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First Look: Boxee - The Social Media Centre

Getting to Grips with Boxee bits

So I go ahead and add a user. I don't realise that this is the same login as I've used on the Boxee website and get it wrong the first time around. It offers to remember my password so at least I'm happy with not having to fish out my keyboard every time... then I remember my "Windows" remote obviously won't work (an absolute must on XBMC was the Xbox remote) and nor does my mouse, so keyboard it is.

Apparently the OSX version does allow use of the remote natively, however being Mac it's much simpler and can't make use of all of Boxee's features. Because of this, it's well worth having your keyboard to hand in case you want to do something that the remote can't. The good news is that there is already a selection of Boxee hacks to get some remotes working, however I feel my situation will be more of a limitation of drivers between the Microsoft remote and not-Microsoft operating system I'm running here.

The good thing about logging on is that it appeals to the multi-use environment and customised experience - where you keep your own downloads and your own media links separate to those of your family or friends you share the same hardware with: after all, most of us have just one living/family room.

If you enjoy your music with gritty metal edge, you don't want to be presented with a splash of cute and fluffy teen-pop from your twelve year old relative. Similarly, I doubt you want your family finding those, let's say, 'grown up' video feeds you watch when no one else is home either.

First up I'm presented with some recommendations from friends I've added to Boxee over the web - Tom suggests TED Talks (he clearly has taste!) and the August trailer, which I watch and then decide maybe not so much. I click it and the trailer plays perfectly - it loads effortlessly, plays perfectly and scales correctly to the screen. Spacebar is play and pause (as you'd expect) but I can't find any skip, and pressing other keys on the keyboard stops the video and sends me right back out top level. I later find out that because it's streamed you can't skip, but normal video has the usual long and short skip functionality.

Trying again I find the "more info" part, but it's unfortunately not filled in for this trailer and I can't see how to tell it to go find the information either. If I did want to recommend it myself though, here was where to do it - this goes on my Boxee feed and it will alert others to the fact I like it.

First Look: Boxee - The Social Media Centre Boxee bits First Look: Boxee - The Social Media Centre Boxee bits
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Flicking around the interface, it's relatively simple to use but very busy - with the left hand column selecting the different parts and centre space dominated by recommendations and recent activity.

Finding my own video to watch is a relatively easy process too; straight away there's a selection between Internet Video and My Videos, so I choose My Videos and go through the options menu to search SMB shares to add my NAS box. It's very efficient and it doesn't chug like Vista MCE does when surfing network shares and making thumbnails. By adding a source, you can include it in your video section to easily make a shortcut, however we found that (a little later) going out then back in again and using the shortcut caused Boxee to crash.

In the most recent update this has been fixed and Boxee now not only appears to pick up network shares perfectly, but it automatically grabs DVD/Video from your folders and links to them in the top level. In addition to this, there is also art and a summary of what's in the folder automatically added. For example, if you have DVD backups of Family Guy in a folder, under the detailed view the folder icon will be the box art and it gives "Sick, Twisted, Politically incorrect and freakin' sweet, the animated series features the adventures of the Griffin Family." That's absolutely genius, and great media centre material.

Unfortunately it's not perfect though - if you have multiple seasons listed under one directory they all appear with the same box art and title so it's impossible to differentiate between them. To remove the label you have to select the video then go into the "more" section and manually edit it. It's not perfect, but since it has to deal with all sorts of strange file names and content organisation styles it's certainly an admirable attempt.

Skipping through my media the view can effortlessly be changed if you have long file names, or want to see the thumbnails. If you exit the video half way through it'll sit in your "Recently Used" section on the highest level so it's easy to go back to later. Sadly though, we didn't see a "resume from last position" option that would certainly be useful. Again, for those not wanting to keep a record of what's been watched, this can easily be cleared in the main settings.

General navigation can be improved for consistency though - I found out in some parts that sometimes escape is more of a 'hard cancel and close' rather than a 'go backwards' key, and instead backspace should be used. It's a case of learning what's what on a particular section but it can be extremely frustrating to be thrown right out to the top level when you just wanted to go up just one. This is where I miss the MCE remote most of all as it has both the top level button in the middle and the "go back" button separate.

First Look: Boxee - The Social Media Centre Boxee bits First Look: Boxee - The Social Media Centre Boxee bits
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I try an x264 HD video in an mkv container and it's received unhappily and Boxee not only dies, it locks up the entire PC. I restart it and try again, this time it works first time. It seems that it can't handle starting a new video while a paused video is in the background. It's an alpha after all and things like this still need to be worked out.

Unfortunately there's no video acceleration from my GPU's UVD engine - it's all handled by the CPU, but it still plays just fine. It's again a driver limitation, as ATI simply hasn't opened up the use of UVD outside of its Windows drivers yet. Because the software is not bloated and really quite nippy I try another HD video I know taxes the CPU too much on a Windows machine, hoping that the extra overhead available will be enough to play it, but unfortunately it's not the case and my 1080p video still stutters.