Thursday, October 23, 2008

Boxee: the open, connected, social media center for mac os x and linux

I've been using an AppleTV since it was released. A device with great potential (cheap, HD enabled, great integration with iTunes) crippled intentionally by Apple's need to tie it directly to iTunes only- Since it's still illegal to rip your DVD collection to file in the Rip, Mix, Burn style we've become accustomed to in iTunes, the AppleTV eschews any video media you have in naughty 'pirate' formats like DivX, and only wants to play video purchased from the iTunes store or DRM-less mp4 files you ostensibly made yourself or that come from podcasts. Every weird movie curator worth his salt that I know now has a couple of terabyte drives filled with DivX's and subtitle files, and we are not anyone's target user. AppleTV's free online video solution is also centered around YouTube, while Hulu is hosting tons of high-quality free movies and TV shows.
A range of hacks have been available for the AppleTV to make it do everything from play exotic video formats off network drives to order pizza, but they have all been difficult to install (I've learned more unix hacking my AppleTV than when I worked tech support at Apple) hard to use and break frequently, on their own or whenever a small AppleTV update comes out.

Enter Boxee. A new improved application helps you build a usb patchstick, which you plug into the service port on the appleTV, installs boxee and the supporting Xbox Media Center software it's based on. Previous hacks involved building a patchstick and then doing seperate Apple TV installs using SFTP and SSH, but that little difference isn't what makes Boxee better. Once you have boxee installed (and activate your account on, you'll need to apply for an alpha tester account first, sorry) the real difference is in the interface and thouroughness of the implementation. Boxee does everything the AppleTV always should have done. It recognizes your network drives (on the mac you'll have to turn on Samba sharing in your sharing preferences), plays every video format, displays subtitle files beautifully, finds posters, synopsis and trailers for media names it recognizes online, has like social scrobbling features (not to mention actual access to, as well as myspace video, hulu, Youtube and a host of other free video and music outlets) and the integration is beautiful.

quick intro to boxee from boxee on Vimeo.

I installed it last night and I'm smitten.

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