Boxee changes everything

picture-1I’ve been using my Xbox 360 as a media server in our house, but there have always been a few things that made it seem inferior. Based on buzz from folks I trust I’d played with alpha-software Boxee on my Mac a bit to see if it could be an alternative. Last week, Lifehacker ran a piece on using Boxee on an Apple TV. I’d thought for a while about building my own Linux machine to run Boxee, but I found myself at the mall last weekend, and consequently in the Apple store. Having not yet contributed to the Steve Jobs medical fund, I found myself ogling the Apple TV, which I’d originally eschewed in favor of the Xbox. But dammned if Boxee didn’t make it sound more viable; and damned if we didn’t have a big TV in the bedroom that would benefit from the Xbox.
It took minimal enabling from April to push me over the edge — buying an Apple TV was only about $50 more than building a box and soooo much easier.
The result? First, I’d be really hacked off if I’d bought an AppleTV pre-Boxee. Really not much more useful than using the Xbox360, although the music player and the slideshow are much more slick. I’m continually amazed by Apple’s ability to make small, crappy images look great.
Installing Boxee was so easy that it was almost a little unsatisfying. Really didn’t make me feel like the geek I was pretending to be. (Although, I will note that the Gizmodo instructions were better than Lifehacker’s.) For an alpha, it works amazingly well.
It’s not yet a total replacement for the native Apple TV firmware — the music player and slideshow is inferior. But that’s a minor quibble, and perhaps a red herring, as for me Boxee is all about video. Not only does it automagically find data, cover art and trailers for all your movies, it allows you to access the major video sites (Hulu, Joost, MTV, etc.) on your TV. It’s seamless and works really well.
In fact, it’s scary how well it works in some ways. I had a downloaded English-language film that happened to come with Romanian subtitles. I was careful when copying it to my Apple TV to leave out the subtitle file. But when I ran it on Boxee, confirming I was running the local version, it had the subtitles. They only went away when I deleted them from my Mac, meaning that Boxee was smart enough to take the local film and scan my network for the subtitle file on my Mac. Amazing.
But that’s a bit of arcane geekery — the point is that my TV watching habits have completely changed. I no longer sweat DVR-ing individual episodes of The Daily Show. I know I can get ’em on Hulu. And having my movie library easily navigable means I’m watching more of it. I’d forgotten how good The Dana Carvey Show was, but I idly flipped to it while eating dinner the other night. I’ve always been sorry I missed the short-lived live-action TV version of The Tick. I’m not anymore.
It comes down to this: The promise of Interwebs video has always been tripped up by the fact that we like watching our TV on the couch and writ large; not on our laps or at a desk. Boxee makes it easy to unwire your media and to explore using your television.
And again, it’s just an Alpha. I can’t wait to see what they come up with next. High on my wishlist is an easy way to connect a USB drive to my Apple TV, ‘cos the existing methods are beyond my ken.

Mike Orren is the Chief Product Officer of The Dallas Morning News; President of Belo Business Intelligence; husband to Crystal Orren; and a Mungarian at Munger Place Church in Dallas, TX. All opinions herein are mine alone.

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