After losing patience with waiting for Netflix video streaming to come to the Linux version of Boxee, and needing to relocate my Roku Netflix Player to the garage’s fitness equipment zone, I decided to add a Windows partition to the Boxee Box (my DIY media center STB) so we could continue to enjoy instant Netflix downloads on our family-room TV.
So when Ubuntu 9.04 (aka Jaunty) went gold last month, I used the new Linux release as an opportunity to reconfigure the Boxee Box to dual-boot Ubuntu and Vista.
Recognizing that Windows can get cranky when it’s not in control of the “C” drive, I installed Vista first and then added Ubuntu to the mix. The process went smoothly and within a few hours the system was up and running. This time, however, I configured grub to boot into Vista by default.
The screenshot below shows the Boxee Box’s Vista desktop.
As seen on the above screenshot, the Boxee Box’s Vista installation augments Boxee with the addition of several other media streaming applications and options. Of those, these three are the most interesting Internet-media streaming applications:
- The Hulu Desktop
Which of these three works best? Here’s a brief assessment of each app’s key strengths and weaknesses…
Boxee streams both Web-based and local content within an excellent 10-foot UI. The software was introduced last fall and is continuing to be offered as a free, alpha-level download from Boxee’s website.
- A clean, well-designed 10-foot viewing UI (user interface) suitable for control via both handheld remotes and wireless keyboards
- Supports a wide selection of Internet-based A/V content, including movies, TV shows and episodes, Internet radio, photo sharing sites, etc., and also provides access to locally stored media
- Based on open source software (XBMC, Mozilla,…)
- Open APIs encourage third-party developers to create new plug-ins that extend Boxee’s content sources and capabilities; over 150 already available via Boxee’s “App Box” (Boxee says)
- Includes CODECs for the most popular audio and video formats (Boxee says)
- Supports Mac OS X (on Intel), AppleTV, Linux (Ubuntu), and Windows XP/Vista/7
- Lacks a “favorites” function, leaving the user to navigate through several menu levels and numerous content access applications in order to select desired content
- Lacks a global search, making it frustrating to locate a specific movie, series, episode, album, or song by title, composer, or performer
- Start-up homescreen is overly dominated by social networking functions and viewing/playing history (a better focus would be on available channels, user favorites, and subscribed channel queues)
- Netflix instant-watch capability currently limited to Mac OS X (Windows version “coming very very soon,” according to Boxee CEO Aver Ronen)
- Hulu.com support, restored in a somewhat crippled format after being removed from the original release, leaves much to be desired
We’ve covered Boxee in depth over the past nine months, particularly in the comprehensive Boxee Box Cookbook post. Check out that article for more details on Boxee. For those unfamiliar with Boxee, here are a few screenshots illustrating what Boxee’s UI looks like, and what it can do:
Thanks to a tip from a reader, I downloaded and installed ZeeVee’s Zinc on the Boxee Box’s Vista partition. Its extensive capabilities came as a pleasant surprise. Zinc combines a modified Firefox browser with ZeeVee’s online media streaming Web service to produce a highly functional Web-based media streaming portal.
This approach is reminiscent of the way a tweaked Firefox teams up with the Neuros.TV content portal to provide Internet-based media streaming for the Neuros LINK. Relative to the LINK, however, Zinc seems to be based on a much more substantial extension of Firefox, resulting in a more highly integrated, polished, and powerful Internet-media streaming solution.
- Nifty animated homescreen shows default content sources; no space wasted on social networking feeds that may not be of interest
- Handy Favorites function available from homescreen left-hand column; 2 clicks take you to the latest show in a series, or to a preferred channel
- Built-in Search function allows searching thousands of content sources at once (ZeeVee says), and lists latest episodes at the top of search results for convenient access
- Integrates Netflix “Watch Instantly”
- Can be controlled with both handheld remotes and wireless keyboards
- Supports any content that can be played via Firefox
- Third-party content application extensions supported via API functions and documentation
- Provides access to locally stored content (movies, torrents, podcasts, etc.)
