A Pirate Gets Boxed

Previously, I’ve made no bones about the fact that I employ, ah, un-orthodox methods of acquiring my media, specifically television shows. For the reasons outlined in that previous post, none of the current options available to consumers really do it for me. However, as I mentioned in that piece, I’m always checking out the legal services, just in case things have improved.

Well, they haven’t, not really. But then along came Boxee.

Boxee is media center software based on the XBox Media Center (XBMC), which runs on Linux, Mac OS X, and the AppleTV (in a weirdly satisfying reversal to this Mac fanboy, Windows support is lagging, although fear not: they’re working on an Alpha version which will go live in January). Once installed, it indexes and plays all media in your local network.

At first, I didn’t get what the big deal was—the Apple TV connected to my big screen TV does just that, plus it connects to the iTunes store, for when I really, really want to rent a movie at four bucks a pop (which happens more often than I thought it would. Ease of use, instant gratification, and the realization that I don’t need to own a copy of Forbidden Planet do make me want to open my wallet). The fact that Boxee reads almost any type of media file is a plus, but since my obsessively-tagged media collection is already mediated via iTunes, I find the ability to play to Ogg Vorbis or MKV files utterly unnecessary.

After a little digging I figured out what really makes Boxee shine: it integrates social media and existing online video and music services, such as BBC Radio, NPR, Hulu, CNN, Comedy Central, Revision 3, and Last.fm into its interface. In other words, it brings streaming media that was previously only available on the desktop computer into the TV, in a nice, well-organized media center interface. In addition, the profile you create on Boxee’s site allows you to share recommendations with friends and announce what you’re watching or reviewing via micro-blogging services such as Twitter (if you so choose. I haven’t set this up—I’m not necessarily interested in the whole Twitterverse finding out that I watched the extended version of The Secret of My Success last night). Take a look at the intro video on Boxee.tv:

quick intro to boxee from boxee on Vimeo

This bears looking into, I thought, so I downloaded Boxee and installed it onto my Apple TV (while technically a hack, it’s dead simple to do. Here’s an instructional video for the Apple TV. Installation on a Mac or on a Linux box is just as straightforward as installing any other application). Now I can watch Battlestar Galactica on my big screen, via Hulu1, without having to resort to torrents, format conversions, etc. The stream is solid, the quality is good2, and I can then recommend the episode to my friends (or not).

Boxee’s still in Alpha, which means that you need to apply for an invitation at Boxee.tv, or ask someone (like me) for an invite. The invites are pretty easy to come by, and the software is very robust and well-developed for an Alpha release. Since Boxee is open source, the pace of development has been brisk, and the Boxee forums are very lively, informative, and useful. Over the last few updates, Boxee has gotten leaner, very stable, and even added a couple of new features, such as support for Netflix’s streaming movies3. The software still has plenty of limitations—it’s been known to choke on 1080p streams on the AppleTV, and reading media off your LAN is not always a straightforward affair, but the developers are moving rapidly, with the help of a very dedicated open source community, to address all issues. So much so, that they plan on taking Boxee into public beta on January 8, at which point invites will be open, and the fun really begins.

1Yes, it turns out I’ll put up with a pre-roll and three 30-second spots—I guess my resistance is weakening. But Hulu still needs to put up new episodes as soon as they air, no more of this “staggered release” bullshit. If I can’t watch the Season 4.5 premiere of BSG on the night it airs, all bets are off. Delayed, or so-called staggered release is a deal-breaker, Hulu. You’re driving me right into BitTorrent’s open arms.

2Your mileage may vary—quality depends on the quality of your internet connection, and in the limitations of your hardware. For example, Apple TV’s hardware makes true 1080p HD video problematic. That being said, it does 720p—which is certainy adequate for smaller TVs— just fine.

3While the Netflix feature isn’t available for the Apple TV version of Boxee specifically, it’s prompted me to re-instate my subscription to the service in anticipation of its inevitable inclusion. I may get impatient, though, and install Boxee onto my Mac Mini, and hook that up to the big TV.


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