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

Boxee TV

Above: Boxee TV’s rear. Note the tiny reset button, second to left, between the antenna jack and HDMI port. Learn to love it. It will be your only friend while using this thing.

Image Credit: Devindra Hardawar/VentureBeat

The bad: It’s not ready for prime-time

I can’t remember the last time a device has frustrated me this much. Even though it bears the promise of some truly exciting features, you have to swim through countless bugs, usability issues, and one of the worst remotes ever to enjoy it.

I became intimately familiar with the Boxee TV’s reset button (above), mostly because I had to use it several times during every viewing session. Experience severe slowdowns while simply navigating the menus? Get stuck in a black screen while exiting Netflix? Reset. Can’t get rid of the on-screen display text for every channel? You get the picture. (To be fair, sometimes Boxee TV would helpfully reboot itself for me after flaming out.)

After seeing my frustrated tweets, I met up with Boxee chief executive Avner Ronen in late December, who attributed some of my slowdown issues to a wireless bug in the Boxee TV. I tested out a software update that eventually fixed some of the slowdown problems, which at some points were so bad that I couldn’t use the Boxee TV for longer than 15 minutes without resetting. (Boxee TV users received the update a few weeks later.)

But still, this was a show-stopping bug that wasn’t addressed until two months after Boxee TV hit store shelves. It made it impossible to retrieve cloud DVR recordings on the Boxee TV, and it made it impossible to watch recordings on other devices due to a wide variety of errors. (The wireless bug likely affected Boxee TV’s ability to properly send recordings to Boxee’s servers).

I can’t imagine how an average person would deal with such a significant issue, aside from returning the Boxee TV and getting a competitor that actually works. Sure, it’s fixed now, but how many consumers would actually stick through the pain while Boxee issued an update?

Even worse, we’re now two months beyond my meeting with Ronen, and I’m still finding all sorts of bugs with the Boxee TV. The on-screen display sometimes doesn’t go away when watching TV channels (hit reset), and occasionally I lose the menu cursor entirely (HIT RESET!).

The problems are so persistent that my fiancée has simply stopped using our living room television whenever I have the Boxee TV hooked up for testing. I don’t think that was part of Boxee’s plans for a television utopia.

The trouble with cloud DVR

After that early update from Boxee, I was finally able to record and view cloud DVR recordings. But despite its focus on unlimited storage, it didn’t take too long before I realized how Boxee’s “unlimited” cloud DVR is actually far more limited than regular DVRs.

You can only schedule and manage recordings from your computer or iPad, which seems kind of ridiculous. (Boxee said it was working on fixing this two months ago, but at the moment there’s still no other way to manage recordings.) Fast-forwarding and rewinding DVR videos can be problematic, which makes skipping commercials a chore. (It’s even slower than navigating video on Netflix or iTunes.) And perhaps worst of all, you can’t pause live TV, which may be one of the top features I most associate with DVRs.

Ronen explained that pausing live TV is a difficult problem, since Boxee would need to store video on its servers for as long as you’re paused, as well as keep recording until you’ve caught up with the live feed. For some TV watchers, this omission alone could be a deal breaker.

The cloud DVR service is only available in a few markets now, including New York, Atlanta, and Chicago, so there’s a good chance that you may not even be able to use it. Boxee says it will slowly roll out the service to more areas based on demand.

Boxee labels the cloud DVR service as a “beta,” but while it’s clearly taking a page from Google by doing so, Google doesn’t typically make you pay to use a beta product. For Boxee, the beta labels seems primarily meant to excuse cloud DVR’s issues.

A suspicious review delay

Despite the initial positive wave of news around the Boxee TV’s (we were excited about it too), there are surprisingly few reviews out there. Popular Science seems to be the only major site with a full review, published back in November. When I pressed Ronen, he admitted that the company was waiting to iron out the bugs in the device before it sent out more units for review. It’s now four months since Boxee TV hit store shelves, and there’s still no word on when the review program will begin. (I purchased my own unit for testing.)

Clearly, the company didn’t want bad press hurting sales of the Boxee TV. And given the staggering amount of issues I’ve come across, I understand why Boxee isn’t eager for reviewers to tear it apart. But it still demonstrates a surprisingly concerted effort to hide all of Boxee TV’s issues from consumers. That’s not something we’d let the likes of Apple or Microsoft pull off — so why should a beloved startup be treated any differently?

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