Gadgets

Boxee TV (AKA Cloud DVR): Like paying to be a beta tester (review)

Within five minutes of turning on the Boxee TV, I was ready to return it.

It’s Boxee’s second stab at building a set-top box for the living room, but it’s far more focused on mainstream consumers than its predecessor. The $99 Boxee TV includes the usual apps, like Netflix and Vudu, as well as the ability to receive free over-the-air TV channels. But its real claim to fame is the cloud DVR, which allows you to store unlimited television recordings on Boxee’s server.

[Update: Boxee rebranded Boxee TV to simply "Cloud DVR" on April 9th, 2013. This review's title and tags have been updated to reflect the change.]

It’s a device that promised to reshape the way we view TV, a device that Boxee is basically betting its future on — and I couldn’t even navigate its menus without some sort of frustrating glitch or crash.

In its quest to conquer the next big thing, Boxee made a product that failed to get the basics right. The cloud DVR lacks simple features, like scheduling a recording from the channel guide. The remote is a nightmare. And it crashes, a lot.

This review was among the hardest I’ve ever had to write. I’m a huge fan of Boxee, from its hacker roots as a media player for modified Xbox consoles, to its rise as one of the most interesting media startups in New York City. (Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently made a major announcement at Boxee’s office, which former Google CEO Eric Schmidt also attended.)

When Boxee first announced this product, we called its unlimited storage “insane” and dubbed the product “amazing,” because it seemed so promising.

But after living with the Boxee TV for almost two months now, it’s time to call this thing a dud.

The good: Cloud DVR is an intriguing concept

It’s not hard to see why the promise of Boxee TV’s cloud DVR was so exciting initially. Instead of dealing with storage limits on a hard drive, Boxee’s cloud DVR promises an unlimited amount of storage on Boxee’s servers for $10 a month (it’ll eventually go up to $15). The cloud DVR subscription is optional and month-to-month, but as you’ll see, there’s practically no reason to get the Boxee TV with out it.

While you’re probably used to just recording new episodes of your favorite shows with a typical DVR and losing the oldest recordings as it fills up, Boxee’s service lets you record every episode as it airs, for as long as you want, across multiple devices. For media addicts who can’t wait for new show episodes to hit Hulu Plus or Netflix, but who don’t have time to watch everything in their queue, it sounds like a dream come true.

boxee tv screen

Unfortunately, Boxee TV is limited to recording over-the-air and basic cable channels. That means you’ll only be able to watch and record shows from major networks like ABC, NBC, and Fox — but not shows on regular and premium channels like FX, HBO, and ESPN. You could receive around a dozen channels, or just a handful, depending on availability in your area. Boxee includes a simple antenna inside the box, but upgrading to a more powerful antenna could net you more broadcast channels.

The limitation of free over-the-air channels is something cord-cutting aficionados are used to, since it’s a free alternative to costly cable or satellite subscriptions. And since Boxee TV includes Netflix and Vudu apps, you can augment the limited television channels with those larger content libraries.

Tuning between TV channels is fairly quick on the Boxee TV, at least compared to the way my Samsung HDTV handles tuning.  The device includes two tuners, so you can watch one channel while recording another, or have two channels recording at the same time. In theory, Boxee TV feels like it’s getting close to unifying traditional television and web video, an ideal first sketched out by Google. Google TV still wins out though, since it supports cable and satellite subscriptions, and it has a much stronger selection of apps.

You can stream live television to your computer’s web browser or your iPad with Boxee TV (iPhone and Android support is on the way, even though the company still advertises that it supports “any screen”). I found that cloud DVR recordings looked almost as clear as when they originally aired, while the live TV streaming looked a tad worse. It takes about 10 to 15 seconds for cloud recordings to begin, while tuning into the live stream takes around a minute. (But hey, at least Boxee warns you it could take that long.)

Boxee TV builds upon the interface developed for the Live TV stick, a USB dongle that brought TV functionality to the company’s previous device, the Boxee Box. The interface shows you an attractive display of shows currently on-air, as well as shows scheduled to appear over the next few hours. On your computer or iPad, you can view a more traditional channel guide by logging onto Boxee.tv. The company assumes you’ll be using an iPad or computer as a secondary screen — and you’ll need to, since it’s the only way to schedule DVR recordings.

Boxee has clearly built up an impressive amount of features around its cloud connectivity, it’s just a shame that it gets so many simpler things wrong.

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