November 18, 2010 at 3:17 pm

A Music Fan’s Perspective on Boxee Box vs. Apple, Google TV

Boxee Box debuted at CES in January and was released last week, presenting an intriguing new option for music fans looking to connect their living room speakers to some of the best music services the internet has to offer.

Boxee, an upstart that made a name for itself turning old computers into full-fledged, television-connected media centers with slick streaming software, released the hardware version of its product last week. You can now watch videos and listen to music in your living room using Boxee without plunking down a computer next to your TV.

Boxee Box plays music and video that have been downloaded to your local computer(s), as well as streaming it from the internet using the popular app framework many of us know from our smartphones.

Pandora, Spotify, Slacker, Rhapsody, or any other music service can write apps for Boxee to let its users access their services — the same way they would for Apple iPhone, Google TV, and so on — and some of them already have.

Like its biggest competitors (Apple TV and Google TV, although others include Roku and Syabas Popcorn Hour), Boxee Box is can connect music apps to what are typically the best speakers and largest screen in the house — the ones in the living room, which makes it worthy of consideration by music fans.

If you’re wondering how Boxee Box handles non-music-related activities, check out Gizmodo’s general review. We figured Boxee Box also warrants further examination, specifically from the perspective of the music fan.

Here’s how Boxee Box stacks up against the Apple and Google TV behemoths, in this nascent battle to play app-based music in your living room:

Hardware: Boxee, Google > Apple

It will be quite some time — if ever — before we see set-top manufacturers compete on sound quality by including more expensive DAC (digital-to-analog) converter chips.

So the biggest hardware question that listeners needs answered here is “How does the sound get from the box to the speakers?” And, perhaps equally importantly, “Yeah, but how else can it connect?”

In that regard, Boxee’s optical audio, analog stereo audio, and HDMI output beats Apple TV’s selection, which includes only an optical output and the integrated audio/video HDMI cable. If optical or HDMI works for you, you’re set for now, but your set-up could change. And many of us these days — okay, like me, for example — have oodles of stuff (DVD/Blu-ray, videogame console, cable box, auxiliary audio cable) already hooked into our sound systems.

Apple erred on the side of simplicity and compactness here, and the company has a long tradition of ignoring inputs and outputs it doesn’t consider optimal — like, in this case, analog. Apple’s decision means some users have to swap an optical cable around, which is not an optimal solution. (Nevermind what it means in terms of the dreaded closure of the “analog hole.”)

Google TV, on the other hand, comes in three form factors to date with more likely to follow: a Logitch Revue set-top box, a Sony Internet TV Blu-ray player, and integrated into a television itself, the Sony Internet TV. There’s no way to generalize about all of their audio connections, but Google’s hardware versatility defends it against Boxee’s decent of audio outputs (although really, we’d like to see a digital coaxial connection too).

Apple’s Apple TV doesn’t offer much in the way of music listening now, but that will change soon, when it allows apps running on the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch to play music through your sound system.

Apps: Boxee threatened by behemoths

Boxee vice president of marketing Andrew Kippen told Evolver.fm that Boxee Box only supports 140 of the 400 apps that work on the software version of Boxee. Within a few months, he expects the majority of Boxee apps to be available on the Box as well, once app developers get up to speed on the new hardware.

However, only three of those apps are music related: Pandora and RadioTime radio and Wolfgang’s Vault’s live music app, which includes sessions from Daytrotter, Concert Vault and the legendary Bill Graham.

Google TV likewise only runs a handful of music apps, with better variety: Pandora, YouTube (including major label Vevo content), Napster on-demand music and, as of Monday, Tune In radio.

However, Google says it will grant the Android app developer community access to Google TV early next year, at which point the amount of music apps for its living room platform is sure to explode.

Apple represents a similar threat to the Boxee Box platform. Currently, Apple TV barely runs any music apps — just YouTube for music videos and the same non-interactive streaming stations it pipes into iTunes. However, by the end of November, Apple plans to allow iOS apps (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch) to stream directly to Apple TV, effectively making it the biggest music app platform in the living room by a longshot.

And Apple, too, has said it could let music apps run natively on Apple TV next year, depending on things play out, in addition to AirPlay.

Boxee knows it’s in a good spot, app-wise — for now, anyway:

“Apple TV doesn’t have apps so we’re winning by a landslide there,” Kippen told Evolver.fm. “When they do, think they’re going to have to start from scratch on most of their iOS apps to build them for a TV instead of a touchscreen, might be an integration with AirPlay, but it’s one of those wait and see things.

“Google hasn’t released their SDK yet,” he added. “Last time I checked they have very few native apps as opposed to HTML 5 apps, which the Boxee Box will also be able to play.”

Ultimately, though, Boxee does have a survival strategy even if Apple and Google win: becoming an app itself  – more on that below.

