In March 19 IssueBy Jeff Smith, Columnist
A few years back it was very easy to impress someone by hooking a computer up to a television screen. People visiting my house would "ooooh" and "aaaah" at how something as simple as a TV-out port could impact the home theatre. Lately? Not so much. Piping media from your computer to your TV, while not exactly universal, is much less of a surprise to people than it used to be. Just remember, I was doing it before it caught on. ;)
These days there are a lot more options as to how to accomplish this feat. Computers are coming with HDMI ports now which connect to a flatscreen tv in a matter of moments. Add to that the online streaming services from Amazon, Netflix and (soon) Comcast, and the computer doesn't just replace your DVD player, it replaces your cable box too.
The biggest problem in doing this, though, is that it is difficult to read the small print of a computer screen on a TV. Also, if you're downloading all your media, then organizing all of that can be a real pain, and sometimes its hard just to remember what something is, or why you downloaded it in the first place. Enter Boxee.
Boxee is a relatively new player in the home theatre game. It was built using code from the XBMC project. You remember XBMC, right? No? XBMC, or the XBox Media Center, was a project a few years back that put a Linux installation on those big old XBox consoles (no it doesn't work on a 360). This turned your old XBox into a media center for your TV that could stream shows from an internal harddrive, or from other computers on the same network. It was eventually blocked by Microsoft who didn't like the fact that hackers had made their device much cooler than they had originally intended (you can always count on Microsoft to ruin a good party). After they put the screws to XBMC, the project leaders decided to abandon the XBox platform altogether and XBMC became an add-on for the Linux desktop. It pretty much had the same functionality, but it lost a lot of coolness points because it wasn't running on a hacked gaming console anymore. Also, it was pretty limited to just the stuff that you had downloaded and stored on your computer.
Fast-forward a few years, and the Boxee team picked up the XBMC code and took it to the next level.
Boxee gives you a beautifully clean interface to access all of your computer's downloaded media as well as your favorite streaming media. Its formatted for a TV screen so everything is nice and readable. But unlike XBMC, which only accessed the files on your harddrive or home network, Boxee goes a bit further by also interfacing with IMDB (Internet Movie Database) and downloading all the box-art, ratings, and even a synopsis of your shows! Whats more, it connects to Facebook and Twitter and allows you to share comments about what you're watching directly to your favorite social networking website, AND it also picks up links from those same social sites and serves up any videos that it finds there. So your friend shares a link on Facebook to a cool new video? Boxee picks that up and makes it easily playable on your TV. After you watch it, you can "Love" it and leave a comment about it. Easy peasy.
Where Boxee really shines is weekly TV shows. You just pick out the shows you like to watch regularly and Boxee will find episodes on Hulu or Youtube or other places and stream them directly to the TV. It keeps track of what episodes you've already seen and adds new episodes to the queue when they're found.
If you've downloaded movies or TV shows from Itunes or *cough* elsewhere, Boxee will pick up the files, figure out what they are, and present them along with whatever else it finds. Its called being source agnostic. No matter where the media is coming from, Boxee does a great job of making it easy to access, and virtually self-organizing in a beautiful user interface that just about anyone can understand.
There are two ways of getting Boxee. The simplest way is just to go to www.boxee.tv and order a Boxee box for $199. Its a tiny cube that sits on the TV and connects to the TV via HDMI cable. It comes with a remote that has simple controls on one side, and a qwerty keyboard on the other. It doesn't boast any harddrive space to speak of, but it can be configured to pick up any shared folders on the network or you can connect an external drive.
The other way to get Boxee is to install it on a computer you already own. This is great for those geeks like me who've already hooked up a computer to the TV, or who do not have a TV with an HDMI port. In this instance, it is much more hands on, but at least the software is free to use. This is a great idea for the geek on a budget like yours truly.
One more thing that Boxee does that I haven't mentioned is Netflix. Boxee has an app that will stream your Netflix movies directly to the TV. I only hesitate to mention this because I myself cannot utilize it. While Boxee is both Windows and Linux compatible, the Netflix portion of it is not. Netflix refuses to be ported over to Linux because they're afraid all the hackers will use it to increase piracy. Though initially off to a rocky start, Netflix does now work on the $199 Boxee box. Maybe in time they'll get it working on Linux as well. Who knows? Stranger things have happened.