The news that Boxee was developing a hardware box through D-Link has been around for quite some time. This was made official with a press release in CES 2010. Ever since the talk started, the HTPC and media streamer community as well as the press has been abuzz with fulsome praise, as though heralding the arrival of the messiah who would deliver us all from the encumbrances associated with a HTPC setup.

The Boxee Box is indeed a game changer, but not of the sort that the average enthusiast wants. In my opinion, it deserves fulsome praise for taking the bold step to use a platform meant for the portable media player / tablet space in a set top box type media streamer. Never before has anything like this been attempted by any other player in this space. Have we ever heard of the iPod chips or cell phone application processors being used in HTPCs or the AppleTV or the Popcorn Hours? No! However, this is indeed the way of things to come, as semiconductor technology keeps on improving, and more and more powerful products start appearing at lower power and price points. The Tegra 2 platform is indeed a big step in this direction, but, is it powerful enough to lead the charge as Boxee wants us to believe?

Media streamer and HTPC enthusiasts have long been over promised and under delivered, most recently by the Realtek platform (Xtreamer is a particular case in point), and it only makes sense that they remain sceptical of the marketing claims of new products. However, the community never seems to learn, as blogs and forum posts talk of it being able to play any non-DRM media, and do everything that Boxee can do with its software platform on traditional HTPCs. People have even ventured to say that this would be a fully capable HTPC platform and there is nothing to indicate otherwise. We have already covered in previous posts as to what a fully capable HTPC platform is, and we will analyze whether the expectations are really fulfilled when the box arrives in the market. Till then, we have to speculate based on available information as to whether the expectations are really justified. Speculations leading to tempered expectations are eventually beneficial to the product.

Boxee has primarily been a software component run on HTPCs by people who need a nice user interface to the HTPC services. The fact that it is supported on multiple OSes indicates that the user base has completely different types of machines running underneath, not least on the hardware front. A Boxee user could have GPUs from Nvidia or ATI or Intel accelerating the playback of his local media. With a hardware box, I believe Boxee has inadvertently opened a Pandora's Box. In the rest of this post, I will put forward some observations in support of this fact. I will be looking at the box from two perspective, namely, the HTPC owner and the media streamer box enthusiast.

Boxee Box for the HTPC Market

By designing a box which makes it almost impossible for the end-user to change components, Boxee has ignored the most important advantage of a HTPC platform, namely, the ability to upgrade. For example, let us assume that the Boxee Box doesn't bitstream HD audio (There is nothing in the press release to indicate otherwise). A HTPC user interested in getting a cheap bitstreaming solution down the road would probably be looking at the ATI 5450 releasing in a couple of months. He puts down $50, gets one and replaces the aging graphics card he has inside his HTPC and is all set!

HTPCs are usually built upon the x86 platform. The software ecosystem is incredibly huge, giving the user utmost freedom in what he wants to do with the HTPC. Boxee Box will be running some flavour of Linux. However, the OS itself is not the issue, but the platform is. Tegra 2 is based on a dual core ARM Cortex-A9. People do have media that need to be decoded in software on the processor. An example in case is Real Video found in RMVB files. In the x86 platform, it is just a matter of downloading the appropriate codec (be it in Linux or Windows) and you are all set to play it. Not surprisingly, the Boxee Box press release doesn't advertise the playback of RMVB files. Unless the codec is compiled from source for the ARM Cortex-A9 platform, it is simply a no-go. How easy is it to compile for a new platform? What would the performance of the decoder be on the new platform? Would it be powerful enough to decode HD Real Media samples? Only time will tell. In essence, there will be a dearth of pre-built binaries for various tasks on the Tegra 2. Nvidia claims that Windows CE, Ubuntu and Android are all available on the Tegra 2, but it is probably just the base OS. Compiling popular x86 software for the new platform and whether the platform would be powerful enough to handle this remains to be seen.

Boxee Box for the Media Streamer Market

Purchasers of media streamers are usually owners of a HTPC in one form of the other, with the streamer replacing a part of the functionality of the HTPC. Many press reports describe the Boxee Box as a media streamer. These reports have led the community to believe that it can replace dedicated media streaming boxes such as the WDTV Live or the Asus O!Play. Can this really happen? The initial specs in the press release don't lend us much confidence. Boxee is also guilty of not indicating what type of encodes are really supported (the H.264 level, profile, maximum bitrate etc. / Support for Qpel & GMC in MPEG-4 and so on). It also falters similarly on the support for passthrough of DTS and Dolby Digital soundtracks over the HDMI output (bitstreaming of HD audio is conspicuous by its absence). Is multi-channel sound supported? If not, what is the maximum number of channels? 2.0, 5.1 or 7.1?


It would be foolhardy on the part of the community to expect all the features available in the HTPC version of Boxee to make its way into the media streamer version. Boxee would do good to clarify the exact capabilities of the Boxee Box so as to avoid unnecessarily raising the hopes of the HTPC and media streamer enthusiasts.