Thinking outside the box

If you’ve followed my blog for a while, then you know I’m an avid user of Windows Media Center. Over the past 5 years, I’ve worked hard to integrate Media Center into my home entertainment equation as much as my budget (and my wife’s tolerance) will permit. At one time, I had completely replaced my conventional cable television interface using an HTPC equipped with a TV tuner, remote, and Media Center. Since then, I’ve continued building my home network piecemeal, and now I’ve finally arrived at 4 PCs running Windows 7 Ultimate, and I use HomeGroups and Media Center on each one to wirelessly stream my music, pictures, family videos, movies, and recorded programs to any TV in my house.

But it’s far from a perfect system. In fact, I would say I’ve developed a love/hate relationship with the whole setup. Early on, I used Windows Live Sync to shuttle content between devices pretty successfully, but the setup and maintenance was a bear, and I felt like I wasn’t maximizing my storage capabilities by replicating content all over my network. Then for a while, I kept all my media on a Linksys NAS-200, but the access times were painful and at times downright unreliable. It’s hard to convince family and guests to engage a HTPC when it takes 5 minutes to display the movie library and eternity to load a movie, which continues to stutter throughout. When the NAS finally died (and took my data with it), I slapped a 1 TB hard drive in an actual PC, set it up as a proper media server, and begrudgingly started building my media library…all over again.

Yeah, in part it probably was my fault for not having a faster wireless network or better hardware, but I continually got the sense that the software powering the experience wasn’t making my life any easier, either. Windows Media Center does some pretty nifty things; for instance, the music library is really intelligent and the slideshow pan-and-zoom effect has always been a crowd-pleaser. But there are plenty of areas where it has continued to frustrate and disappoint me. Support for movies greatly improved in Windows 7 but still seemed to be geared around ripping actual DVDs. Shoe-horning my “externally acquired” movies into the library always proved challenging. No automated cover art. No subtitles. No consistency of navigation. And while Media Center has excellent support for analog cable TV, its Internet TV choices are extremely limited (unless you’re really into old Twilight Zone episodes). Plus, there’s no out-of-the-box support for external media content services, such as Pandora, Hulu, YouTube, and others, so if I wanted to jump to an external site, that meant dragging out the keyboard and using Windows to do it.

But I’m a Microsoft guy for better or worse, so I’ve been hesitant to shop around for a different solution. I tried XBMC a while back, which impressed me with its slick visuals and customizable interface, but it has a zillion configuration options, and ultimately I found it too difficult to program my remote control to work with the system.

That all changed last week, when I finally downloaded and installed Boxee. It just works, period. Boxee is a free media center interface, built on the XBMC platform, that supports a variety of platforms, including Windows, Mac, and Linux; D-Link is also working on a dedicated set-top Boxee device. The service is currently in open beta, but I got the sense that it’s pretty solid. Billed as the world’s first “social media center,” the entire experience is powered by an account-based website, so many of your preferences can be managed there and seamlessly float with you to any Boxee installation. The tool does all the things you’d expect from a media center: it organizes your local music, videos, and photos, lets you control playback, and runs nifty slide shows and visualizations. But it does so much more.

Boxee seamlessly integrates Internet media from all over the place. For instance, if you hit the TV Shows hub, then you have the option to show either your TV shows (meaning those you’ve recorded or stored on your local network) or the online TV show library, which encompasses a vast array of sources, including major networks, cable providers, Hulu, and more, all presented to you without regard to provider. You can browse popular shows, search for specific titles, and even queue up shows you want to remember to watch. All of it with gorgeous automatic cover art and descriptive metadata. There’s a similar arrangement for other media, such as movies and music. Boxee does not currently support live TV broadcasts, but I think I could find myself watching more and more on-demand content with a system that’s this user-friendly.

The world is finally catching on that entertainment is a naturally social experience, and that’s a nuance that isn’t lost on Boxee. You can easily wire up the service to communicate with popular social networks, including the juggernauts Facebook and Twitter, but also Google Buzz and others. By simply clicking a ubiquitous heart icon, your recommendations are seamlessly broadcast to your followers, using privacy settings that are dead simple to configure.

Another great feature is the integration of third-party apps, which like their more familiar mobile device cousins, are effectively streamlined versions of media websites optimized for the Boxee 10-foot interface. And there are hundreds of them. The Pandora app allows you to access your custom stations, stream music, and rate selections, just like the conventional website. The FailBlog app finds video clips from the infamous site on YouTube and DailyMotion and plays them at a full-screen resolution. Of course, there’s also the Boxee browser, which provides a remote friendly, fully functional web browser powered by Mozilla, so you can actually surf without leaving the media center app.

In short, Boxee effectively blurs the line between stuff on your PC and stuff on the Internet. For the first time in a long time, the prospect of casually playing content no longer fills me with angst. In fact, I sort of feel like I’ve been toiling with Paint and finally discovered Photoshop. Yeah, it’s that good.

Nothing against Windows Media Center, which is still one of the most elegant and versatile tools ever designed by Microsoft, but Boxee adds some sorely needed features. I’m sure I‘ll continue to leverage both solutions in tandem to get the most from my HTPC.

Ironically, many of Boxee’s podcasting and social features are already available in Microsoft’s other media manager, the vastly underrated Zune Player. My hope is that the next version of Windows includes a unified Media Center that incorporates the best features of Media Player and Zune, and also borrows a few of the slick nuances of Boxee. I think there’s a better chance of stepping in unicorn poop. In the meantime if you’re a media enthusiast like me, do yourself a favor. Grab a copy of Boxee and discover a real media center powerhouse.

– Greg

PS: If you’re a die-hard Media Center fan with an occasional jones for Boxee content, or a Boxee fan who’d like a little DVR action, there’s a free utility that can simply integrate a Boxee icon into Windows Media Center, effectively giving you the best of both worlds (there’s a similar plug-in for Hulu Desktop, too).

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