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At a Glance
Product boxee
Summary Free open source media player based on XBMC with wide format compatibility
Pros • Plays just about any format you have
• Good use of metadata
• Internet radio and video
• Social networking integration
Cons • Not available on Windows
• Bad metadata omits content from indexes
• AppleTV locked up with AC3 file
• Crude video search

A couple of years ago, I decided the time was right and I started ripping all of my DVDs to a hard drive—much like I'd done with my CDs years before that. Since then, I've experimented with numerous ways to play back my digital music, videos and pictures on my entertainment center via my home network.

I have tried a number of different players based on UPnP AV, Windows Media Center and other protocols. Eventually, I settled down with a hacked AppleTV that was tiny, silent and would play back most of my files. But I know that eventually I'll have to move on, so I continue to keep my eyes open for a better solution.

Recently, a free software-based playback solution named boxee has been getting some buzz after winning $50,000 at the 2008 CES exhibition. Boxee is a fork of XBMC, the popular open source media center application that has been in development for quite a quite a while. What boxee brings to the party is a social layer. When using boxee, you can keep track of what your friends are watching and recommending and they can keep track of you. Sound interesting? Read on for my experiences with the package. I'll primarily be reviewing boxee running on my Mac Book Pro. But I also took a stab at installation on my AppleTV, so I'll touch I that as well.


The company behind boxee has stated that their goal is to get the software running on as many platforms as possible. But at the moment, boxee is available for Apple OSX, AppleTV and Linux users only. If you're a Windows user, you'll have to wait a little bit longer. An invitation-only release for Windows users is out, so Microsoft users should be able to try it out soon.

Getting going with boxee is fairly straightforward. Since one of the main features of boxee is social networking, the first step is signing up for an account on the boxee web site. Once you're in, you'll download and install the package (Figure1).

boxee installation

Figure 1: boxee installation

Note the "Alpha" designation in Figure 1, which tells you that this is a fairly early release. So some bugs are to be expected. However, even though this is an alpha release, boxee is based on the five- year-old XBMC. So the underlying infrastructure should be fairly solid.

When you have the package installed and running, you log in with your boxee account and start setting it up with your media. By default, boxee runs in full-screen mode and utilizes the standard remote that comes with most Apple computers. Even though it normally runs in full-screen, I have boxee running in a windowed mode in the following screen shots so that I can more easily capture images.

One of the main attractions of boxee is its "Swiss Army knife" ability to get data from practically anywhere and play almost any format. Figure 2 shows an initialization step where I'm adding a network share containing some of my video content.

Adding a network share

Figure 2: Adding a network share

In this case, I entered the info for a SMB share on my network and let boxee mount and scan the directories. I also could have mounted the share from OS X using any supported protocol and then just pointed boxee at the mounted directory.

Once you point boxee at your media, it will proceed to scan and catalog your files in the background. Depending on how much content you have, this can be a time-consuming process. Everything else bogs down during the scan. So if you have time, just start it up, walk away and let it do the initial import before trying to use it.

In general, I found boxee to use a lot of CPU. Even when doing little more than navigating menus, I would often hear my MacBook Pro fan kick on and see the CPU meter jump. Hopefully, this is just due to the Alpha state of the software and it will be fixed as development progresses.

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