Boxee: Consume Your Media with Style

There’s never been a better time to be a fan of movies, music and television. We now have HD TVs offering crystal-clear picture quality, Blu-Ray discs with enhanced features and 3D content and audio solutions to suit every need and taste. Content has also become easier to come by, thanks to online music stores, movie streaming services and TV channels that are served via the web.

If you’re looking to bring all this together to create the ultimate home entertainment experience, you might want to consider a web-enabled set-top box or better yet, a HTPC (home theater personal computer) setup. There are a number of options available in this segment, including Google TV, Apple TV and Roku but at present, Boxee seems to be the most compelling. Is it really that good? Let’s find out!

Overview

Boxee comes in two flavors – a dedicated set-top box that connects to your TV that you can buy for $180 and a free HTPC software that you can install on any Windows, Mac or Linux computer. The latter turns your PC into a full-fledged media center that can handle all your local media from your network and hard drives and even content from the web. You can then connect your PC to a large monitor or TV and you’re all set. Is Boxee the media solution for you? Let’s make some popcorn, install the app and check it out!

Video playback on Boxee from Youtube

Video playback on Boxee from Youtube

We’re looking at the Boxee software, which is a media center app built for HTPCs on the open source XBMC software. The developers created a fork of the XBMC to improve upon it and ended up creating a platform that also supports many online content services. Boxee can therefore play not only your videos, music and photos from your hard drives and over your network, but also pull in content from Hulu, Netflix, Vudu and even your social media feeds. There are plenty of content sources you can add to Boxee depending on your tastes, so you’ll never be short of something to enjoy.

Getting Started

Installing Boxee on Windows is simple enough but you’ll also have to sign up for a free account to enjoy a personalized experience (your selected local media and your social media feeds are visible only to you). I’ve installed Boxee on my home desktop PC with a 23″ monitor, which is alright for lying in bed watching movies and TV shows like I often do. You don’t need a high-end configuration for a HTPC – you can build one with basic specifications for $600-$800. If you’ve got an older PC lying around you can even look into upgrading your graphics card to one that can handle 1080p video and HDMI output and use that with a large screen or TV.

You can also sign up on the Boxee site to add multiple social network accounts and video feeds to your registration. Once you’re logged in, you can enter your location to get a weather reading and relevant media sources, grant access to your social media accounts, locate your local audio, video and image files, choose your favorite online content sources and you’re good to go.

TV Shows on Boxee - with cover images and information

TV Shows on Boxee - with cover images and information

The Interface

Like most HTPC software, Boxee features a full-screen 10-foot UI (which basically means buttons and thumbnails are large enough to view from a distance, such as a TV from a couch) and can be controlled using a keyboard and mouse, a dedicated remote or using remote control apps for iOS and Android. The interface is gorgeous and looks great on large displays. If you’re using a keyboard and mouse you’ll notice that everything requires single clicks – left-click to select/proceed and right-click/Esc to go back.

The Boxee home screen

The Boxee home screen

When you log in, you’re greeted by a dashboard which shows you shortcuts to your photos, music, movies, tv shows, apps and file browser, a feed with all the videos you’ve subscribed to and the videos your social network contacts are sharing, a list of featured videos curated by the folks at Boxee and a queue of videos that you can create. The app also pulls in information for all content that it indexes, including movie posters, ratings, plot, cast and crew, music artist photos and album art. Everything is displayed neatly and is legible on large screens from a distance.

Media file information and options on Boxee

Media file information and options on Boxee

Using Boxee

There are a number of ways to enjoy content on Boxee:

  • Watch TV shows on the web from sources like Netflix, web shows from Lifehacker and Revision3 and even sports using apps like the MLB and the NHL Gamecenter app. Just select a show, choose an episode and voilà, instant TV goodness.
  • Rent movies from Netflix and Vudu among others.
  • Pull content from many more apps including YouTube, Vimeo, CollegeHumor, Grooveshark and Last.fm
  • Find and share videos with friends on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and other services
  • Add videos from any page on your browser to your Boxee queue with the Boxee bookmarklet to watch later (get it here – http://www.boxee.tv/services)
  • Got plenty of movies and TV shows downloaded or ripped from discs? Index them, sort by genre, check ratings and easily pick the best film or series to watch. Great for when friends are over and want to know what’s on offer. Boxee manages files very well, even when they’re scattered across multiple drives.
  • Play your music on your home theater sound system – find artists and albums using the beautiful Boxee interface complete with album art and artist pictures for easy reference.
The TED app brings the entire library of talks to your screen

The TED app brings the entire library of talks to your screen

Is Boxee for you?

Boxee is a wonderful free app for a HTPC setup. It makes grabbing video from the web really simple and does a great job of indexing your local media. Plus it looks and works beautifully with large screens and remote controls. I have a huge movie and music collection and a lot of my concert photographs, so having a program that works well with my vast media library is really important. It doesn’t hurt that I can control Boxee with my Android phone via wi-fi too.

However, Boxee currently doesn’t support Hulu, iTunes and Amazon Video On Demand, which means that if you’re looking for mainstream content you’ll have to resort to primarily Netflix and Vudu’s offerings. If that’s not an issue for you, Boxee’s user experience is top-notch and is indispensable for those with large collections of movies and shows. You can even try Boxee on a regular PC before setting up a HTPC or plugging into your TV, so take it for a spin and watch your media library come to life!

Do you have alternatives in mind? Let us know in the comments and thank you so much for reading!


Summary

Boxee is a HTPC-friendly media center app that allows you to enjoy your videos, music and photos, as well as web video on large displays with a brilliant interface.

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