Mac OS X has Front Row, Windows has Windows Media Center, and the various flavors of Linux have their own media playback applications. But boxee, a free multimedia application that's currently in public alpha for Mac OS X (coming to Windows this summer), aims to make those rival applications obsolete. Not only does it let you easily access your own media, it seamlessly integrates streaming TV and music from the Web and adds elements of social networking. The result is a fine piece of software that should pique the interest of virtually any multimedia aficionado.
Boxee's multimedia attack takes place on two fronts: the browser and the desktop. After signing up for an account and logging into the Web page, we were taken to our Feed (which makes up the majority of the green and white interface), where we could check out what our friends had been watching. Unfortunately, you can only view content that your friends have viewed; there's no search engine or content listing that lets you dig up new content. Although limited in scope, it's a way to partake in the boxee experience away from your everyday machine. Under the Accounts heading, we added our Twitter login name and password (you can also set up Friendfeed and Tumblr) and set boxee to send out tweets of shows you are watching.
The software is compatible with Linux and Mac OS X; a Windows version is currently in private alpha and is expected in June. Downloading and installing boxee to an Apple MacBook Pro allowed us to dig deeper into the application's functionality by indexing our own locally stored multimedia files. This gave us one common place where we could watch our own content as well as the wealth of online videos from the likes of Comedy Central, Fox, Hulu, and a number of other online video repositories.
Upon logging in, you're presented with a clear, intuitive interface that shows Recommendations, Friends Activity, Recently Added, and Recently Used sections on the left, and thumbnails of album covers and movie posters. Boxee certainly offers plenty of eye candy with its black GUI, which is melded with transparencies and slick overlays; it's a far more visually appealing aesthetic than ZeeVee Zinc's uninspired look.
On the far left side of the interface are icons that, when clicked, let us view desktop content based on type (Video, Music, or Photo). Clickable icons let you edit your profile, view downloaded files, and alter settings (such as displaying subtitles). The main portion of the GUI is reserved for the watching video content.
Friends Activity is one of the more intriguing features. It allowed us to view the content that our default buddy (boxee CEO Avner Ronen) viewed and recommended to us. The social nature of this media hub, which aids in content discovery, truly separates it from Zinc.
When we clicked on a Daily Show episode recommended by another boxee user, the visuals automatically expanded to fill our MacBook Pro's 17-inch display, and played back smoothly over Wi-Fi. By clicking the Option icon, we could choose to watch the show in various aspect ratios (16:9, 4:3, 14:9, original, custom), and to tweak brightness and contrast, among other things. After watching a show, we were given the option to rate it ("Love It!" or "Naah"), or recommend it to specific friends. When we clicked Hulu to watch an episode of 24, the attractive visuals once again came into play, as we were treated to a very cool close up of Jack Bauer's face that lay behind the transparent episode selection boxes.
Several clever features enhance the experience. When you select a movie, boxee draws up (if available) a synopsis of the film, along with trailers and other related information. When playing a song, clicking the info button provides artist profiles and album reviews. Another button, AB Lyrics, feeds in lyrics from LyricWiki.org of the song you're listening to. While playing Coldplay's "Politik," accurate lyrics popped up for us to follow along.
We were able to log into our Last.fm account and listen to our favorite tunes, as well as fire up RadioTime, which let us listen to local terrestrial radio stations that broadcast online, such as Pulse 87 (electronic dance). The audio was crisp and didn't suffer from any breakups. Additionally, the boxee App Box lets you add applications to the media center, such as the Pandora Video Series, the Onion News Network, and HBO audio podcasts.
DRM and File Format Support
Unlike Zinc, boxee runs into a roadblock when it comes to DRM-laced content. It's neither compatible with Apple's Fairplay (which isn't licensed to any third parties) or Windows Media DRM, so if you want to play some of your subscription music or video that is protected by the latter, it won't work in Boxee. Still, the software plays back just about every conceivable file format you can imagine (AAC, APE, DivX, JPEG, Quicktime, and more), so there aren't any problems playing non-DRM media. You can also add video/audio/torrent feeds.
Entertainment seekers will find much to like in boxee; its compatibility with a wide range of file formats and ability to aggregate online video content makes it a valuable tool--even with the company's on-again, off-again compatibility with Hulu. We would've liked the ability to play DRM files from within boxee (Zinc is your multimedia app of choice for doing that), but the content discovery enabled by this service's social networking features makes up for this deficiency. We can't wait for boxee to become available for Windows PCs.