Boxee delivers a quality media center experience

So I recently received my alpha invite to Boxee, a new service that combines a slick media center app with social networking elements. The centerpiece is a multi-platform app (currently only Linux and Mac OS X are supported, with Windows support coming) based on XBMC that provides a rich user experience.

XBMC has been around for some time, and has its roots (and namesake) from running on modded first generation XBoxes. XBMC is essentially the swiss-army knife of media center software — check out the list of supported A/V codecs and formats to get an idea. As an added bonus, it is also open source, licensed under the GPL. Boxee takes this software, which has been ported to run on commodity hardware, and adds social elements and web video streaming capabilities, and their own blend of unique features.

The typical rich media options of photos, music, videos are all there, along with the ability to consume media from a variety of sources. These may be local (local hard drive, USB removable devices), network shares, Internet audio streams and video services such as Youtube and Hulu, etc. Ah, sweet sweet, web 2.0 goodness. Boxee also has you create an account (it *is* a service, after all, not merely an app) that is used to store profile data. You can add friends, a la any other socially aware service, and see an activity stream of recently streamed music, videos, etc. Privacy settings are, of course, provided to configure the level of sharing.

I have a Mac Mini in my living room and installed the latest version of Boxee. One nice feature when running on recent Macs is Boxee fully supports the Apple Remote. In fact, Boxee replaces Front Row as the default action when invoking the OSD in OS X. I checked out the web video streaming, audio, and DVD playback features. Some observations:

  • several crashes, but this is *alpha* software, so it’s understandable/forgivable
  • Boxee automatically grabs local audio files and retrieves album artwork, arranging music by artist or album visually
  • several of the links to show episodes on Hulu were no longer available for viewing
  • the visualization for audio playback was stunning, and left me wondering why Front Row doesn’t provide at least some simple animation
  • streaming web video playback was very stuttery (Hulu, in particular)
  • torrent support (you can download torrents from within Boxee) and a link to Public [i.e. legal, public domain media] Torrents
  • configuration options abound, from video resolution to remote control timing settings

Some may argue that these (and many more, no doubt) features have been available in Windows Media Center and other software for years, but for me personally the litmus test was a Mac (mini) driven media center experience. Boxee is the home media center app that Front Row should’ve been all along. I’ve been waiting for a quality home theater experience on the Mac, and while promising, CenterStage and other projects have (so far) failed to deliver. All the more reason Boxee’s arrival is met with open arms and much rejoicing, even if it is still alpha quality.

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