The Boxee Box and other set-top boxes like it promise to pipe the internet to your HDTV with little fuss, for about $300. But Boxee itself is still a free download. Here’s why a DIY Box could still be your best bet.
I received a Boxee review unit to play around with, and I have to say, I really like it. Quite a bit more than our colleagues at Gizmodo, for sure, because I enjoy a lot of the non-mainstream web content, dig the remote and the box’s look and absolutely adore the “Friends” menu that lines up all the videos my Twitter and Facebook contacts linked for easy watching. In other words, I could totally see the Boxee Box as a solution for my household’s non-pay TV needs.
So why would anyone want to build their own Boxee Box, if Boxee’s already put together the hardware they know can pump out 1080p video and be controlled from the couch? There are a lot of good reasons:
The Pitch for DIY
I have an ASRock ION 330 unit hooked up to my TV. It’s gone through two different phases — as a Linux-powered DIY Boxee unit, then a Windows-based, non-geek-friendly media centre. When Boxee releases the 1.0 software that powers its Boxee Box for free download, I’ll likely install that and make it the main interface.
You can find cheaper devices to run Boxee or other media centre apps — Adam’s Acer Aspire Revo was about $US200 when he bought it and is one of Boxee’s own hardware recommendations. And if you’ve got an older desktop or laptop you don’t mind keeping near the TV, that’s an even cheaper solution, providing the plugs are right. Beyond cost, there are a few compelling reasons to DIY your Boxee experience:
Local Storage and Automated Downloading
Boxee is built on XBMC and other open-source software, and it excels at playing back pretty much any video file you can find anywhere. That’s true for both the Boxee Box and your own Boxee unit.
But how do you get your files into Boxee? The pre-built Box has no accessible internal storage, but it can can access shared files on your home network, on dedicated network-attached storage (NAS), or on any USB drives you connect or SD cards you slide into its side. None of this is outside the reach of your average Lifehacker reader, and if you’ve already got a good media storage hub set up, you may only need a thin client like the Boxee Box to play it back for you on a big screen.
For many Boxee admirers, though, the idea of a Boxee “box” is that it’s just that — one object that does all the work. When you sit down to watch shows, movies, or internet content, you don’t have to wonder whether your media servier is up, or if the laptop you stashed that one particular file on is powered on. Using your own device with a hard drive and full OS installed, you can set up a pretty convenient system, though — like, say, the one I’ve got going:
- A “Magic Dropbox Folder”: I’m working on different computers and smartphones all the time, but I always have Dropbox handy — and Dropbox is running on my own unit. Whenever I drop a .torrent (BitTorrent) or .nzb (Usenet) file into the Dropbox folder labelled “HTPC”, either uTorrent or SABnzbd see them and start downloading immediately, or at least as soon as the next time I turn the device on.
- VNC access: It’s nerdy, sure, but with my HTPC connected by ethernet to my home’s wireless router, I can always see what’s on the screen, and fix issues, using a VNC client from any computer in the house (or even outside the house, using a DynDNS setup.
Upgrades and Replacements
It almost goes without saying, but when you buy a small computer and outfit it yourself with a media centre, you’re in charge of determining whether there’s enough hard drive space, physical memory, processing power, and what kind of optical discs it accepts (or doesn’t). Busted components can be replaced, upgrades don’t require a whole new system purchase, and you decide from the start what the box’s capabilities are.
- Extra services: What can you do with a computer connected by LAN cable to your router? Plenty. Upgrade the hard drive and make it a home server. Make it your personal proxy server for getting around web restrictions. Serve web pages, software, or anything else you’d like from behind your cable router.
- Your smartphone is the best remote: Sure, the Boxee Box has a nice remote with a semi-full QWERTY keyboard built in, but so does your Android, iPhone or iPod touch — and you’re probably a lot faster and better at typing in your searches with it.
The Pitch for the Boxee Box
As stated up top, I’m a fan of the Boxee Box — I’m just living a dual-HTPC existence (for the moment). If I’d never thought to buy my own box, here’s why I’d recommend sticking with the pre-assembled Boxee Box:
Form Factor and Quiet, Cool Design
Not everybody loves the look of the Boxee Box, Gizmodo included. It’s intentionally different than your standard black box — it doesn’t sit square, and its face is so blank as to be mysterious when it’s off. Some people may dig that, while others, especially those with lots of other TV-connected hardware, will simply wish they could stack it.
Either way, the Box has been designed to use a minimum of space, to run quietly, and to draw only as much power as it needs to show your stuff. It’s also not likely to overheat unless something goes haywire in the software, and even then, only until a forced reboot. Your own HTPC might be smaller, and maybe even stack-able, but there’s a good chance it’s louder, less sleek, and occasionally involves grunt-inducing cable-switching.
Newer Software, Sooner
The team at Boxee has been very diligent and responsive to its users all along, and they make the bold effort to push out each major release to Windows, Mac OS X and Linux users, simultaneously. But the Boxee Box is their baby. It’s hardware they know all about, running the most up-to-date version of their screen-friendly software. So it’s not a surprise that it was the first place Boxee’s 1.0 version landed, and already has a bunch of bug fixes and new features.
Will DIY Boxee users get that 1.0 goodness sometime soon? Most likely. But that’s not to say that certain features might start off as Boxee-Box-only at first, and that the Box’s hardware won’t get the most thorough review into the future. That’s just how it is. If you’d like more certainty in your media centre purchase, maybe the Box is the way to go.
For $299, you’ll find it hard to assemble a device with the same kind of specs as the Boxee Box. D-Link is making thousands of the same unit for a single purpose, so they can buy components at a bulk rate. You’ll pay a good bit more for the components in an HTPC, and if it comes with Windows pre-installed, you’ll have to pay a nominal amount for that too. Finding a Boxee/Windows-friendly remote control is another cost, as is the time you’ll spend doing your initial setup and installation of Windows, Boxee, and, most likely, additional drivers needed to get everything in place and working.
- It’s really a nice remote: Boxee did something right with their remote, at least to our eyes. It’s Apple-like in its simplicity on the main side, but a small keyboard is available for typing in your searches. It also looks made for the Box, unlike most of the Windows Media Center remotes out there.
- SD card convenience: At first, one wonders why Boxee made the SD card slot so prominent on the, er, front of the device. But for quickly showing off photos, digital camcorder videos and quickly snatching a file from a laptop, SD cards are small and easy to shuttle around.
Making the Call
If I had to pick one or the other, I’d look around to see if I could find a good, powerful HTPC capable of 1080p playback and buy it whether or not it had a physical hard drive. I like the convenience of Boxee Box, but I love the extensibility offered by the DIY route.
That’s one Lifehacker editor’s take, anyways. We welcome yours, and especially invite your links to great HTPC boxes, in the comments.