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Preview: Boxee social media center for Windows

Written by Rich Fiscus (Google+) @ 27 Feb 2009 18:30

Preview: Boxee social media center for Windows The last few years have seen an explosion in streaming video. You can catch that TV show you missed last night, find episodes of your favorite 20 year old sitcom, or just watch amateur video on YouTube.
As the popularity and availability of video increases, so does the demand to watch it on a TV instead of just a computer monitor. If you have a media center PC you may already be watching onine video this way.

On the whole, though, the experience is unsatisfying. Web browsers aren't particularly well suited to making the leap from computer to TV. Perhaps worst of all, you may have to put down your remote and control things with a mouse.

Then along comes a new media center application called Boxee. Boxee is specifically designed to solve that problem.

Boxee is already available for Linux, Intel Macs, and can even be installed on Apple TV with a hack. Now they're working on a version for Windows. The folks at Boxee were kind enough to supply me with a copy of the latest Windows alpha to try out.

As you would expect from software that hasn't even gotten to beta testing, it's far from complete. But what is done is impressive, and I can't wait to see the rest when it's finished.

Aside from Hulu, whose content was pulled from Boxee last week, the video worked pretty well. I watched some clips from "The Daily Show" from Comedy Central, part of a "CSI" episode from CBS, and even let my son watch an episode of "GI Joe" on Joost.

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The Good

I've watched a lot of online video using my media center computer, and I've never quite been satisfied with the experience. It doesn't fit my TV screen right, I can't use my remote control, and the interface simply isn't made for a TV. Boxee fixes all those issues.

Boxee is based on the open source XBMC player, which means you can develop plugins that work on it. In fact that's just what somebody did to get Hulu content working again, and it apparently works (I haven't tried it myself).

As I looked through Boxee's configuration, I was impressed with the range of settings, particularly for video. You can correct the image size to compensate for your video card's output, and the source's frame size. It's even possible to make adjustments while your video plays.

Boxee can be configured to find and identify video and audio files on your computer or network, and it does a pretty good job. Some files, particularly TV shows, need to be renamed for Boxee to identify them. The DVDs on my media center's hard drive weren't catalogued, but I was able to play them later with very little extra effort.

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Boxee is billed as a social media center. What that means is that you establish friends through their website and then they can recommend video to you. With all the potential places to find video online this is handy.

The Bad

I had problems watching the movie trailers from Apple, which appeared to be video codec related. Boxee uses its own built in (ffmpeg-based) decodeers so I'm figuring this will be fixed in a future release.

I also experienced some problems with my remote. It took some trial and error to figure out what keys to press for navigating the interface. Most of the buttons on my first generation Windows MCE Remote didn't do anything. This is something I expect to see resolved either before or soon after Boxee for Windows gets out of Alpha. It's more of an annoyance than anything else right now.

Even though I added the folder where I keep my TV shows to Boxee's configuration, it didn't recognize them as TV episodes. This isn't really so much a problem as a quirk. Boxee identifies TV shows by filename, and it must follow a particular format.

One feature I was surprised to find missing was TV tuner support. If you already have a remote control for your computer it's probably a good bet you also have a TV tuner. They may be adding one in the future, and it's even possible someone outside the company may write a XBMC plugin of some kind to do the job.

Not Done Yet

Two of Boxee's most interesting features haven't been implemented in the Windows alpha yet. the first is a client for Netflix Watch Instantly.

The other is a built-in BitTorrent client with RSS support. That means you can subscribe to a news feed to automatically download new video files.


Boxee for Windows isn't finished, but the features I've seen so far are impressive. Perhaps most impressive is the interface, which surprised me by being very polished and professional looking.

If you have a media center PC it's well worth checking out once the public alpha opens in a couple of months.

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