So, what about playing the music you’ve already collected?

Local media: possible edge to Apple

We’ll keep this section short, because the situation is relatively uncomplicated: all three let you play back music stored on the computers o your home network, although we give the edge to Apple. Although it requires you to use iTunes, Apple TV makes it exceedingly easy to access your music collection on any Mac or Windows computer in your house, and organize that music on your computer, where you have a full keyboard and mouse.

Some may prefer Boxee’s method for accessing music stored on local hard drives, although users of the beta version recently complained that the new version required more clicks to play local music. Likewise, Google TV can also play back locally-stored music and other files — and plans to add the ability to search that from the same box used to search other content soon.

File compatibility could be a concern as far as local playback goes, unless you only use the basic formats. Here’s how they stack up that way (including audio formats that are usually associated with video, for the sake of live concert videos):

  • Apple TV: AAC, protected AAC (from iTunes Store), MP3, Audible, Apple Lossless, AIFF, WAV, and Dolby Digital 5.1
  • Boxee Box: MP3, WAV/PCM/LPCM, WMA, AIFF, AAC, OGG, FLAC, DTS, Dolby Digital/Dolby True HD
  • Google TV: AAC, MP3, MPEG4-AAC, H.264/MPEG-4 AVC

Yes, it’s a bunch of mumbo-jumbo, but the main point is that any of these boxes will play unprotected MP3 and AAC files. From a music fan’s perspective, they’re all fine from the perspective of playing back your local music collection, although Google TV offers no lossless audio option for audiophiles.

However, when it comes these boxes’ ability to streaming audio from the web, we spotted some major differences.

You can check out Google TV (above) at Best Buy, Apple TV at an Apple Store, or Boxee Box if you know someone who has one.

Web-based music: Boxee and Google prevail, Apple fails

The third category of concern is music that exists on the web, as opposed to the internet, apps, or the music on one’s own computer. This comprises a vast galaxy of music blogs, web apps, Flash-based music and video sites, embedded MP3s, and music aggregators such as The Hype Machine.

This one’s simple: Boxee Box and Google TV have browsers that can go anywhere on the web and play pretty much anything you’d find there. However, both currently require you to use directional buttons to move the “mouse” pointer around on the screen (remote control apps should improve that situation on both fronts).

Meanwhile, Apple TV can’t see or play the web at all, unless you hack it.

So, is Boxee Box suitable for music listeners?

It depends.

For now, Boxee Box offers a decent music experience for those who prefer to download lots of music and movies, and who manage their own music collections, and shows a lot of promise app-wise. But considering the app-friendly futures of Apple TV and Google TV, it’s probably not the set-top box to buy if you want the widest variety of apps, to evolve your listening habits past the old “search, download, and organize it yourself” paradigm.

That said, Boxee has devised at least one way to survive in an Apple- and Google-dominated market.

The Future

If Boxee adoption continues, the platform will draw more developers of music apps, but only if that makes sense in the context of also having to develop for iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, Google Android, Google TV, Blackberry, web browser, Windows Phone, Palm WebOS, and so on. That’s a lot of work for app developers, who tend to work solo or in small teams, and clearly, developing for Apple’s and Google’s platforms tends to be the first order of business.

Having finally morphed into a hardware company of sorts, Boxee could be set to switch back to being an app itself — albeit for Google TV, rather than its own hardware, according to Candler, which quotes Boxee’s Kippen as saying the company plans to release a Google TV app next year. Although Apple doesn’t like it when developers replicate the core functionality of its iOS devices, Google is likely to be more permissive, as it is with other matters Android-related.

If that’s the case, this could turn into a “Russian nesting doll” situation, where users can either use the main Google TV interface to access services like Pandora — or the Boxee interface, where many of the same programs will live.

It would also give Google TV users more music listening options than Apple TV will enjoy, with a little help from Boxee and others like it.

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  • Jeremy

    “For now, Boxee Box offers a decent music experience for those who prefer to download lots of music and movies, and who manage their own music collections, and shows a lot of promise app-wise.”…

    Not at all for music! How much time did you spend using the local music app before you wrote this review?

    Boxee’s Music App is pure garbage… or perhaps more like clean foundation. There have been TONS of feature requests from users for 2+ years asking for a “play all” button or any play button on the left for the listed music on the right. Moderators have been promising updates but still nothing. Both WMC AND XBMC have great music interfaces. If they can make an album into a playlist why not search results, all music or even genre filters? Simply stated, because there is no button and a few lines of code behind it… what a MAJOR flaw! Especially with the XBMC stamp… which is still the best MC app by far.

  • Matt

    Do any of these devices allow you to add locally stored music tracks to a cue as you go along?  Having to pre-create playlists or only be able to play tracks from a single folder at a time is ridiculously restrictive,