At Home with the Boxee Live TV Dongle
Boxee’s Live TV dongle arrived in the lab recently, and I spent some time this week putting it through the paces at home. This dongle plugs in via the USB port on the Boxee box, and looks like a standard USB key but with a place to plug in coax on the end. It ships with a tiny free-standing antenna, which can be removed and replaced with your own antenna or basic cable service.
(image source: Boxee)
To give you some background, the live TV situation at my house is pretty grim. As if it weren’t bad enough that “the cord” doesn’t stretch to my rural neighborhood, the placement of my house and the massive old trees surrounding it make getting over-the-air content a challenge.
Even after purchasing several fancy HD antennas, my live content selection at home is generally limited to religious programming and telenovelas. If I want to watch live TV from any of the major networks, I’m in for about an hour of messing with the antenna before I can get a decent signal.
For example, to watch ABC I run an extra-long coaxial cable halfway across the house, rearrange some furniture, move the rabbit ears to 10 and 2, and bridge them with a piece of aluminum foil. To get NBC, I balance the antenna precariously on top of a flat-panel TV with the UHF component pointed southeast (hence the purchase of several fancy HD antennas).
Actual dimensions of the antenna I’ve (not) been using
The end result is that I don’t watch live TV at all anymore, because it’s not worth the headache to set it all up. Especially since whatever I wanted to watch is usually available on Hulu the next morning.
So when I brought Boxee’s Live TV dongle home, I didn’t have great expectations. I decided to start with the worst-case scenario and work my way up. So I used the included antenna (which is the size of a walkie-talkie antenna and doesn’t exactly look powerful) and perched it right by the TV in my office, where I can’t even get telenovelas without significant effort.
(image source: Steve Kovach, Business Insider)
As soon as I plugged the antenna into the USB slot on my Boxee Box, the “Live TV” option appeared on my home menu. I selected it and got an onscreen message to “sit tight” while Boxee scanned for channels. Because it didn’t show time remaining or the number of channels discovered as it scanned, I spent the next 15 minutes sitting tight while watching an arbitrary progress graph on the screen and thinking that little antenna would be lucky to pick up a single channel.
So you can imagine my surprise when that dinky little antenna picked up 28 channels on the first try, including all the major networks (when I tried scanning with the expensive HD antenna in the same spot, it didn’t pick up a single channel). A few channels didn’t get great reception, but placing the antenna on a windowsill was enough to fix the problem for me.
Once Boxee is done scanning, the TV viewing experience is pretty straightforward. Channel and show information is displayed as you move up and down through the channels, and pushing the 4-way directional button to the left brings up a compact grid guide on the side of the screen. Pressing the button to the left one more time allows you to remove channels from your list, set favorites, and specify custom names for channels. All in all, the experience of watching live over-the-air TV on the Boxee is simple and intuitive – in other words, the opposite of what I’m used to at home.
However, plugging it in to the Comcast cable service in the lab yielded mixed results. Scanning for channels took about twice as long, and although it picked up about 60 basic cable channels there wasn’t any guide or channel information except for those available over-the-air. At least the interface makes it possible to rename channels, but without program information the guide doesn’t do a lot of good.
Looking towards the future of TV on the Boxee Box, we’ve seen a lot of talk about Boxee offering a DVR service after a survey asked users how much they’d be willing to pay to record 300 hrs of live TV, with options ranging from $5 to $15 per month. This fills a huge void for people who are already limited to over-the-air TV (sign me up, Boxee!), but I doubt we’ll see a lot of households giving up their cable DVR service in favor of Boxee’s.
We’ve also been following the Clear QAM debate, and how encryption of basic cable might (or might not) affect Boxee’s Live TV service.
Will the Boxee antenna dongle inspire more pay TV subscribers to shave the cord or cut it altogether? Doubtful. But it would be a great addition to rooms without a cable hookup, and for the cord-deprived like me it makes for a dramatically better TV experience.