Review: Boxee Live TV

If you're a Boxee Box owner, you probably noticed the revamped and streamlined main menu in the latest iteration of the OS, Boxee 1.5. The company's new USB stick goes that one better, adding live TV to the do-it-all streamer's ever-expanding repertoire.

The Hauppauge-made device plugs into an available USB port (an extender cable is thoughtfully provided, since given the Boxee's. . . er, unique form factor, placement can be a problem otherwise); a coaxial port on the other end connects to an OTA antenna (a miniature, though effective unit is provided in the box). Alternately, you can bring your own antenna if you need more horsepower to grab local HDTV content, or if you don't have an antenna you can hook up to your cable to take advantage of ClearQAM channels.

Live TV is an obvious addition to the Boxee's already overflowing list of services; having it onboard frees you from switching back and forth between your Box and your TV tuner or cable box - and of course, what it's really meant to do is free you from your cable box - the Live TV is aimed squarely at cable cutters; the packaging plastered with reminders about how much you're overpaying for TV content.

Setup was simple. The Boxee in my home is currently connected to a large monitor that has no onboard tuner, in a room without a cable connection, so it was an obvious candidate for the upgrade. I plugged in the dongle, started up the Boxee, where I found a new main menu option: "Live TV." We were in business.

Clicking there, I was greeted with a series of friendly prompts asking whether I was making an antenna or cable connection, and for my zip code (for program-guide-building purposes). Choosing the former, I got underway. (The room in which I placed the Boxee and tuner is somewhat reception-challenged, so I resort to an amplified antenna rather than the included passive device to get the Box to grab channels; 70 in all once the process was completed) The scan took no more than a few minutes, and I was up and running with zero hassle. One of the more seamless setups I've experienced recently.

Switching over to Live TV from the Boxee's main menu, I found myself presented with a minimalist program guide overlaying the leftmost border of my monitor's screen; that screen, shockingly enough, was displaying live TV content. The guide's well-designed aesthetically, though it doesn't give you much of a look ahead - there's only a single day's worth of content included, and no full calendar-style program guide. You can page right to see upcoming time slots. You can also edit down your channel list if you'd like to ignore any of the OTA channels available in your area (you're bound to end up with some duplicates in a typical urban area).

There's a social twist here as well, in keeping with today's tastes. As part of the program guide you'll see a count of other Boxee users watching listed shows; you can also enable a Facebook feed (and add a Boxee Timeline app) if you feel like keeping all of your online friends apprised of your viewing habits. Not for me, personally, but it makes for an interesting discovery application, and the Boxee viewership widget is certainly a neat gauge of what's popular among the device's demographic, if nothing else.

Functionally, Live TV was as expected - reception glitches were handled nicely, with a cute Boxee graphic alerting me to low-signal situations. Otherwise, it worked like a TV tuner should: more-or-less invisibly. Scrolling up and down the program guide was smooth and effortless, and navigating between broadcast content and Web-based services was a snap. I still wish the Boxee's remote was backlit, but that's another story.

So who's this for? Is it worth $50 to avoid using your TV's onboard tuner? Does it help you cut the cord? In my case (remember, I'm using the Boxee to add not just smarts, but any broadcast content at all, to an otherwise dumb monitor), adding a tuner directly to the streamer makes for a nice, integrated experience I couldn't have any other way, but I may represent a limited market. If you have a contemporary TV and, say, a programmable remote (or remote app for your iOS or Android phone or tablet), you could easily replicate the sheer ease-of-use of this with a few programming keystrokes.

Of course, most any TV you can buy will also get you a lot of the Boxee's functionality in the first place, so I think interest in this is going to be based on how much you like the Boxee experience overall. The Boxee has a lot to offer beyond on-demand video - it plays back just about any audio and video file format from USB drives and NAS (it plays back hi-rez FLAC from a network drive, so I've been using mine to stream audio; an optical out lets you connect to the DAC of your choice), has a nice little remote, regular updates and new apps, and a devoted following. If you're a devotee already and you want to add a little OTA content while maintaining an integrated all-Boxee experience, this isn't a bad bet. Especially if you consider one (hopefully) forthcoming feature. . .

There's been a huge volume of talk on the Boxee blog and discussion forums (and a number of statements from the Boxee crew as well) about a DVR feature that's in the exploratory phase. Given that the Box already supports USB drives and has an SD Card slot, this would seem a natural progression, and the addition of DVR features (which would also require an expanded program guide with at least a week's worth of content) could make the tuner package a truly winning addition to the Boxee world; and might make the Boxee itself a compelling purchase for those not already sold on the platform.