Testing Boxee TV: First impressions, screenshots and unboxing video

Boxee’s new Boxee TV device started selling exclusively at Walmart (s WMT) for $98 Thursday, but I got lucky and was able to buy a unit at a local Walmart store Wednesday afternoon. I’ve recorded an unboxing video, taken a bunch of photos of the UI and played around with it for a few hours to share some of my first impressions of it with you.

The basics: What is Boxee TV

Boxee TV is Boxee’s second major hardware initiative, and it’s a very different device than the Boxee Box that went on sale two years ago. The Box came with all kinds of bells and whistles to combine local and internet content, including a full Flash-enabled web browser and hundreds of apps. Boxee TV on the other hand concentrates on a few essential apps, which at launch include Netflix (s NFLX), Vudu (s WMT), YouTube (s GOOG), Vimeo, Spotify, Pandora and MLB.

Boxee is offering its “No Limits” cloud DVR with unlimited storage space for $9.99 a month. The company will also introduce a limited, free DVR tier.

Boxee instead promises to provide a lot of content through over-the-air television – the broadcast feeds of networks like NBC, ABC and CBS which can be accessed in HD with an antenna. The device offers access to live over-the-air TV through a built-in dual tuner, and Boxee is launching a cloud DVR service to give users unlimited recording space for their favorite shows. This “No Limits DVR” was initially announced as a $14.99 per month subscription, but Boxee announced Thursday that it will instead make it available for $9.99 a month. The company also announced that consumers who buy the box will get a three-month Netflix credit, regardless of whether they’re new or existing Netflix customers.

The exterior: Boxee TV unboxing

With the original Boxee Box, Boxee put a of of emphasis on unique industrial design: The device itself was shaped like a cube that looked like it was sinking into whatever surface it was standing on, and the packaging was very Apple-like. (s AAPL) The new Boxee TV is a much simpler device, and that also translates to a more mass-market oriented, somewhat busy packaging. Check out my unboxing video, or continue reading below for some first impressions.


The goodies: My first few hours with Boxee TV

I just had a few hours to play with Boxee TV Wednesday, but it was enough to get some first impressions of the device itself, some of its core features, and some of the apps that come with it:

Much of the Boxee TV setup happens on the second screen.

The setup: Existing Boxee users need to register for a new account to use Boxee TV, but the whole registration and setup process is impressively fast. Once your unit is connected to your TV, an included indoor antenna and the Internet, you’re asked to open a web browser on your laptop or mobile device to complete the registration process.

Boxee found 24 over-the-air channels for me. Upon further inspection, I found that it had concentrated on the better-known ones and that I could enable access to another 22 channels in the settings.

The web-based setup didn’t feel very long at all – and once I looked up from my laptop, Boxee TV was already done with the channel scanning, offering me access to 24 broadcast channels, including ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX.

Live TV: Live TV starts playing as soon as you turn on your Boxee TV, and it keeps playing in the background even while you navigate the programming guide.

The live TV experience overall is pretty neat; changing the channels comes with a just barely notable delay, and once you tune into a new show, the device immediately displays the show’s title, episode number and a progress indicator that tells you how much you missed.

Boxee’s TV guide doesn’t look like your cable guide at all.

Pressing left or right on your remote’s D-Pad opens up a horizontal programming guide that shows what’s on right now. Press the home button, and you can also see what’s coming up in the next two hours. There is no cable guide-like grid guide, so you won’t be able to see what’s on tomorrow at 7 p.m. Boxee’s thinking seems to be that you’re only interested in what’s on right now if you want to watch live TV, and that you should schedule your recordings of upcoming shows on the second screen. Speaking of which:

The No Limits DVR: Boxee’s cloud DVR will only be available in some major cities at launch, and the Bay Area is unfortunately not part of that initial roll-out. However, pure luck would have it that the company was doing some limited testing of DVR functionality in the Bay Area Wednesday, and I was able to at least test it for a little while.

Boxee TV only lets you schedule recordings on the web, and the service isn’t available everywhere yet. I got lucky and stumbled across a limited test in the Bay Area, which is why you only see two channels.

Recordings can only be scheduled on the web – Boxee is going to roll out dedicated apps in the future – but the website worked fine for that purpose and was actually pretty snappy. However, I found it somewhat irritating that I couldn’t just start a recording on the device itself once I stumbled across something interesting.

The recording process did work fine, despite my limited residential upload capacity, and I was able to stream a recorded episode both to the Boxee TV device as well as my latop.

Boxee TV’s YouTube app is the same app that recently rolled out on the PS3 – and it’s the slickest implementation of YouTube on TV devices out there.

The apps: The apps line-up available on Boxee TV is fairly standard, with a few notable exceptions: The YouTube app on the device is essentially the same as the one that recently rolled out on the PS3, and I gotta say it’s beautiful. Easily the best YouTube implementation currently out there, and miles ahead of the classic Leanback-style YouTube app on the original Boxee Box. Also worth noting is that Boxee TV once again features a Spotify app – Spotify has been slow to get onto connected devices, and isn’t available on competitors like Apple TV (a aapl) or Roku yet. And finally, Boxee TV also comes with a Cloudee app, offering access to Boxee’s very own cloud storage service for personal media.

Local media. One of the core strengths of the Boxee Box has been its support for local media. Boxee TV doesn’t put much emphasis on this. The only way to play local files is to physically plug in a USB or hard drive; you can’t access any network-attached storage drives. Boxee has said that it wants to support DLNA in the future, which would make it possible to beam content from your tablet or mobile phone to the device, but that feature isn’t available at launch. I connected a hard drive to the device to test various file formats, and the experience was inconsistent. Boxee TV had no problem playing back MP4s and other more common file formats, but the playback of a ripped DVD was sub-optimal, and some media, including even some DivX files, didn’t play at all.

The verdict: My thoughts so far

I’m a fan of over-the-air TV – and a like the simplicity of the Boxee TV UI.

I’ve been a longtime proponent of over-the-air TV, and often tell people who are interested in ditching cable that they should buy an antenna first. As such, I was immediately intrigued when I heard about Boxee’s plans to launch a device with a bottomless cloud DVR. However, their announcement of a $15 monthly subscription plan caused a bit of sticker-shock for me. $15 just is a lot of money, especially if you also pay for a Netflix subscription, and possibly some VOD content as well. At some point, you might as well subscribe to cable again.

Boxee’s decision to instead go with a $10 plan makes a lot more sense, and personally makes the service more attractive to me. And the device itself seems pretty intriguing as well, even just after a few hours of testing. I like the simplicity of it, and it offers access to most of the apps that I regularly use – with Hulu Plus being one of the few exceptions. I’d definitely miss access to local files if I were to trade the old Boxee Box against a Boxee TV – but I may have a feeling that I’ll just keep both around if Boxee TV’s cloud DVR delivers what it promises.

Stay tuned for a more detailed test of Boxee TV in the coming days. In the mean time, feel free to check out my ebook Cut the Cord: All You Need to Know to Drop Cable for more information about over-the-air television and streaming devices.