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Will Boxee’s $6 million help make media PCs less rubbish?

Posted on 14th Aug 2009 at 08:17 by Alex Watson with 18 comments

Alex Watson
Last Friday we sent the latest issue of Custom PC off to the printers – and it’s back already, looking mean and moody with a water-cooled PC on the front – so it means this week I’ve been starting my tasks for the next issue. First up, the letters page, and I’ve just answered an interesting one about media PCs.

Specifically, why they’re rubbish – I had a long email from a reader detailing a pretty tortuous experience building and setting up a media PC. Despairingly, he’d turned to us to see if we could alleviate any of his misery.

Unfortunately, my reply to the reader’s question wasn’t much of a consolation. On the one hand, the team has a lot of experience with media PCs – I think most of us either have one at home, or have had one at some point. On the other hand, few of us have many good things to say about them.

They crash.
They’re noisy.
Certain video files won’t work.
They love throwing up totally bizarre errors (mine won’t play audio from DVDs in MCE, when audio works fine from MP3s, for instance).
The remote controls don’t work properly.
Update boxes appear while you’re watching films.

The list goes on and pretty much everyone who’s had them ends up thinking Sky Plus is better.

And yet, and yet, in some senses they clearly are the future. They work brilliantly with BBC iPlayer; storage is so cheap as to be effectively limitless allowing you to assemble a huge collection of media. You can access TV shows that aren’t available in the UK – be it anime, or even big US drama series’ such as Friday Night Lights. You can watch YouTube on the big screen.

If you’ve built a few PCs you can get round some of the issues with hardware, and build yourself a fairly small and quiet machine fairly cheaply. The Gigabyte 785G board Rich reviewed last week costs under £70 and has HDMI built in, for instance.

The problem really comes with the software. Windows Media Center is fine… but it has its issues, the biggest being its lack of compatibility with a broad range of video files. You need something like VLC to cope with MKVs – but VLC doesn’t have a remote control friendly interface.

Will Boxee’s $6 million help make media PCs less rubbish?
Hi, my name is Boxee...

One of the pieces of software that I think shows the most promise is Boxee. It’s come a long way since we first previewed it and at its best, it combines the wide-ranging compatibility of VLC with MCE’s slick interface. It’s also got some interesting social features, and easy-to-add plug-ins (which they call apps, because, hey the iPhone is popular). These add streaming from sites such as MLB.TV and The Onion and when it works, it’s really cool.

When it works being the operative phrase – Boxee is alpha software, and it shows. Still, they just announced they’ve secured $6 million in funding, which is terrific news for media PC enthusiasts. Well, it could be. Boxee has said it’s going to use the money to improve the product (that is, the software), but it’s also interested in building its own hardware. That could prove to be very, very expensive and time consuming.

Still, for the time being I think Boxee is one of the most promising pieces of media PC software around, and the fact it’s got a decent amount of cash behind it should mean a steady stream of updates.

18 Comments

Discuss in the forums Reply
yakyb 14th August 2009, 08:40 Quote
windows 7 media centre has been good so far.

few problems tho
the MKV problem (esspecially on 64 bit)
and a lack of any form Tv show (with series) interface (like in mediaportal)

its also not entirely easy to navigate when trying to find settings for example i was trying to add some extras on to it (eve online had added itself automatically) but could i add pro evo? i couldnt even find the setting.

granted i have only been using it 5 days and sporadically at best but i hope to dig deeper at some point this weekend
Xir 14th August 2009, 08:55 Quote
Not living in the UK (and so not having acces to BBC-iplayer), how to realize the "You can access TV shows that aren’t available in the UK " part?

I've tried proxies...and they're generally too slow for streaming... youtube is for some reason limited to very short clips and has a usually horrible resolution.
I'm somehow missing this world-wide-media-availability.

Sure, I could torrent the lot but that's appearently not the way you do it, or is it?
Spiny 14th August 2009, 09:14 Quote
"You need something like VLC to cope with MKVs "

Huh?

