Boxee Floats With The Cloud

Joel Ward —  May 20, 2013 — 33 Comments

Fellow tech enthusiast and DC neighbor Joel Ward joins ZNF as a Features contributor. Beyond ZNF, Joel can be found at Joel Explains It All and @joelsef on Twitter.

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.

Boxee Cloud DVR hardware

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.

Boxee App user interface

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-feesBoxee 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.

Boxee channel browser

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.

Boxee TV website UI

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.

Boxee DVR UI

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.

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33 responses to Boxee Floats With The Cloud

  1. Such few features and so many limitations.
    I don’t see this box doing well with cord-cutters as $120/year still seems steep to be able to record just network channels. Too few features for the hacker set.

    Who exactly does this appeal to?

  2. That is a good question. It’s likely cheaper than something like Tivo. It also adds the ability to watch your live and recorded shows online. There is also a free version of the DVR service, so then the only cost is the box itself (and your internet connection).

  3. Here’s my review of the boxeetv, written 6 months ago and posted on another site. The whole review still applies, they didn’t fix anything. Maybe it crashes a bit less.

    I have it plugged in on my bedroom tv now, but I only use it (rarely) for youtube. I use the roku3 on the same tv all the time.

    I’m really surprised to see even quasi-positive reviews like this one. To be completely blunt, I think it’s an embarrassing piece of garbage.

    I got a boxeetv for free. I love free stuff, and I was jazzed to get it, and I want boxee to succeed (I don’t own a boxee box, obviously) and I don’t want to seem ungrateful, but wow… this thing has major issues. If I paid $99 for it, I would be absolutely livid right now.

    1) It gets hot. REALLY hot. It’s been on for like an hour and I can almost burn my hand touching it near the antenna.

    2) The “no limits” DVR only works with OTA, not clearQAM.

    3) Due to #2, I don’t get NBC. Only CBS and FOX. (And univision but I don’t care.)

    I live in new york city, in manhattan. I guess I might not be the best candidate, living in an apartment building. Maybe some people get all the networks and CW, etc, too. But for me, it’s only CBS and FOX.

    4) The DVR UI is on the web only. Nothing on the 10″ UI on the box itself. You need to use your computer.

    5) The web DVR UI is laughably terrible. It only goes 12 hours into the future! It’s in a tiny box that horizontally scrolls! The hscroll works OK on my ipad, but is godawful on my desktop with a mouse.

    6) The DVR conflict resolution functionality doesn’t seem to work. When I try to schedule more than 2 showings at the same time, it tells me to cancel recordings for… random other stuff. It told me to cancel The Office when it wasn’t in the guide. I click cancel and it gives an error “it’s not you, it’s us”. That’s very cute and all, but it didn’t work and lets imagine that I just paid $100!

    It spammed me with email about conflicts, too, every single day, until I told gmail it was spam.

    7) The UI in general is extremely slow. I’m used to XBMC on a HTPC, so maybe I’m spoiled. Heck, I’m definitely spoiled. I see people talking about 45 second waits to startup netflix on a tivo and go “are you frickin’ kidding me?” But this still feels dog slow. You press a button and it takes 2-3 seconds to move the selection. Not good.

    8) Youtube leanback is pretty neat. But I assume google wrote that. And I already have a super fast butter smooth youtube in my XBMC.

    All I can say is that if I was some dude in Iowa or whatever and paid $99 at walmart for this device, I would be RAGING. As is, it’s free, but I expect I’ll be putting it into the closet until they hopefully fix the major software and core functionality issues.

    Again, I like boxee and want them to succeed. I feel their ambitions exceed their reach, but I like them. I have no agenda here. The boxeetv isn’t just a failure— it is an obvious, blatant, almost ludicrous failure. Anyone who uses one will instantly agree.

    I am honestly surprised they released it in this state. I assume they were forced to do so by external pressure. I hope that boxee can recover from this disaster and stay in business. I like their style. Just not their product.

