Boxee: You had me, then you lost me

Boxee TVI was excited initially when I learned that Boxee, one of the myriad of companies that make smart-boxes that attach to your television set, was coming out with a new device that would incorporate an Over-The-Air (OTA) digital television receiver and a DVR. The company’s new Boxee TV promised to let you not only get free HDTV broadcast channels using an antenna, but also record them for later viewing. On top of that, it also let you access online video services such as Netflix and YouTube in order to supplement your TV choices.

I made the decision to cut cable almost three years ago and I haven’t looked back since. Using an antenna, I pull in all of my local television channels (including the one I work for). This lets met get the majority of the shows I watch without having to pay a montly fee. Those specialty programs I can’t get, I buy through iTunes or watch on Netflix. It is a set-up I whole-heartedly recommend for most people with one caveat: it takes some technical know-how to set up properly.

The big advantage enjoyed by companies like Bell or Rogers is the simplicity of their set-up. Pay your monthly fee, get your equipment, and then you simply plug their  receiver into the wall, and then into your TV, and you’re done. You get access to hundreds of channels, video-on-demand, and a digital-video-recorder to manage your viewing.

My set-up at home, by comparison, is far more difficult. I have an antenna on the second floor of my home connected to my iMac. I use my computer to record free OTA signals, and then encode those into MP4 files which are added to iTunes, and then streamed to the Apple TV box attached to my TV in the basement. I also have the option of transferring them to my iPhone to watch while I commute. The system works, but it is complicated, and took a lot of trial and error to set up (here’s a comparable Windows setup).

Image representing Boxee as depicted in CrunchBase
Image via CrunchBase

I thought the Boxee TV might finally offer a simple plug-and-play solution I could point to and say “this is all you need in order to make cutting cable simple.”

Upon further review, I don’t think it is.

The biggest problem I have with this new box is something it is touting as its biggest feature: a DVR in the cloud. Boxee TV does not store TV recordings on a local hard-drive: instead it uploads those recordings to a central server. The advantage, the company boasts, is that it lets you stream those recordings not just to your TV, but your iOS or Android devices as well (provided you have the right app). With a DVR in the cloud, you can program it from anywhere (great for when you forget to record Dragon’s Den before going to work). Plus, it provides you unlimited storage online. Boxee’s website boasts you can record whatever you want, and never worry about running out of storage space:

Using our DVR is liberating. You need to try it to appreciate it, but it completely changes the way you think about recording. I am now recording The Office, Simpsons, Seinfeld, Friends, Glee, Modern Family, Sesame Street (while it lasts ;)), and 62 other shows… I am like a kid in a candy store.

That candy store metaphor is the first problem I have with a device like this. The reason we don’t let children run free in a candy store is that we want them to have some limits on what they consume. It isn’t healthy to consume an endless supply of candy (if not impossible). Their appetite is finite, so choices must be made.

Boxee DVRIt is a fool’s game to think you can store every television show you want to watch somewhere, and think that you’ll actually have the time to get through them all. Recording your television choices on a hard-drive with a limited capacity forces you make choices. When it fills up, you either need to make time to sit down and clear the backlog, or make a decision to delete the program to create space for something else.

Moving your DVR recordings to the cloud holds the promise of never having to delete a program, even after you’ve viewed it. In theory, this sounds great: want to watch an episode from the last season of Community – no problem just do a search. We’ve grown accustom to this feature in other areas, whether it’s never deleting our Gmail, or streaming our music collections on demand. Why not store every TV program you’ve ever watched?

I used to be religious about stockpiling my old recordings, just in case I ever wanted to watch the episodes again. Since I made the recordings on my computer (even back when I had cable) it was easy to burn a DVD archive of old MP4 recordings of Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who or 24. I have spindles full of discs containing entire TV series and movies.

How many times have I stopped to re-watch them? Never.

I’ve never had time. The greatest thing about TV is there’s always new content. Storylines move forward. There are always new shows to watch.

Plus, if you want to keep all of your Boxee recordings in the cloud, you’re going to have to pay for it. The service will cost $14.99 a month. As Julie Jacobson writes, this means Boxee is really selling a subscription service instead of a DVR. If you stop paying that monthly fee, or if Boxee goes out of business, you’d lose access to your online archive.

Here in Canada, we have other issues to worry about. Let’s set aside the fact that for now, the online DVR is only available in a handful of US cities (we don’t know if or when the service will come north). With download caps on many broadband internet plans, using this service could get expensive if you incur over-use charges. Slow upload speeds may hamper its usage as well. As Peter Nowak writes, Canadian upload speeds are generally slower than they are in the United States. Will it take longer than 22-minutes to upload an episode of This Hour Has 22-Minutes?

So Boxee, for your next generation product, please provide a hard-drive option. Better yet, Apple, please add a DVR to you Apple TV 3.0. Until then, OTA TV will remain a hobbyist past-time, trying to find workarounds to make TV watching simple.

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