Boxee — Your Free Cable TV Replacement

March 2009

Andy was a happy camper. He’d bought a 42-inch high-definition TV with digital tuner and had put an antenna on his roof to pull in the digital signals. Remarkably, in Fairfield, Iowa, where over-the-air signals have always been sparse, he was getting 32 channels on a good night. Most of them were the major networks, but there were three Public TV channels and several others.

Then the weather changed, or his antenna moved, or something — he doesn’t know. But things went back to the dearth to which he was accustomed back in the analog days: Fox, Public TV, and on a good night, ABC.

He wasn’t willing to spring for a cable or satellite package, so he tried a different solution: he bought a used computer, connected it to his TV, and checked out the online offerings from the major networks. In fact, some of his favorite programs were available via streaming. Plus, he could stream movies from Netflix and Hulu. Andy was happy again, and wouldn’t have to miss any episodes of “Numbers.” (Typically the network TV programs aren’t available for streaming until the day after they first air.)

But then I spoiled things for Andy. The problem with using the Internet for your TV fix, as many more people are now doing, is that you have to surf to various websites, locate the program, click the link to start it streaming, and then watch it.

I spoiled Andy’s bliss by telling him about Boxee, a free software program that collects together into one interface the streaming content from many of the major online sources: CBS, ABC, CNN, Netflix (if you have an account), MTV, Joost, Comedy Central, WB, YouTube, BBC, and more. (Boxee had also been offering Hulu and WB, but apparently was asked to remove them. Boxee says it's confident something can be worked out.)

Plus, it works with the remote that came with my 24-inch iMac. I can’t tell you how cool this is. I can quickly navigate a few menus and be watching a National Geographic program, or an old episode of “Have Gun — Will Travel.” Or in a couple clicks, I can be watching a movie from Joost. It works via a mouse too, but the remote is so much faster, because you aren’t constantly having to point and click. You’re just clicking. Plus, you have the convenience of not having to be at your keyboard.

So why was Andy disappointed? Because it wasn’t yet available for Windows — but may be available by the time you read this.

Boxee is creating a sensation, in part because of the neat way it gathers Internet TV and movies, but this is only a small fraction of what it does. Basically it’s a convenient interface for all of your media, and all Internet media.

In addition to quick access to online TV and movies, the same interface also lets you access the videos that you may have on your hard drive, on an external drive, or on a shared server.

The menus confused me at first. To see aggregated Internet offerings click on Video, and then click on Internet. The Movies and TV menu items are for videos that you already have. I wasn’t able to quickly figure out how to populate these areas by having Boxee do a scan computer, but I don’t have much on my computer anyway.

In addition, Boxee doesn’t just do TV and movies, it also does music, photos, and Internet Videos/Internet Podcasts. Internet Videos comprises a huge directory of video streaming sources that aren’t from the major networks and aren’t user generated. The menu includes Animation, Business, Comedy, Culture & Art, Entertainment, Nature, News, Science, Sports, and more. The entertainment category, for example, includes Access Hollywood, E! Online, and VH1.

If your favorite vidcasts or podcasts aren’t available in the menu, you can add them to the My Feeds area of Boxee.

As I write this, Boxee’s default Internet music offerings are slim, and largely limited to Last.fm. The Pictures area, like the others, lets you access the photos on your computer or local network as well as Internet photo sharing sites such as Flickr and Picasa.

Boxee also has a social networking component, such that you can invite friends to join your social network and track what each other is watching, plus make recommendations. Of course, you may want to keep that info private, so be sure to change that setting in your Account when you create one on the Boxee website.

Boxee and Internet streaming of TV are the future. Some companies will soon be selling TVs that connect directly to the Internet — no set-top box required.

© 2009 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

E-mail Jim Karpen