Attaching a computer to your television opens up a great deal of entertainment content that was previously unavailable to you in the living room. But since you’re not sitting right in front of the screen, it can feel not as easy or pleasant as using your cable or satellite box. Thankfully, there are a host of media center applications that can solve this problem for us, like Windows Media Center, Front Row, and XBMC. In this video, I’ll be guiding you through one of the most popular of these applications: Boxee.
Boxee is free to use, and only requires a computer running Windows, Mac OS X or Linux and registration on the Boxee website. It also runs on Apple TV, but not quite as smoothly as on a PC, and not without a bit of hacking.
The Boxee interface is quite simple once you understand it, but it can be a little confusing at first. The home page brings in content from your Feeds and your Queues. The Feeds section is content shared by your friends, so if you don’t have any friends on Boxee, you’ll mainly see content recommended by Boxee staffers. You have personal control over the Queue, which is a list that you can add just about any content on Boxee to. You can also add TV shows to your Queue so that whenever a new episode is released it’ll automatically appear there.
All the content that you want to access is divided by type: Photos, Music, TV, Movies, etc. The Apps and Files section I’ll get to in a little bit.
The layout of these sections is pretty consistent, if a little confusing at first. The main screen is the “My” menu (My Photos, My Music, My Movies – you get the idea). These allow you to browse content by its cover art. All of the content stored locally is available, though you can also add online content here as well. There’s also a menu bar that’s hidden unless you press left. This menu allows you to search and sort your content. The TV section is unique in that there’s also a TV Library option, which allows you to browse some of the most popular TV shows that are available online.
When you’re in any of these sections, you can access just about any other section or go back to the home page by opening the popup menu by pressing Back or Escape. You’ll also notice that there’s empty boxes in the bottom of this menu – these are shortcuts. There’s the option of adding a shortcut in the menu of just about anything. Press the Add shortcut button, and it’ll show up here.
The kinds of content you can access with Boxee can essentially be divided into 2 categories: there’s the stuff stored locally on your computer, and there’s stuff that’s available on the web.
The stuff stored locally can be just about any kind of photo, video or audio file – Boxee is able to play just about any file type you throw at it. This is, of course, with the exception of any DRM-locked content. This means just about any video content you’ve bought from iTunes is not accessible through Boxee. For more info on how to digitize your DVDs, you can watch my video on How to Rip a DVD.
To allow Boxee to find your local content, you’ll have to specify where it is. Go to Settings > Media > Local Sources > Add New Source. Find the folder where it’s located, specify what kind of media it is, and how often you want Boxee to scan it. Scanning allows Boxee to pull cover art, descriptions, and other meta data from various online sources. This also brings your content into the “My” menus for easier browsing. Scanning takes some time, so you’ll likely have to wait a little bit after you’ve added a folder before content from it appears in these “My” menus. If it’s a folder that you’re constantly throwing stuff in, you might want to set it to scan “Daily” or “Monitored” so these menus are constantly updated. If it’s a folder you’re never going to add more stuff to, you can set it to scan “Once.” If you set it as “Private” you’ll still be able to access it by using Boxee’s file browser, but it won’t show up in your “My” menus.
Scanning is an imperfect process, and as well as Boxee handles it, it’s likely won’t be able to recognize everything you feed it. Obviously, the best way to avoid errors is to name your files correctly and avoid misspellings. The Boxee Knowledgebase has this helpful article on the best way to name your files so Boxee can recognize it.
If you don’t want to mess around with My menus, or you’re still waiting on Boxee to finish scanning, you can access any folder that you’ve added to Boxee by going to the Files section in the main menu. This brings up a file browser that works just like you’d expect a file browser to work.
The big draw for many users of Boxee, however, is the easy access to streaming online content. The best part of how Boxee handles this is that it’s content-specific and not provider specific. Say, for instance, you want to watch Lost. Instead of remembering which network owns it (and what its URL happens to be), you can do a search for “Lost” and Boxee will bring it up, giving you the option of watching it via ABC.com, Hulu, or locally if you have it stored on your computer.
Additional content from some sources, however, will require using one of the many third party applications available in the apps section of Boxee. Using an app is surprisingly simple – all you need to do is select it and press Start. Apps are organized much like your TV Shows, you can browse popular apps by visiting the Apps Library and you can add an App to your My menu by selecting Add to My Apps.
If you’ve got an iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, Android, Palm or Windows Mobile device, there’s a Boxee remote app that will allow you to control Boxee via wifi. You’ll need to install the remote app on your device, and go to Settings > Network > Servers and ensure that Enable Webserver is checked. If you have a Firewall, you’ll need to add an exception for Boxee.
The Boxee remote on iOS is unique in that it has this feature called gesture, which allows you to move the cursor by swiping across the screen. I’m not crazy about it myself, which is why I tend to use the traditional button interface. My favorite thing about the remote app, though, is that it’s contextual. If you’re moving around the interface, you have the directional buttons. If you enter a search field, it brings up a keyboard. If you’re playing a video, you get the standard play, pause and volume controls.
Lifehacker has this great feature comparison of Boxee, XBMC & Windows Media Center.
Tested also has this comparison between Boxee, XBMC & Plex, which is a Mac-only derivative of XBMC.
The Boxee User Guide is an extremely comprehensive resource for doing just about anything with Boxee.
If you’re not interested in plugging your computer into your TV, the Boxee Box by D-Link is planned for release this November. This is a video of Zach Klein, one of Boxee’s founders, plugging in the first Boxee Box from the D-Link factory: