We at the Ward household like trying new things—or at least my wife and kids tolerate me periodically tinkering with our home computing, entertainment, and networking configurations. Entertainment-wise, we’ve been using Roku for years and enjoy the Verizon FiOS TV DVR system quite a bit. Back in the day, before Verizon and HDTV, we enjoyed our networked ReplayTV DVRs and Netflix DVD subscription. So we’ve appreciated time-shifted TV and renting/streaming video for a long time.
Recently we got the opportunity to test out the Boxee Cloud DVR thanks to Zatz Not Funny’s very own Dave Zatz. I ended up replacing our living room Roku with the Boxee so we could get some real-life experience, including input from the kids who are the primary users of the now-removed Roku. We didn’t replace the FiOS cable box, mainly because we rely on a myriad of cable channels that the Boxee can’t yet support. But that’s a discussion for a little later.
The Boxee Cloud DVR ($99) is a standalone device that has the following features: ATSC over-the-air (OTA) and Clear QAM cable tuner, the “cloud” digital video recorder (DVR) for OTA channels, and a small selection of network and online services.
After using the Boxee for a few weeks, it’s done fairly well replacing the main features we used on the Roku – mainly Netflix. The Netflix interface on Boxee is pretty good, and picture quality rivals what we got on the older Roku XD, maybe on par with our Roku 2 XS. There are a few other streaming apps on the Boxee, like Vudu, Pandora, Spotify, MLB TV, and even YouTube (which Roku still lacks). All of them work pretty well, if not quite as responsive as the comparable Roku apps. However, we’re missing our Amazon Video On Demand, HBO GO, Plex, and aother options that Roku has over Boxee. The “new” Boxee (as opposed to the former PC-based software and 1st Boxee box) has a limited number of apps right now, only about a dozen overall. But I’m hoping that changes so they can be more competitive.
As an added bonus, and something that Roku lacks, the Boxee also supports native DLNA browsing on your home network or via a USB drive. Very cool, but video codec support seems limited and the interface is slow to navigate. Maybe we just have too many things on our home server—and need to standardize on the proper type of video file. Further, we’re under the impression Boxee DLNA improvements are on the way.
Boxee might point out here that the reason for this box isn’t entirely for traditional Internet streaming. It’s primarily for watching and recording over-the-air (OTA) TV to the cloud. Yep, you can not only watch live TV, you can record it up on the Internet for safe keeping—and so you can access those recordings from any web browser. This is dependent on your physical location—only a few larger markets, such as the DC Metro, are available at the moment. You still use your own antenna for OTA, unlike Aereo which “rents” you an antenna at their data center, but your content gets uploaded over the Internet to Boxee’s servers. There are free and paid ($10/mo) versions of the cloud storage.
This is where things get very cool.
While pretty much any HDTV these days has an ATSC and Clear QAM tuner for getting in local channels, the Boxee has the same. There is a tile/icon based interface for browsing channels by default. A more traditional guide can be used as well. What Boxee adds is the ability to schedule recordings of OTA (but not Clear QAM) channels which get saved to Boxee’s cloud storage. You can set recordings via the TV interface or go to my.boxee.tv. The super cool thing is that you can stream live and recorded TV from the Boxee itself or the Boxee.tv website. Yep, it streams the tuned channel from your actual Boxee through the web to your browser. As with all Internet services, both viewing online content and watching recorded television is at the mercy of your Internet connection. If there is no Internet or it’s running painfully slow, there’d be no access to your recorded content. As a point of reference, Boxee streams approximately 900MB – 1GB of data down from the cloud storage per hour of HD video.
It is dependent on the reception at your house—if you have weak signal, you’ll get poor video over the web and within your DVR recordings too. This posed some issues with our setup. Admittedly, we need a better antenna and antenna placement, which I plan to rectify. But as with all OTA TV, you are at the mercy of your environment. You also cannot—yet—pause live TV. It appears that this is coming at some undetermined time.
There are restrictions on which channels you can record or watch online. As I mentioned before, this only works for OTA channels (not Clear QAM—yet), but only a portion of your OTA channels can be recorded or accessed remotely. It’s not clear why this is—in the Washington, DC market we can get about 15-20 channels OTA (main plus secondary digital channels), but only ten of them are available to record or watch remotely. You can ask for additional channels to be added, though. Online and for recording we can get the main NBC, ABC, CBS, FOX, PBS, CW, ION, and Univision channels, but none of the secondary channels (x.2, x.3, etc.) except for the PBS Kids and ION kids (Qubo) channels. Nor are the internationally-focused MHz channels, WDCA channel 20, or the MPT or WHUT PBS stations available.
Over the past month or so we’ve been using it, Boxee has been rolling out numerous updates. The TV user interface has been made a lot more reliable, resulting in fewer lockups, and new features have been added, like the ability to record via the TV interface. The online interface has improved as well. The UI still needs some work on performance and features. The UI is nice and clean but could use some enhancements, and performance is still slightly sluggish at times compared to Roku or even the FiOS DVR. It’s much better than it was—no UI lock ups or reboots required since the recent updates were pushed out—but I hope they continue to do work here.
There are some things I’m still waiting for, like better recording management on the TV UI, and stuff like the ability to schedule shows further out and manage things like extending shows. There are no apps for Android or iOS. In fact, the Boxee website does not even work in the browser of my Android phone—yet—they say it’s coming soon. Mobile access would definitely be welcome. It does work—sometimes—on a Surface RT and I tried it on an iPad using Safari to some success. The fact that Boxee is continuing to roll out updates is promising, so at this point I assume it’s just a matter of time.
As mentioned above, this only works with OTA channels for recording and remote viewing. If you have cable and want access to anything but the local channels that are available on Clear QAM (unencrypted cable), you’re out of luck. Also, you cannot record those cable channels anyway. We watch shows on various cable channels, and without more streaming options on the Boxee I don’t see us using this to replace cable or our FiOS DVR anytime soon. However, depending on your entertainment needs, Boxee may be all you need. It’s all in your perspective.