  4. Some of the issues, like the ability to manage recordings on the box itself, have been addressed. Even in the two months I’ve used it they rolled out a bunch of updates. So they are improving things.

    I do agree that if I tried it even just a few months earlier the review would not have been so positive. My initial thoughts were similar to yours before their recent updates. It does still get quite hot though, and the DVR management–while better–is still below what our FiOS DVR, Windows Media Center, or Tivo can do.

    It’s nowhere near a perfect device, and for internet streaming I would also recommend a Roku over the Boxee. But depending on your content needs, it could be an acceptable and relatively inexpensive solution.

  5. Rodalpho, that’s why we sat on the box as long as we did. But we feel Boxee is now worth discussing given the recent and upcoming updates, knowing there’s not many OTA DVR options out there, and the unique cloud storage with placeshifting capabilities… even if the execution is still somewhat lacking. However, I’m aware of another entrant on the horizon, am told the WDTV Live works with a Hauppauge tuner (that I want test out), and who knows if TiVo will once again attempt to court cord cutters with discounted service. There is a market here. The question is, who will tap it? (And I’m still waiting on Aereo in DC, although told the video quality isn’t very good.)

  6. Putting the poor execution aside (and that’s a huge blocker to flat-out ignore), the BoxeeTV proposal kinda/sorta makes sense for cordcutters as long as the cloud DVR is free.

    Once they start charging $10/month, I can’t imagine why anyone, anywhere, would choose it over something like Hulu+. To DVR local news, maybe? Nah. I just don’t see it.

    I think you hit on something very key– BoxeeTV may be getting a pass in the media because it is a unique service. And from what I’ve seen of the Boxee guys, they are all super-nice, sharp, friendly, and generous with their time. That can’t hurt either.

    Thing is, the end result is that the boxeetv is much less than just another mediocre product. It fails in both design and execution. Imagine that you paid $99 for the BoxeeTV. How would you feel about that?

    And finally, Dave, why would you sit on it? If a product sucks, slam it. Those reviews are fun to write, fun to read, and generally jolly good times all around. Obviously you won’t get a free Boxee3 or whatever, but you need to decide if your primary goal is to serve as your readers’ advocate or if you honestly really just love it when free stuff rolls off the UPS truck.

  7. Rodalpho, writing up a crappy product is not fun. The blog is what I do in my free time, so most mediocre or sucky products don’t get much attention. Boxee, the company, has never provided me a review unit — not this hardware nor the prior generation and I’m not beholden to them. Or any other company for that matter. Further, on the rare occasions we do agree to a review loaner, they generally arrive with a return shipping label and go back. Not to mention you obviously missed my March tweet: “Concept is interesting, but Boxee TV is pretty bad. Will be interesting to see if the company survives this half baked product.”

  8. I apologize for misreading and did not mean any offense by it.

    Odd that you don’t find reviewing crappy products fun. I can see being completely exhausted by a flood of identical chinese me-too tablets or wifi routers or whatever, but the boxeetv is a unique product, and it would have been interesting to read. Nobody seems to have really reviewed it until now.

  9. I have a hard time understanding why I would want to receive OTA broadcasts, upload them to the cloud over my internet connection, only to download them again to watch them. Even ignoring ISP usage caps, all that upload and download just is plain stupid, when the programs can be recorded on a local disk. Tivo? Media Center PC?

    I’ll stick with my Roku for the rest of the functionality.

    Box won’t ‘float’ for long…

  10. I’ve been using my BoxeeTv since they were released last year. I got one for free. It does basically what it says and while they have improved it and it is much more stable it is still not able to record all my local channels. There are some sub channels that run older shows that I would like to set up recordings for. But I am unable to because they are not even listed in the guide. Once they get that straightened out it will be a much better box. I expect any box I use for recording to be able to record any channel I receive.
    And of course they have not implemented QAM recording yet either which I would use instead of OTA if the option was available.