- Although usable in a 10-foot viewing scenario, it’s not particularly optimized for across-the-room viewing
- Limited to use on Windows PCs and Intel Macs
- Very few third-party content application extensions currently available
- It’s much too easy to inadvertently hit “remove from favorites” when navigating around the top of the Favorites page (suggestion to ZeeVee: move the deletion function elsewhere, or add a confirmation prompt)
Zinc can be installed either as a standalone application (a Firefox-variant) or as an extension to an existing Firefox install. Both are available from ZeeVee’s website, which also hawks hardware devices for transporting media around the home network.
Here are some Zinc screenshots:
When the Hulu Desktop showed up as a free download in Hulu Labs several months ago, it helped explain (but didn’t justify) why Hulu had begun taking steps to prevent Boxee from accessing Hulu’s content.
In light of the fact that the Hulu Desktop’s exclusive purpose is to search for, select, and stream content from Hulu.com to PC and TV screens, it’s not surprising that it provides a more powerful interface to content available from Hulu’s website than what’s available from more generalized media-streaming applications.
So, is Hulu’s new Boxee-like media streaming application a threat to Boxee? We think not, provided Boxee advances its Hulu plug-in beyond its current state.
Hulu Desktop compliments…
- Unsurpassed access to Hulu.com content
- Provides quick access to the user’s Hulu queue, automatically playing the next unwatched video
Hulu Desktop complaints…
- Too much emphasis on whizy UI animation, resulting in reduced ease-of-use simplicity
- UI elements not optimized for a 10-foot viewing experience
- Automatic launch of videos in background is annoying, distracting
- Not a general Internet-media streaming solution; specifically:
- Limited to Hulu.com content
- No support for content on the local network
Here are some Hulu Desktop screenshots:
First of all, the Hulu Desktop — though an interesting addition to the field — is disqualified, since it’s limited to use with content available from Hulu’s website. It’s somewhat good at what it does, but it simply doesn’t do enough. That leaves Boxee and Zinc as the key contenders.
So how do Boxee and Zinc compare? A summary comparison between key features of the current versions of these two content-streaming platforms appears in the table below.
|10-foot UI suitability||very good||marginal|
|Usable with handheld remote?||yes||yes|
|Homescreen function||friends’ recommendations; recently watched||all primary channels; link to favorites|
|Netflix “Watch Instantly” support||OS X only||Windows and OS X only|
|Third-party content add-ons?||150+ and growing||minimal|
|Local content streaming?||yes||no|
|Supported OSes||OS X; Linux; WIndows||Windows; OS X on Intel|
|Sponsoring entity||streaming media software specialist||hardware device vendor|
From the data in the table above, it’s clear that Boxee and Zinc each have key strengths and weaknesses. Depending on what’s most important to you, either application might be the preferred solution.
I really like Zinc’s access to key content channels directly on the homescreen, as well as its one-click access to a customizable favorites page. On the other hand, I much prefer Boxee’s 10-foot UI experience, and the tight integration of all the Boxee-developed content-access applications — although that’s not the case with some of the third-party contributed applications.
Additionally, Boxee is working on a new version — due out in several months — that reportedly will address several of my main Boxee complaints. In particular, at the San Francisco Boxee Meetup last week, Boxee CEO Avner Ronen listed these planned changes and enhancements in the new release:
- Redesigned Boxee homescreen with:
- reduced emphasis on social networking information
- addition of direct access to key content channels
- addition of a favorites area
- Addition of a global Search function
- Various UI ease-of-use improvements
Preview of beta-Boxee’s redesigned homescreen shown last week by CEO Avner Ronen. User-designated favorites are in the left; shared content is in the middle; subscribed queues are on the right; small banner ad is at top-left.
(click image to enlarge)
Meanwhile, the continual addition of third-party content access applications to Boxee continues unabated. All those enhancements, combined with the promised addition of Netflix support to the Windows version of Boxee “very very soon” should make it a clear winner over Zinc for my purposes.
Still, if Boxee wants to achieve its goal of earning revenue by licensing its media streaming platform to device providers, it had better get busy making the Netflix “Watch Instantly” feature available on Linux. Roku managed to do it, so there’s no excuse not to make it happen! Using Windows in a set-top-box just won’t hack it: have you ever tried turning Windows Vista or 7 into a device-like appliance? Forget about it!
As far as my own BoxeeBox STB is concerned, I can’t wait to revert to being back using a Linux platform for all my media streaming-media needs.