First Look: Boxee Beta

Until recently, Boxee, the social-media-centric media-center application based on the open-source XBMC, was available only to the invited and bore the "alpha" label. Boxee is now open to all and has matured to the point where its developers consider the Mac, Windows, and Linux versions worthy of the "beta" name (a beta version hasn't yet been developed for the Apple TV). With that consideration comes a reworked interface, consolidation of local and Web-based content within that interface, more content, expanded social networking options, and big plans for the future. I've had an opportunity to play with the new Boxee for a week and these are my impressions.

The new look

Those who revel in Mac-based media-center applications are prone to compare Boxee to Plex, another XBMC-based media-center application. And when they do, Boxee's interface generally comes up short in comparison-and rightly so. Plex's hierarchy-focused interface is both functional and beautiful, while portions of Boxee's interface were ungainly. Boxee's developers have set out to change that by making it easier to move from place to place within the interface while maintaining a graphics-rich environment.

The means for doing this are the Home screen and Global menu. The Home screen is divided into two areas-at the top of the screen are a row of icons that include Photos, Music, Movies, TV Shows, Apps, and Files. Below you find a Feed column that includes links to content recommended by your Boxee friends. Next to it, a Featured column offers pictures and links to content the Boxee people believe is worth your attention. And to the right of the Featured column is a Queue column, where you see a list of all the content that you've added to your queue.

When you select an icon at the top of the Home screen and press Return, you're taken to a screen devoted to that kind of media. Media screens include a sidebar (which you can hide) that let you do things such as view photos as thumbnails or in a list; filter movies, TV shows, and music by genre; and search for specific hunks of media within that category-all your Michael Jackson music, for instance. You can also click icons to tell the world what you're viewing or listening to via a Share command, add a shortcut, get more information about a TV show or movie (if Boxee has identified the TV show and movie and can provide that information), or add the media to your queue.

To play media, just double click on its name. Play controls appear at the bottom of the resulting Now Playing screen. You're welcome to leave this screen by pressing the Escape key-the music or video's soundtrack will continue to play in the background. You can quickly return to the Now Playing screen by clicking a Play icon in the upper-right corner of the screen.

Boxee lists copy-protected music and video-such as the movies, TV shows, and non-iTunes Plus music you've purchased from the iTunes Store-but it won't play it. Regrettably, there's no feature that filters out this protected content.

To leave a media page, press the Escape key and the Global menu appears, which contains these same media icons plus a Home icon as well as Logout, Settings, Queue, Feed, and History icons. Select the item you want with the mouse or arrow keys, press Return, and the appropriate screen appears.

The changes to the interface are welcome but they don't eliminate the hierarchical structure altogether. For example, if you want to add a folder full of media that lives outside your home folder, you'll need to dash into the Settings window and dig down until your find the folder you're after.

Media wherever

Boxee now attempts to erase the line between local and Internet media. For example, when you bring up TV Shows and type "Strangers With Candy" into the search field, Boxee will show you not only the unprotected episodes of the series on your Mac, but also any episodes that are available from Comedy Central's Website. Similarly, you can move to the Movies screen, type "Love" in the Search field, and see titles that contain that word that can be found either on your Mac or the Web. You now access Hulu content this way rather than through a specific Hulu app.

Unfortunately you can search only by title at this point. So, if you're in the mood for a John Wayne western, you'd better know the title of the movie you want to see.

Increased content

The beta version of Boxee has a lot of content-157 items can be found in its App Library. This includes such well-known sources as Netflix, Pandora, YouTube, Flickr, Digg, Discovery.com, NPR, Shoutcast, and Vimeo along with a whole host of other sources. And Boxee is actively courting developers to bring even more content to the application.

One area in which Boxee has broken from other media player applications is in adult content. Within the Appearance setting there's a Hide Adult Feeds And Applications setting (enabled by default). Disable that option and adult content becomes available to you via the App Library screen. Some of this content is of the soft variety (Suicide Girls) whereas other apps offer truly XXX fare (YouPorn).

This is an interesting approach but not entirely unexpected. Boxee serves as a conduit for streaming Internet media and this kind of content is available from any Web browser. Boxee is simply being forthright about its ability to deliver adult content and leaving it up to users to decide whether or not they wish to view it. Concerned parents should know that the Appearance setting also includes a Set Adult Content Lock that lets them password-protect this option.

Social interaction

Another thing that separates Boxee from Plex and XBMC is its social networking component. Content discovery (buzz-speak for "finding stuff you want to watch and listen to") is increasingly important and Boxee's attempting to take advantage of people sharing their tastes with others. Similar to Twitter and Facebook, you can follow other Boxee users and see what they're recommending. Likewise, they can see what you recommend. Boxee also includes support for Twitter, Facebook, FriendFeed, and Tumblr so you can post your recommendations to those services as well. (Currently the social networking implementation is buggy and doesn't work consistently.)

When you make a recommendation, Boxee does its best to link to something associated with your recommendation. For example, I recommended Bleu's A Watched Pot album and Boxee linked to Bleu's Last.fm page.

Given the ability to view adult content, you'll want to be careful about whose recommendations you keep track of. Should someone you follow recommend an adult video, a link to that recommendation (complete with thumbnail image) will find its way onto your Home screen. This could be a real problem if you use Boxee at work or have a Mac configured as a media center attached to the family TV. Fortunately, you can remove these recommendations-just stop following that person and the recommendations disappears.

Rough edges

You shouldn't take the "alpha" and "beta" labels too seriously. In fact, the later alpha builds of Boxee were more stable than the first beta releases. But the beta builds are getting better. If you're upgrading from an older version of Boxee, it's worth your while to search your hard drive for any existing Boxee files (this includes preference and support files), delete them, and install a fresh copy. I had a lot of problems with the Boxee beta-video anomalies, content that wouldn't display properly, and the application locking up when I attempted to quit it-after installing it over a copy of the alpha. Once I removed all traces of the alpha version and installed the beta, Boxee was more reliable.

Into the future

Boxee has big plans. The company showed off D-Link's Boxee Box-a set-top box for delivering Boxee content to an attached TV-at a variety of private events as well as at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. It also claims to be working to integrate Boxee into other devices in 2010. Additionally, it's putting together the Boxee Payment Platform, a system that lets content providers sell their media via Boxee (and Boxee users to purchase it). Those frustrated with an Apple TV that consumes only content from the iTunes Store, pay attention.

There are a lot of companies playing in the media-center space, but Boxee is moving in some interesting and ambitious ways. If you don't have a copy of Boxee, it's free and worth your while to give it a try-rough edges and all.

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