Install Windows
Install ffdshow
Install Haali Media Splitter
Play anything

...
davefelcher 14th August 2009, 09:18 Quote
Some comments on your points about media centres:
They crash - really? I leave mine on 24/7 and it works like a charm (I've used Vista and Win 7 RC).
They’re noisy - That would be down to your poor choice of components.
Certain video files won’t work - Like what? I've not come across a file that won't play, including mkv. http://shark007.net/win7codecs.html (note the add ons required for 64-bit).
They love throwing up totally bizarre errors (mine won’t play audio from DVDs in MCE, when audio works fine from MP3s, for instance) - Not seen bizarre errors. Friend had the DVD sound issue (in Vista) where mp3s were fine. His volume bar had it muted DVD playback but all other sound was enabled.
The remote controls don’t work properly - Not sure what you mean, I've used the MS one and the Hauppauge ones without issue.
Update boxes appear while you’re watching films - Not seen this myself, can you configure it to not interrupt video playback?

Best tip I could give is buy decent branded hardware. I've had no end of trouble with cheap rubbish (Asrock is the main culprit).
UncertainGod 14th August 2009, 09:29 Quote
Just had a play around with Boxee and I am quite impressed how everything integrates together very well, will keep an eye on it's progress although I hope they don't go the custom hardware route as that just guarantee's that the project will fail.
Sifter3000 14th August 2009, 10:04 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Spiny
"You need something like VLC to cope with MKVs "

Huh?

Install Windows
Install ffdshow
Install Haali Media Splitter
Play anything

...

SPINY!! CHECK YOUR BLEEDIN' PMS!
shaffaaf27 14th August 2009, 18:28 Quote
honestly the best Media Player is KMP.

its amazing and was made for remotes aswell :)
roundyz 14th August 2009, 19:40 Quote
xbmc ?
MaverickWill 14th August 2009, 19:50 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Sifter3000
SPINY!! CHECK YOUR BLEEDIN' PMS!

Is this in response to Haali Media Splitter being bad/buggy/virus-packed, or something we don't need to know about? *cue shady blokes in suits and shades slowly approaching behind me*
bobwya 14th August 2009, 21:45 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by roundyz
xbmc ?

Yeh what about the truly multi-platform solutions - poor show Bit-tech not even to mention this one!
UncertainGod 15th August 2009, 02:17 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by bobwya
Yeh what about the truly multi-platform solutions - poor show Bit-tech not even to mention this one!

Well if you read anything about boxee you would know that it IS XBMC + the closed source social media and net scrapping features.
LAGMonkey 15th August 2009, 04:16 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Xir
Not living in the UK (and so not having acces to BBC-iplayer), how to realize the "You can access TV shows that aren’t available in the UK " part?

I've tried proxies...and they're generally too slow for streaming... youtube is for some reason limited to very short clips and has a usually horrible resolution.
I'm somehow missing this world-wide-media-availability.

Sure, I could torrent the lot but that's appearently not the way you do it, or is it?

vpngates.com

and that is all im going to say on the matter.

but come on Bit.... XBMC, and as for the noise?! thats just a hardware choice! you cant hold media PCs to that one just cos youve chosen the incorrect hardware before!

EDIT::
and as for Boxee.... me thinks Bit has been dazzled by web 2.0 i dont need to blooming "social" marketing for my XBMC. play vids, play music, use iplayer. job done. i dont care if somone is watching the same stuff as me on the toilet.
pimonserry 15th August 2009, 15:27 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Xir

Sure, I could torrent the lot but that's appearently not the way you do it, or is it?

TBH, if it isn't aired in the UK, I see no reason not to torrent it. You've paid your TV License, so if it was on the TV it'd be free anyway. In my book that's fair game ;)
yodasarmpit 15th August 2009, 16:02 Quote
Quote:
The problem really comes with the software. Windows Media Center is fine… but it has its issues, the biggest being its lack of compatibility with a broad range of video files. You need something like VLC to cope with MKVs – but VLC doesn’t have a remote control friendly interface.
Out of the box yes, but ten minutes after installing windows followed by installing the CCCP codec pack and it'll play about anything.

If that's the main issue, then it's a non issue tbh.
DragunovHUN 15th August 2009, 16:08 Quote
Rapp 17th August 2009, 11:31 Quote
Have a look at this http://tvcatchup.com/ you can stream all the free view channels live straight over the internet, really useful if you don' have a TV card. Its still very new but should have lots of features added to it soon.
Aracos 17th August 2009, 14:13 Quote
MythTV?
HourBeforeDawn 17th August 2009, 16:29 Quote
Im running a HTPC and well its more silent then any my other AV equipment in the room lol, heard of thing called passive cooling?
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