As cord cutting becomes an acceptable media choice for consumers, the devices freeing us from our cable companies are each carving their niche. While companies like Apple and Google continue to throw their weight in the Free TV space with little real innovation, Boxee continues to grow by improving and expanding their Boxee Box. Instead of relying solely on free online content, Netflix and their plethora of official and unofficial apps, Boxee has been continuously adding new features to their little box over the last year. Now, with the Live TV add-on, Boxee has put yet another killer app on their already excellent streaming box.
Live TV requires the Boxee Box, so if you don’t have one, you’ll have to grab one to use this feature. I have one and highly recommend it, you can pick up a Boxee Box on Amazon or at some brick-and-mortar stores.
The Live TV feature for Boxee Box was released at the end of January, and does exactly what its name promises, adds live television reception. The Live TV is essentially a USB HD TV tuner designed just for the Boxee Box.
When you open the cute little box, you’ll see how small and simple the dongle is. The Live TV device itself is smaller than a big pack of Fruit Stripe (remember Fruit Stripe?!) and includes an extendable HD antenna and all the cables needed to get it working right out of the box.
Before the Boxee Box will accept your dongle and all the juicy TV content it can pull in, you’ll need to update the software on your Boxee Box to at least version 1.5, if you don’t have AutoUpdate notifications turned on you can get the update here.
If you already have the latest Boxee version, then grab your Boxee Box, plug in the USB stick and attach the included antenna to the coaxial nub – if you have basic (read: unscrambled) cable you can optionally attach that instead. Once attached and functioning, the stick will light up. If you’ve plugged it all in and updated correctly, you’ll see the new Live TV icon on the left of the main menu.
When you click Live TV for the first time, you’ll be greeted by a guided setup which could take a while – plan on at least 15 minutes. Boxee’s Live TV will need to know your location so it can determine your TV listings. When it finally completes its scanning process you’re off and running.
Boxee Box Live TV is exceedingly simple. Entering Live TV takes a few seconds – probably due to the decoding of the HD signal – but once you receive your first free, over-the-air HD you’ll be delighted. The all digital HD picture is crisp, and the colors are vibrant, and when the signal is not being sent in HD, the picture is still acceptable for SD. Aside from the picture, the Boxee LiveTV can decode the 5.1 audio broadcast with some channels (it will tell you if the signal contains advanced audio) and through my 7.1 surround setup everything sounded great.
In my house in Washington, D.C., Live TV picked up 12 channels, but only a couple of them really well; extending the antenna improved the pull down of the spotty channels a lot. To further improve the signal, keep the antenna away from other home theater electronics. The included USB cable is long enough to get it a little way away from their interfering fields.
Using the Live TV interface is slightly different from the rest of the Boxee Box experience and takes a little getting used to.
Pressing left on the directional pad of the remote brings up the channel listings, however pressing right doesn’t make them go away (as I had expected) and instead scrolls forward 30 minutes to the next block of programming. From a consistency perspective, this is out-of-sorts with the rest of the functionality, but the ability to scroll to future time listings is essential. Instead, hit the menu button to ‘close’ the channel view. If you’re of simpler belief and don’t care to look at the listings at all, simply hit up or down to change channels like a regular remote.
When changing channels, (or when activating the heads-up overlay) the Boxee Box will show you lots of information about the show you’ve settled on. Like when watching other Boxee videos, you’ll see sharing, information and settings buttons, however you’ll also get the name of the channel, the show being aired and how many other people are watching.
The last of those brings a social, word-of-mouth environment to the screen in a way I’d never seen before and frankly, I like it a lot. I’m not used to having over-the-air television anymore, and I sometimes find it hard to ascertain the value of a show I know nothing about, but if 12 other people are watching it… then maybe it’s good?
Twelve other people might not sound like a lot, but it seems to be based on the people in your networks and the Boxee Live TV system. As the system is still relatively new, I have yet to see hundreds or thousands of people watching a single show, but the numbers do seem to be rising.
Aside from the Live TVs talking to each other, your Live TV can be set up to share what you’re watching with your Facebook timeline similar to Spotify. Don’t worry, the Boxee Box won’t tell your friends every channel you stop on, instead it will only report those you’ve been watching for more than two minutes.
Admittedly, this sharing feature added some anxiety. I found myself stopping on shows I knew my friends would judge me for watching, but once I got used to it, I stopped caring. My friends already know what I watch. More often than not, I figured it would encourage conversation around what people are watching. Plus, I can feel validated that my friends knew I finally caught an episode of Modern Family.
As far as advanced features go, Live TV has very few. You can edit channels, choosing to either remove or rename them, and you can change your sharing settings.
While not exactly an advanced feature, the Live TV doesn’t have to be used with the included antenna. If you have a basic (read: unscrambled) cable signal, then run the cable right from the wall into the dongle and run the setup, selecting the ‘cable’ option instead of the antenna option. Furthermore, to pull in even more stations, you could purchase a powered HD antenna and attach that to the dongle as well.
Using my basic cable instead of the antenna, I now had 110 channels, including music stations and 20 stations in Mandarin, Russian and French. I sorted through these, removing and naming them using the advanced settings and finally ended up with dozens of channels I might actually watch.
Overall, the system seems to simply work, simply, but Boxee Box’s Live TV isn’t perfect.
Sometimes the Boxee Box won’t find listing information for the channels, so the only way to see what was on was to select the channel and see what’s playing (the horror)! Using the advanced settings, users can change those channel names to something more descriptive and general, which is what I ended up doing.
Another issue was a constant low-frequency hum that appeared after attaching my basic cable. Whether this is the Boxee or the cable (more likely the latter), I found that running the cable through the grounding on the surge protector seemed to significantly mitigate the hum.
Cord cutting can be a complicated business with the passive nature of television these days. Those with a Boxee Box, already understand active TV viewing, but even those of us that enjoy searching for what we want to watch rather than simply accepting what’s on sometimes do want to take in an HD sport or watch other major television events (most of which are broadcast on the free networks: NBC, ABC, CBS, FOX, etc). Live TV is the perfect marriage of a media streaming box and access to “real” television.
Yesterday, I found myself flipping between a sporting event on Live TV and an episode of Big Bang Theory I had on my media server without leaving the Boxee Box. And that’s the essential point isn’t it? In digital it’s important to keep users in your environment or on your site. I’m not sure what Boxee will get from this mentality, but they seem to unwittingly have moved my entire media experience into one place, and not because of their superior ads or partnerships with movie/music studios or shiny gadgets.
I use the Boxee because it works, it’s geeky, and their design isn’t dumbed down to mobile phone-like simplicity; and now I can watch Live TV with it too! I wonder what we’ll get next…