  11. “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. ”

    That doesn’t make any sense, tv is digital.

  12. “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. ”

    That doesn’t make any sense, tv is digital.

    By “poor” video I mean that if you have poor reception the digital signal will come and go (or you’ll get those blocky digital artifacts and lose audio from time to time) and/or you’ll get a “Weak signal” notice on the box and in the web interface. It’s not poor in the sense of analog snow, rather the newfangled digital blockiness and disappearing picture that we’ve come to know and love.

  13. Kathy, I live on the fringe and will shoot of a video of what a weak signal looks like (thanks to WUSA 9)… there are drop-outs and blockiness, etc. You don’t get static, but you get a disturbed picture. And Boxee records that signal as it comes in, so those disruptions are present in any recordings. But Boxee is no different in that regard to say a TiVo via OTA.

  14. Right, the dropouts aren’t boxee’s fault. That said, if you don’t have great reception you’ll likely find them seriously disruptive. I know I did.

    If boxeetv supported clearQAM reception would not be an issue. But it looks like many cable companies will be moving away from clearQAM anyway, now that it’s legal for them to do so, so that won’t be an alternative for long.

  15. They do support Clear QAM but not for recording or online viewing. From what I can tell it may be coming at some point. The cable companies may kill Clear QAM first. Also, if you have cable why wouldn’t you just rent the cable company’s DVR? Wouldn’t be much more expensive.

  16. Yes they support clearQAM, but without the abilty to record, I might as well be watching Tv just like I did in the 70′s. I have no desire to go back to watching TV in realtime.

  17. Right, I haven’t watched livetv since I bought my first tivo in 1999.

    Well, there was a brief period on 9/11/01. But that’s it.

  18. So, why would I want to have Boxee at $10 a month vs Tivo at $15? Or, why not wait for Aereo? Im not seeing the value proposition here.

    That much data accross a network means that in a multi-family household you’ll be throttling the other users. So, the idea of “unlimited” storage is kind of silly. Its basically like a teenager running a bittorrent client non-stop. What a poor use of resources. If they gave users the ability to record locally I would supported it. But that makes too much sense, right? Boxee has been blabbing about cord-cutting for years, but in reality they just want a piece of the subscription pie.

    And guys, they are NOT going to support clear qam recording. They got into bed with Comcast and changed their position on the issue. Before they lobbied really hard for the signals to remain decrypted. Now, they said it would spurr technological development if Comcast encrypted the QAM channels. Total nonsense.

  19. As I understand it, they agreed to let cable companies encrypt all channels as long as they agreed to provide a DLNA-controller adapter that would allow 3rd party devices to access those cable channels over IP. That adapter doesn’t exist yet, but they aren’t encrypting yet either.

  20. Exactly. So then you’ll have a boxee dvr subscription on top of a cable service subscription. Hooray for Boxee cord-cutters.

    The dirty little secret about clear QAM is that many high speed internet subscribers get it on their lines without paying for it. Boxee and Comcast both know this. And Boxee sold out everyone in order to become a replacement for the Comcast subscriber box. Boxee has done more to hurt cord-cutting than to help at this point.

  21. No, you would not need to subscribe to cable TV to get the adapter. Cable companies were forced to carry all local networks on clearQAM, that’s why you’ll never find non-network channels in the clear.

    I mean, that’s the theory anyway. The adapter does not exist yet, and may never exist.

  22. You obviously don’t understand the original clear QAM agreement. They aren’t required to give you those channels for free. Comcast has to pay for re-transmission fees on them already.

    The reason for the agreement was so that people arent required to buy or rent a set top box to receive the channels that broadcast OTA already. What happens is that when you purchase internet the same cable contains the decrypted channels. Some companies try to put on traps, but for most companies it isn’t cost effective to pay all of the labor.

