By Harry McCracken | Monday, September 13, 2010 at 7:30 am
What a difference a year makes. When Boxee and D-Link unveiled the Boxee Box in late 2009, things were pretty quiet on the Internet-TV-in-the-living-room front. Now, after a bit of a delay, the companies are getting ready to ship the Box in November. And it’ll compete against the all-new Apple TV, set-top boxes and TVs based on Google TV, the first devices that support Hulu Plus, and a bevy of other methods of getting video off the Internet and onto an HDTV. Little Boxee, in other words, will face daunting competition from some pretty formidable rivals.
I met with Boxee CEO Avner Ronen and D-Link Director of Consumer Marketing Brent Collins this weekend to get a sneak peek of a nearly-final Boxee Box. And you know what? Despite the avalanche of competition it’ll face, it still looks pretty cool.
The two companies are releasing some new tidbits about the Box today. They say the $200 gizmo will ship on schedule in November, and that they’re taking pre-orders via Amazon.com starting today. (Amazon buyers will get their Boxes a week before other folks.)
More surprising: The Box will be powered by an Intel Atom CE4100 processor. That’s news because the original version that Boxee showed off packed an Nvidia Tegra 2. The silicon switcheroo helps to explain why the Box will reach TV fans later than Boxee and D-Link originally expected. And Ronen told me that it will enable the Box to comfortably play 1080p video–stuff that’s stored on a home network at first, and streaming 1080p from online sources as it becomes available.
The Boxee Box will sport both 802.11n wireless and Ethernet networking, and will come with an RF remote control with a QWERTY keyboard on its backside. The software is similar to Boxee’s clients for Windows, the Mac, and Linux, and includes a built-in WebKit browser and Flash support which give it the technical chops to play back nearly all the video the Web has to offer. As always, the user interface looks fresh and fun, if a bit dense with options.
Boxee recently announced that it’s partnering with four online movie stores to bring films to the Box, and it has relationships in place with Internet video powerhouses such as Revision3. But it’s still not entirely clear what services will be baked into the Box when it ships in November. The Box I saw today appeared to support Hulu, but it’ll be a miracle (and at odds with history) if Hulu doesn’t try to block it. And when I asked about Netflix Watch Instantly, Ronen told me that Boxee and D-Link “werent demoing” that service, and that the companies would have more news about built-in services before the Box hits stores. (Here’s hoping it’s good news.)
I’m still trying to make up my mind about the Boxee Box’s attractive-but-idiosyncratic industrial design. It’s entertaining for sure–but when it comes to set-top boxes, entertainment value is less critical than convenience. The Box is a surprisingly tall little guy by current Internet-TV-box standards, and it won’t fit into a stack of living-room components. (If there’s a second-generation Box, I wouldn’t be startled if it’s a tad more orthodox in shape.)
The Box will obviously get lumped in with the new Apple TV–hey, I did it earlier in this post–but the two gadgets’ approaches to Internet TV are as different as they are similar. Apple’s box offers Netflix, iTunes rentals, YouTube, and streaming from iOS devices for $99, at a maximum resolution of 720p with a typically stripped-down interface and remote. The $199 Boxee Box, by contrast, does 1080p, plays an array of video formats for content stored on home networks, pulls in online video and audio from all over the Web, has apps for Web services such as Pandora, and has a rich array of options and a QWERTY remote. It’s unquestionably a much geekier device than Apple TV, but the pricetag doesn’t seem irrational if you are indeed a geek.
It’s Google TV that looks like a more direct counterpart to Boxee: Both platforms aim to bring a profusion of Web video into the living room via WebKit browsers and Flash support, for instance, and both promise fancier remote controls than Apple’s minimalist model. But it’s tough to say how Boxee compares to Google TV devices such as Logitech’s Revue until every detail is known and they’re both available for testing.
Me, I’m most dependent on two Internet TV boxes: a Roku (which resembles Apple TV more than it does Boxee) and a TiVo HD (which provides access to Amazon Video on Demand, Netflix, and other services). I’m looking forward to trying some of the new contenders before the year is out. This is the first holiday season that I can imagine multiple new Internet TV boxes being hits…and even though the Boxee Box won’t sell in Apple TV-like numbers, I could see it doing quite well.