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.

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?

Boxee TV

I hate this remote

The Boxee TV’s remote is one of the worst I’ve ever come across, and I’ve fondled plenty of remotes. It’s going for the simplicity of the Apple TV remote, but without any of the thoughtful usability considerations.

It’s made out of plastic, and it feels surprisingly cheap and hollow in your hand. The directional pad is slightly raised from the front, and it has bumps on every directional edge. Those bumps are likely meant to help orient your finger without looking at the remote, but in practice I often ended up clicking the wrong direction (it could also be that the cheap plastic pad simply didn’t register my click properly).

Worst of all, the center select button is completely flush with the directional pad and is made of the same plastic, which means you’ll often click away from something when you’re actually trying to choose it. It’s also a nightmare for entering on-screen text, as you can imagine. How hard would it have been to put some sort of different texture for the center button?

In comparison, the Apple TV remote is built entirely with the directional pad in mind — it’s circular, instead of Boxee’s square pad, and the select button is indented, so it’s rare for you to select something by accident. It also helps that the Apple TV remote is made out of metal. Despite being so small (arguably, too small for living room use), it feels substantial.

Image (1) Boxee-Box-remote-1024x662.jpg for post 151519

It’s a shame that this remote turned out so badly when the company’s previous Boxee Box remote (above) was such a joy to use. That remote had a full thumb-typable QWERTY keyboard, and a directional pad that felt a lot more responsive. The older remote also relied on RF technology, so it worked without being pointed at the Boxee Box. The Boxee TV’s remote, on the other hand, relies on archaic infra-red technology. (The Apple TV remote is also infra-red, unfortunately.)

Boxee TV

The verdict: The future of TV in theory, not in practice

With so many great set-top box choices on the market, as well as apps available on TVs, there’s no reason to recommend the Boxee TV to anyone. Cord-cutters may appreciate the cloud DVR functionality and its elegant TV interface, although even they may balk at actually paying for the DVR service.

It’s a shame. Boxee was one of the first companies working hard to evolve the way we viewed media. But now it seems just about anyone — even bargain-bin TV makers like Vizio — can add apps to their devices and provide a better experience than the Boxee TV.

I wouldn’t count Boxee out yet, as it has some of the smartest people in the media industry, and with the cloud DVR it’s proven it isn’t afraid to tackle crazy ideas. But in a time where design and execution matter more than ever, Boxee can’t risk using its customers as beta testers.

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