Boxee+: New software for an old favorite
The Boxee Box is a favorite in the lab — its quirky shape never fails to grab the attention of visitors, but the real beauty of the Boxee Box is that it handles virtually every file type we throw at it. Plus, it organizes (DRM-free) video from your networks and USB hard drives with thumbnails and metadata it pulls from the web.
Alas, Boxee discontinued the Boxee Box this fall, making it “televestigial” – joining the ranks of the many devices in the lab that were discontinued or replaced by new hardware. So we’re part lab, part OTT museum at this point.
Boxee is instead focusing all its resources on Boxee TV, a device centered around linear TV which has some of the same features as the Boxee Box, but in a much plainer package.
The Original Boxee Box
The New Boxee TV
We’ll give a detailed review of Boxee TV in a separate post, but suffice it to say that while it is a fine device that’s less expensive and more accessible to non-techies, we’re still sad to see the Boxee Box relegated to the dust pile.
Fortunately, Boxee supports the use of 3rd-party app repositories (meaning that you can install outside apps on the Boxee Box), and some hackers figured out how to get the Boxee Box to run custom code from a USB drive. So even though Boxee is no longer supporting the Boxee Box, developers can still write new software for it. And naturally, there are plenty of developers/hackers to be found in the community of Boxee enthusiasts. In fact, there is already a new project called Boxee+, which I installed on one of our two boxes last week.
Boxee+ aims to add new and improved features to the Boxee Box, including custom fan art for TV & Movies, plus a Music section on the Home screen which pulls music files from your home network (this was actually part of the old Boxee Box UI, but it disappeared in an early update.)
Boxee+ also boasts faster HD streaming and a faster UI (more on that in a bit), plus some changes under the hood including telnet root access (for the non-geeks in the audience, root access is basically like a back door into the kitchen –- you can get in there and mess around with low-level stuff, such as running custom apps and even completely replacing the operating system, depending on the device.) Boxee+ also includes FTP access, so you can add remote file shares.
And like the original Boxee Box software, and XMBC before it, Boxee+ is open source — so developers can take the existing code and modify it for other projects (this is known as “forking” – for example, Boxee is a fork of the open-source entertainment hub XMBC.)
How does one go about installing Boxee+ on a Boxee Box?
From the usability standpoint, installing Boxee+ is pretty simple. However, know going in that installing Boxee+ will most definitely void your warranty, and there’s always a chance it will brick your Boxee Box, so it’s not for the faint of heart. Visit the Boxee+ website for the step-by-step instructions, and then read on for a few helpful hints from yours truly.
To install Boxee+, you just have to download a file, unzip it, copy the contents to a USB drive, and then enter a few strings of text on the Boxee Box. It should take about 5 minutes, unless you happen to have two Boxee Boxes in the same room.
As I was typing in the string of text, suddenly the Boxee Box seemed to have a mind of its own. It would alternate between not responding to signals from the remote control and getting stuck on them, so when trying to type “Boxee” I would get “Boooooooooooo” and then I’d backspace through about half of the extra letters before that key got stuck and deleted the entire string of text I was trying to type. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Helpful hint: if your Boxee Box ever starts doing this, hold the remote control up against the LED on the front of the box and hold the center (“OK”) button for about 15 seconds to pair the remote.
Since I’d just completed the first step of the Boxee+ install, I initially assumed that was the source of the problem. Then I realized the remote control still had the original battery from 2010, so I tried that first (which involved going to buy batteries, because it takes those CR-2032 disc batteries.) When a new battery didn’t change anything, I turned my attention back to the Boxee+ install.
At this point, I switched over to my un-hacked Boxee Box to double check the original settings — and found that box was exhibiting the same behavior. Either there was some Boxee virus going around, or something was going awry with the remote control pairing. A quick Internet search later, the boxes were behaving normally again and I was back to work on the Boxee+ install.
So to install Boxee+ you download a file, unzip it, and copy the contents onto a USB stick (Note: just copy the contents of the folder, not the folder itself.) Then you plug the USB stick into your Boxee Box and go into ‘Settings’->’Network’->’Servers’ where you check a box and add a few characters to a string of text. That’s pretty much it.
When you navigate away from ‘Settings’, the Boxee logo on the front of the box turns red, indicating that it’s installing the software. When it’s done, the box restarts and you just need to make sure the box you checked before is still checked. Then you’re done (and you don’t need the USB key anymore.)
So how does it work?
Boxee+ claims to bring faster HD streaming and a faster UI, but to be honest I didn’t really notice a difference in speed when I compared video of our standard Boxee Box vs. the box running Boxee+. To my eyes, the user experience was nearly identical between the two (the notable difference being the Music section added to Boxee+.)
So is it worth your while to install Boxee+ now? For a casual Boxee user, the subtle changes to the user experience probably aren’t worth the risk of a bricked device. But for those of us with geeky tendencies, the changes under the hood have a lot of potential. And better to try it while there are still Boxee Boxes to be found on clearance, right?