways, it is very similar to iTunes that way.

    As for it choosing the movie “November” for a file called “November 2002″, well if you go to the website http://www.imdb.com and search for “November 2002″ then you will understand why it does not pick the right one by itself, you can however go in and change any specific movie after the initial scan to do a manual loopup and then you get to pick which exact movie you mean yourself.

    You can of course disable Boxee taking over FrontRow in the Boxee settings.

    In any case, as Boxee is just alpha and not beta you should expect bugs and issues.

  • Steve K.

    While Boxee may work well, and does have it’s own sense of design, it doesn’t in the least resemble anything Apple would do. Just look at it. Probably one of the most un-Apple-like looking screens I have ever seen.

  • tim C

    i agree that the interface doesn’t blow me away either, but the lack of features in the current apple tv platform would be enough to make me at least try boxee.

    hopefully there will be something i can download and try for myself soon….

    -tim

  • tropic10

    You can always try Plex which is the other XBMC fork. It’s available now at http://www.osxbmc.com. It lacks Boxee’s social networking features but the dev team is making rapid progress and the end result is very impressive.

  • http://xbmc.org Peter Pann

    PLEX only supports Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard), while XBMC and Boxee supports Mac OS X 10.4 (Tiger) as well, which is a requirement to get it working on an AppleTV.

    Add that to the fact that PLEX developers said that they will never port or support PLEX on an AppleTV, however the XBMC and Boxee developers have said that they want to see XBMC and Boxee on as many platforms as possible.

  • John

    Nice but major memory leaks. Used it for 10 min, quit and had to reboot an hour later.

    Alpha for sure but lots of potential.

  • Samuel

    I personally hate those programs that must have iTunes integration. I prefer folder hierarchy, since this way it ensures all my media is not tied to one platform (iTunes, iPhoto, all on mac) – nothing wrong with mac, I have a macbook pro and two mac minis, however I dont like to have my files and programs tied down, always good to be able to switch. It would be great if in addition it could get iTunes, iPhoto, etc… but never replace the folder hierarchy.

  • Mary

    Boxee already support IMDb poster downloads (just like XBMC), and folder hierarchy is not the only way to browse browse for media on the local computer in it, Boxee will scan all your media into a database which you then can filter and search in many different ways, it is very similar to iTunes that way.

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