  23. You’re right. I remembered it wrong, thanks for the correction.

  24. Oooo, DLNA. When’s that coming?

    Thanks for the back and forth, guys. I didn’t comment much on Boxee’s business model, and that does deserve some scrutiny. What’s the long view here?

  25. Boxee has “pivoted” twice now… they started life as disruptive computer-based software (built on/from XBMC), and then moved into hardware with similar software functionality, and most recently softened their anti-establishment ways as they attempt to reach the cord cutters and land content apps from their frenemies like Hulu (and cozied up to Comcast). I’d think they’d have had a better shot doing something like Simple.TV, over “cloud” – instead utilizing integrated storage while keeping the two (versus 1) tuners and placeshifting capabilities. In fact, Simple.TV may be evolving into that with their additional funding. Like I said, we do believe there’s a market for an OTA DVR with OTT capabilities… we shall see!

  26. “What’s the long view here?”

    How is the thing selling? Any data on that? Such a niche market. And if history is any guide here, Boxee will simply not perfect (or even come close to it) this incarnation of their product line. Can’t imagine the company is long for the world.

  27. I agree that they should have used local network drives to store data (like simple.tv). With the original Boxee Box they could have easily made that happen. The Box was essentially a device driven by ripped local content (that could also serve as an NAS all by itself), so I cant imagine it would have been difficult to take the next step.

    As far as sales, much like the original BB its being kept secret. However, I think they missed a crucial opportunity during their original launch. The device lost a lot of momentum with the bugs and overall poor quality of service. It was a beta product for crying out loud! If the walmart reviews are any indication, BoxeeTV is definitely on the way out. However, if they can convince TV manufacturers to embed Boxee features…….

  28. Here’s the bigger problem: OTA reception is not very good in large swaths of the US. Unless you’re up for putting an antenna on your roof (which adds another $100-200 to your costs.) And even then you’re not guaranteed good reception.

    So any OTA-dependant play is not going to be very successful. People take one look and remember that this is why they got cable in the first place way back when.

  29. Good review, very thorough. It sounds like Boxee is cool but doesn’t have a real use case. It has so many fewer content sources than Roku, including Hulu which is an absolute must, and only really adds the ability to dvr ota channels. That’s a very cool feature, though in practical usage most shows will be available on the channel’s page, Hulu, or onDemand the next day anyway. I don’t really get what Boxee is trying to become.

  30. Thanks, Ed. I am not sure what Boxee is trying to become either. An inexpensive OTA DVR isn’t a bad idea, but at this point I’d prefer a Tivo or an old ReplayTV to this–I’d need something more reliable. There are many factors here which can cause issues: bad OTA reception, bad network connection (which sadly affects both recording and watching of content, as there is no local storage), buggy software, limitation on which channels can be recorded.

    As Dave mentioned before, they may be looking for deals with cable companies like with Comcast. Short term, maybe the focus on OTA and a few apps. Long term?

  31. Michael Torres June 12, 2013 at 4:28 pm

    Hi, I am glad I found this review on the internet. It sounds like you guys could either tell me that this would work for me, or recommend something else. We are a cord-cutter family, but we do watch a lot of the networks OTA. I want a OTA DVR so that we can record shows to watch later. For instance, we put our daughter to bed around 7:40 so we miss shows that start at 7, but since we had Fios TV we would just start the recording catch up. Would this allow that? We do have Hulu Plus so we can wait a day for some shows, but maybe we don’t need Hulu at all. Don’t know if there is a box that would fit us better. Thanks.

  32. Michael: I’m confused as to what you have: you do have Fios? Or used to?

    If you have a Roku, and are in NY or Boston, https://aereo.com/ is pretty cheap and works great. Other markets coming soon.

  33. http://news.cnet.com/8301-1023_3-57589335-93/mystery-boxee-buyer-kicking-in-less-than-hoped-report-says/

    RIP Boxee. They were really nice guys, but they made some seriously poor decisions and failed to deliver a quality product.

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