Boxee brings the web

by Fiona Rae / 11 February, 2012
Peter Griffin's quest to find the best internet TV device is over.

The next generation of ultra-thin internet-connected televisions stole the show at last month’s Consumer Electronics gadget fest in Las Vegas. A new technology – the organic light emitting diode (OLED) – emerged as a competitor to plasma and LCD screens, and every TV on display had a range of web applications built into it, signalling the convergence of TV watching and web surfing is well under way.

There’s just one problem with this: many of us took advantage of the plunging prices of flat-screen TVs over the past few years and bought second-generation TVs that aren’t internet-enabled. We get the big-picture experience, maybe even a Freeview tuner thrown in, but internet on the TV requires us to use a third-party box.

So, I’ve been on a quest to find the best device for bringing the web to your older TV, a quest that’s seen me tinkering around with TiVo, Apple TV and the TV features of the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 games consoles. I’ve finally settled on the box to beat them all – one that is easy to use, is well-featured and, importantly, comes with a remote control you can actually control.

The $399 Boxee Box is an oddly-shaped, black and green device that acts as an internet gateway and media server in one. You set it up on your home Wi-Fi network, plug it into your TV, and you effectively have a low-powered computer that can take you anywhere on the web via a browser. The real appeal of Boxee is supposed to be the web-streamed TV shows and movies it serves up, but I’ll tell you right now this area is lacking for New Zealanders because Netflix, available on Boxee in North America, is off-limits here. Don’t get me started on that. You also need to understand that Boxee is not a My Sky-like video recorder.

In terms of music streaming, Boxee has Grooveshark – a service that lets you assemble playlists of high-quality songs. It is free to use on the web and on Boxee with a subscription. I’m a big fan. The popular Spotify music service will also be available, reportedly in the next few months. I’m not concerned about the patchy options for premium content streaming, however, because of the wealth of choices offered up by the “apps” available on Boxee. This is where the odd little box comes into its own.

Lately I’ve been using Boxee to tune into National Public Radio podcasts from the US, watch the BBC and Al Jazeera and take in TEDTalks, Ustream channels, Vimeo and even free lectures from MIT and Harvard. Hundreds of apps are available on Boxee and more are coming online all the time. TVNZ shows – taken from the state broadcaster’s Ondemand service – are also available on Boxee. This content is all freely available on the web already – much of it on YouTube. What Boxee does differently is deliver it via a slick interface that actually makes it a breeze to channel-surf the web using your remote. It excels at delivering niche web video content in a format that works for the average TV user.

As the tech show was under way in Las Vegas last month, I was glued to TWiT Live, the TV channel of US web personality Leo Laporte, who was broadcasting live throughout the show. All this was served up via the TWiT TV app on Boxee – just like a regular TV show, complete with ads. Boxee is a remarkably good home media server too. I have an external hard drive plugged into the Boxee Box that has all my music, videos and photos on it. In the US, Boxee is proving a hit with so-called cord cutters – those who are disillusioned with subscription cable TV services and opting to receive their entertainment from the internet.

“They are more than just people tightening their belts in tough economic times, these are people who have left cable TV behind because it does not fit their lifestyle,” said the Boxee blog at the launch in Las Vegas of its new Live TV module. This US$50 add-on to Boxee will accelerate the cord-cutting trend by offering up free-to-air TV channels with programming information integrated into the Boxee user interface. There’s no word on if or when a Freeview digital tuner will be made available here, but the chances are very good as we share the same digital standards with the UK.

Boxee hasn’t the TV content options yet to compel me to cut the cord with Sky, but it is getting remarkably close and is seeing me increasingly going out to the web for entertainment and information – all via the goggle box.

Click here for more stories and columns by Peter Griffin.
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