I consume a lot of media on-line. In fact, were it not for the fact that I’m married to a Buckeye fan (who requires live sporting events) I’m pretty sure I could give up our monthly cable and not skip a beat. It’s not that I’m a television snob–I like plenty of television. It’s that technology has come to the point where I don’t need to watch anything (other than Buckeye football) when it airs. A big part of that are devices like the Apple TV, Boxee Box and Roku, all of which allow you to watch different kinds of content over the Internet on your TV.
My “ultimate” media box is almost here, and the Roku and Boxee both come close, yet fall just short. If they mated, we’d have a winner. Here’s what I’m after:
- I want streaming media: Netflix and Hulu Plus are required, Amazon, Vudu, etc. are nice but not deal breakers.
- It should be able to play any type of media I throw at it (within reason). For me, that’s primarily MPEG video, MP3 Audio, and JPEG Photos.
- I need to not only get streaming services, I need to be able to browse my local files (I’ve digitized my entire CD library and I take a lot of home video).
- The interface needs to be non-techie friendly, so other members of my household can use it without always needing my assistance.
So with those requirements in mind, here’s how the Roku and Boxee Box stack up.
It seems that a number of my tech friends own Roku’s (pronounced “Row Koo”) and I wanted a device to put on a second TV to get Netflix streaming, so I figured I would give the Roku a shot. The Roku is certainly the more affordable of the two. Models start at $59 and top out at $99. I purchased the XD/S. All of the Roku models have HDMI out for pumping video to HD televisions and they all come with a remote. I went with the XD/S because I wanted the dual-band wireless and the USB port (for convenience, mostly). If you don’t have a need for USB or the dual band, save the money and get the mid-range model.
The box itself is small and the build quality seems fine. It’s very unobtrusive in the small cabinet where my second TV sits. The remote functions fine and there is even a remote app for it to control the box from a smartphone which works well, too.
The Roku is based on a “Channel” model. So out of the box it has “Channels” configured for things like YouTube, etc. and you can then add Channels for the services you want to add. I had some issues getting the box to play nice with my wireless, but I’m not running your average home network, so I won’t go into details of that here. Suffice it to say that it took me about an hour to get it running, but it’s been very steady ever since.
What the Roku does, it does well. I’ve had good results streaming Hulu Plus and Netflix content. I also use it to get a Weather Underground feed. The interface isn’t the most beautiful in the world, it looks like it was designed by developers–not designers–but it’s functional and not confusing. I’d say it’s a very solid streaming performance and well worth the price.
Unfortunately, what the Roku doesn’t do is play local media. Well, that’s not entirely true. There is the USB port. However, there is not (currently) any good way to get access to my music, photos and videos that are stored on my NAS (Network Area Storage) box. That’s a *big* detractor for me, and why I wouldn’t use the Roku as my main media device. Part of the problem seems to be inherent to the device itself: it was clearly built for streaming, not downloading, and most local media doesn’t stream. This is a big drawback, though, and I think moving forward Roku will have to address this need, or they’ll end up failing to other boxes that serve it.
Next up is the Boxee Box. Boxee has been around for a while in the media game, making software that runs on your PC so it can act as a media center. I’ve used it on my Mac for a while and it’s really fantastic. The Boxee Box represents the first foray into the dedicated hardware arena for Boxee. It’s a small cube made by D-Link that runs the Boxee software. It’s pretty.
The overall build quality feels about the same as the Roku, but the similarities end there. It’s really a shame that the first Boxee Box is made by D-Link, because the hardware seems to be buggy as hell. The wireless card in it doesn’t support 5GHz (even though it was release in late 2010!) I had a *nightmare* of a time getting this box on the network. And I had problems updating the Boxee software on it as well. I eventually got it running and it seems stable, but it was a whole lot more effort for a nearly $200 box.
Fortunately, the other saving graces of the software make this box a winner. Boxee has clearly put more effort into user interface design, as the UI feels much slicker and looks much more refined than the Roku. The interface is gorgeous and really easy to use.
The Boxee does now support Netflix streaming, but it still doesn’t do Hulu Plus, which is a definite limitation for me, but Boxee has been in negotiation with Hulu and is *supposed* to be brining out Hulu support sometime soon. I hope that’s not just a rumor.
The Boxee Box is really outstanding when it comes to playing local media. It’s been able to play anything I’ve thrown at it. Music, videos, photos, all look great on it, and it all works without too much trouble. It even indexes movies (although it does so painfully slowly sometimes) and displays them with their cover art. Nice.
To me, there is no question that the Boxee Box is the more polished of the two devices, and it does everything it does quite well. If other hardware vendors get on the bandwagon and someone makes a slightly higher quality box, and they get their Hulu ducks in a row, the Boxee could be a device to be reckoned with.
Overall, both boxes do what they do well, they just do slightly different things. If all you care about is streaming Netflix movies and Hulu television shows, the Roku fits the bill. It’s affordable and it allows you to watch media from the net like a champ. If you’re like me, though, and it’s just as important (if not more so) to be able to watch your own media from your local network, it’s Boxee all the way.
For me, I’ll keep both for the time being. But once Boxee manages to offer Hulu streaming as well, I probably won’t have a need for the Roku anymore (unless Roku can make some big strides in the user interface and playing local media before then.) But I probably won’t buy another D-Link Boxee Box. I’ll either hold out for a better hardware vendor, or make my own small media PC.