Playback of recordings was a bit of a mixed bag. During my testing, I recorded eight shows. Most of them were recorded on CBS, which seems to have the strongest over the air signal in my office. Of course, the caveats noted above apply. Your recording is only as good as the signal you receive and your upstream bandwidth. Since I’ve observed no video or audio dropouts on CBS and since my measured speed is about 34 Mbps down / 10 Mbps up, my test environment is probably not part of the problem.
For my tests, I played back the same recordings (not at the same time) on the Boxee TV device and via my.boxee.tv web site on both my desktop computer and my iPad. On all devices, I noted that at the start of playback, there are some video and audio dropouts as well as times that both the video and audio pause briefly. There are also times when a section of program content is skipped completely.
I had the best playback and fewest interruptions using my desktop. The Boxee TV and the iPad playback experience were approximately the same. I also noted that running the same test at different times during the day yielded either better or poorer results. In general, however, after the first minute or two of watching a recording, video streaming stabilized and the recordings were very watchable on all three platforms. This leads me to believe that there might be some buffering or back-end issues.
The Boxee TV Unlimited DVR feature is still in beta, so it’s difficult to jump to too many conclusions. Still, the DVR recording experience isn’t as good as I have with my cable-based DVR or my Tivo, and the playback experience falls short of either of those devices as well. From a streaming perspective, I frequently stream NetFlix and Hulu to my computer, my Smart TV and other media streamers without the video/audio problems experienced with playing back Boxee TV recorded content.
Compared to the 263 apps currently included on the Boxee Box, the 12 apps included with the Boxee TV seem almost an afterthought in comparison. The included apps are: AccuWeather; Cloudee; File Browser (for viewing content on attached USB devices); MLB.tv; Pandora; Spotify; TED; vimeo; WSJ Journal and the three featured apps of Netflix, vudu HD and YouTube. When you first scroll over to the Apps icon and select it, the three featured apps appear. To get to the other nine apps, you scroll down one line.
The Netflix app is virtually identical to what you find on Netgear’s NeoTV MAX. The first time you launch the app, you have to sign on with your Netflix account credentials. Thereafter, the landing page lets you choose between Netflix or Netflix Just for Kids. The search menu lets you search for Movies, TV shows or a person. Load time for a movie that I’ve not previously viewed took about 12 seconds. The quality was the same high quality, uninterrupted and in sync experience that I’ve come to expect from Netflix on all of my devices.
The Pandora interface is different than what I’ve seen on other media players. The image below shows the screen layout. On the right side of the screen, you’ll l find the name of the station, navigation icons, track name and album name. If you navigate to the bottom of the screen and select “Your Stations”, all of your stations appear. You have the option of creating a new station based on an artist name, track or composer. Thumbnails show you a short play history of recent songs. While the interface isn’t bad, I still prefer the one found in the Netgear NeoTV. It makes the best use of screen real estate and minimizes navigation clicks. Audio quality, as expected, was very good and there were no dropouts.
Boxee TV Pandora Interface
When you launch the File Browser app, your first choice is to select an attached USB device. Thereafter, you are presented with a folder view of your attached storage device. These are the supported files according to Boxee:
- Supported Container Formats: AVI, MP3, MPEG2, MKV, MP4, WAV, WMV
- Supported Video Codecs: MPEG-2, MPEG 4.2, MPEG 4.10 (H.264), VC-1
I tested movie files and audio files and they played as expected. The Boxee TV, unlike the Boxee Box, does not read SMB shares. Nor does it support media playback from DLNA servers. Not all inexpensive streamers support the former, but it's unusual to find a current-generation media streamer that doesn't support DLNA
Directory view listing of files on attached USB device
Let’s face it. I’m not a “cut the cable” kind of guy, as too many of my favorite TV shows are on channels that are only accessible from cable. But the Boxee TV is an interesting device. It’s basically a media streaming device with dual HD OTA tuners.
The USP (unique selling proposition) for the product is the still-in-beta DVR feature for live TV. But the key term here is “still-in-beta”. The recording software needs to have scheduling features for recording added and the existing ones improved upon. Playback quality and buffering issues also need to be improved and availability expanded to all U.S. markets. Since none of the other video streaming devices I’ve tested or use regularly have video issues, I’m assuming that issues I experienced with playback are related to backend processing and buffering. Hopefully these issues will be resolved as part of the beta process.
So, that leaves us with a media streamer that has the potential to be much better as it is. As a media streamer, discounting the DVR feature, the Boxee TV really isn’t in a league with other media streamers – some at a significantly lower price. With only a handful of media content “apps”, it’s far behind the NETGEAR NeoTV and WD TV Live and is even farther behind the Roku products or its namesake sibling, the Boxee Box.
Even more surprising, neither Boxee product has Hulu Plus support. Hulu Plus has a significant amount of up-to-date TV content – something that “cord cutters” would probably demand. I suspect that it’s not a technology limitation of the Boxee TV or the Boxee Box, but rather a licensing issue. I personally view a lot of content on Netflix, Hulu Plus, TED and from my network shares. On that scorecard, the Boxee TV is two-for-four.
Given Boxee's past history of beta-style product development and its long battles with content providers, it's fair to question whether Boxee TV will ever become a fully developed product. The major networks continue to have a love/hate relationship with Hulu and cable operators are pushing viewers toward their own walled-gardens. So it's getting harder, not easier for potential cable-cutters to actually chop the cord that binds them. Try as it has, Boxee is still not a major player and has not amassed the pile-o-cash that is the only thing that content owners respond to. As the Magic 8 Ball says, "Outlook not so good".
I like the promise of an “Unlimited DVR”, but Boxee TV needs to improve a lot before coming out of beta. I’ve also enjoyed OTA content in HD. If you’re considering buying the Boxee TV, I’d hold off until it’s rolled out in more markets and comes out of beta. And, of course, make sure that your market is supported for the BTV's DVR feature.