Gadgets

Boxee TV: Boxee’s second set-top box is all about insane, unlimited cloud DVR

The original Boxee Box, though much-hyped, failed to make a splash two years ago when it debuted for $199. So Boxee is trying again — and this time, it’s aiming to evolve the concept of a DVR entirely to deliver an ambitious cloud DVR without storage limits.

Today Boxee is announcing Boxee TV, a smaller and more traditionally-shaped set-top box built that’s more focused on live TV capabilities. It features a “No Limits” cloud DVR, which lets you save as much broadcast TV as you’d like. And, of course, you can view recordings across multiple devices.

At just $99, the Boxee TV is a direct strike at the Apple TV and Roku’s popular media boxes, and it includes the usual assortment of online video services, like Netflix and Vudu. But it’s the ambitious cloud DVR that piques my interest the most. Boxee will offer the DVR service for $14.99 a month, but that seems like a small price to pay to record an unlimited amount of broadcast shows.

“It is really unlimited,” Boxee chief executive Avner Ronen told VentureBeat in an interview, when we asked if there was some sort of invisible storage threshold for the DVR functionality. “We’ve been working on it for over a year …  first we didn’t know if we could make it, if it was feasible, because it’s a challenging technology problem to solve.”

“Having a DVR that stores recordings in the cloud feels similar to the move from film to digital cameras,” Ronen said in a blog post this morning. “Film cameras limited the number of photos you could capture, which made you think twice before taking a photo. It’s the same with existing DVRs. The limited space and knowing that stuff will get deleted impacts your decisions about what to record in the first place.”

We’ve heard rumors that Boxee was working on a cloud DVR service for over a year, but now that it’s official, it’s no less impressive. Instead of worrying about DVR space, you can record entire TV series and have them accessible at the touch of a button. Boxee will be buying up huge swaths of Amazon S3 storage to store the recorded video data, which will retain the same HD resolution and 5.1 surround sound audio from its broadcast.

The Boxee TV will feature a simple rectangular design rather than the strangely angular cube of the Boxee Box. The new device can fit in easily anywhere in your home theater setup. In many ways, the Boxee TV’s design represents a maturing Boxee: Instead of aiming at the hardcore media geeks, Boxee is focusing on mainstream consumers with its low price point. At the same time, the cloud DVR service will be perfect for the hardcore media nerd audience.

Under the hood, Boxee TV features a powerful Broadcom chip that offers hardware video encoding and decoding. From the little I saw, moving around menus and accessing video on the device was very speedy. Surprisingly, Boxee TV sports no extra on-board storage to buffer the cloud DVR — it all happens within RAM.

One casualty of Boxee’s move towards simplicity is the remote: Instead of the keyboard-sporting remote of the Boxee Box, the new device’s remote is fairly simple. Typing will be a pain, Ronen admits, but he said that many users weren’t using the keyboard anyway.

Boxee has also revamped its live TV interface beyond the TV stick it offered with the original Boxee Box. The channel guide interface feels almost futuristic, and switching between channels is fast. The Boxee TV comes with a fairly simple over-the-air (OTA) HDTV antenna, which should pick up most broadcast channels in your area. The box also supports basic cable feeds (and Boxee is working hard to get its voice heard in cable encryption policy talks).

The DVR service will initially be available in the top eight TV markets, including New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Boxee plans to add more markets next year.

There are definitely potential issues with Boxee’s cloud DVR plan. It could easily eat up bandwidth from consumers stuck with a monthly data limit from their ISP. And even if bandwidth isn’t an issue, you’ll need a solid and steady upload connection to make sure DVR content is recorded smoothly. Still, it seems like a better solution than potential competitor Simple.TV, which relies on a user-provided external hard drive to store DVR recordings.

Boxee is basically betting the company on the new set-top box and its DVR service. Avner tells me he’s no fan of forcing users to watch ads on the Boxee interface. Instead, the company hopes to start earning revenue from the DVR subscription plan. That may be tough initially, since Amazon’s cloud storage expenses will quickly add up. But as the cost of that storage decreases, Boxee could reap the benefits of being a pioneer in providing a data-heavy consumer cloud service.

Boxee TV will be available in November.

Boxee is based in New York City and was founded in 2007. The company has raised $26.5 million from investors including Union Square Ventures, General Catalyst Partners, SoftBank Capital, Pitango Venture Capital, Spark Capital.

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