Boxee and Popbox gunning for Roku

I’ve prevously mentioned the Roku digital player as a game changer for home entertainment, but haven’t actually bought one yet. It looks now like there’s some serious competition to Roku, which is of course a good thing. The first is Boxee, which has a software-only variant you download to yor PC and also actual hardware slated for release this year. Like Roku, the Boxee box has simple connections for your TV, has built-in wifi, and USB for external drives. Boxee also has an SD card slot and intriguingly, a full QWERTY keyboard on the back of the remote. It isn’t clear if Boxee supports Netflix or the Amazon video store, but unfortunately Boxee was forced to yank Hulu support recently. Boxee is expected to cost about $200, which about twice what Roku costs.

The other challenger to Roku is popbox, which is an evolution of the Popcorn Hour box which Nick has been using (and promising to blog about for ages! *nudge* *nudge*). The popbox looks to be a simpler deice than Popcorn Hour’s flagship model the C-200, and promises support for pretty much every file format out there (including MKV, which doesn’t seem to be supported by Roku). Popbox will support netflix, and also crunchy roll which pretty much screams “otaku buy me!” – and its price is more comparable to Roku at $129 (available in March). The only downside is that it doesn’t come with wifi included, you have to shell out a little for that.

So, whats a prospective consumer like me to do? The ideal device for me would be to support every possible format (like popbox), built-in wifi (like boxee and roku), and be priced no higher than $150. And of course netflix support is the key. Its worth noting that both popbox and boxee also will have app development platforms so presumably someone could add support for other services. I also imagine that Roku isn’t going to sit back withouut any competitive response; if Roku could add MKV support then I’d probably still favor it over these other more featured, but more complicated and expensive, options. That has to be a simple firmware or software update, I imagine.

Regardless, it’s great to see how this market is coming along. With the death of disc imminent, it’s where the future is. You can easily imagine someone taking a BD player and adding a Roku to it and making a complete convergence device. In fact, what if Nintendo were to do that with Wii v2.0 – have it be a BD player like the PS3 and also support all these features in software? Given all the hype about mobile device convergence (camera+phone+PDA+apps) it makes sense that we would see a trend towards convergence in our living rooms. Theres no reason I should have to have a separate device for DVDs, games, and digital entertainment. The PS3 is closest to this now, in fact – but its expense still sets it apart. A fully converged device as I describe above, my hypothetical Wii 2.0, shoudl be priced no higher than $300 to really make inroads.

Related: article on Popbox at Electronista

11 thoughts on “Boxee and Popbox gunning for Roku”

  1. Yeah, yeah…

    I know I’ve been promising to write about my experiences with the Popcorn Hour A-110. Unfortunately, everytime I start to write about it before, I’d get partly started, turn on the PH to confirm some things, lose myself listening to music and watching anime on it for the next 3-4 hours, then realize I need to get to bed to get up for work the next day without much to show on a writeup!

    Good news is I actually got some notes, pictures and part of a blog post last night. It’s actually not just covering the A-110, but also the Christmas present I got from my parents last month: A 40″ Samsung LCD.

    The PopBox does look interesting, though. My only initial consernation about it is that it doesn’t seem to have room for an internal hard drive. I have a 1 TB drive in my A-110 where I put all of my anime to watch on now, it also lets me simply pull out the A-110, bring it to a friend’s house, and easily set it up and let us watch stuff stored on it at their place. That said, it is a minor issue and the PopBox will most likely be able to get content that A-110 through the network anyways. The only potential issue is throughput for 1080p content (which is actually the main reason why I put an internal HD in the first place, as rarely as I watch 1080p content).

    Also with the A-110, you can add an external USB DVD Reader and it will play DVDs; similar with the C-200 and BD players (and the C-200 also has room internally for a 5.25 SATA drive). I’m sure the PopBox will allow you to hook up an external USB BD Drive and play Blurays straight through it if it’s an evolutionary step of the Popcorn Hour. WiFi on the A-110 is also handled through a USB network adapter; I’m sure the PopBox will have something similarly available for it, if it doesn’t simply use the same adapter (which is a 802.11n (draft 2) spec adapter) in the first place. I find it better to run an ethernet cable to my entertainment stack as I have other wire networked devices there already like the BD Player and XBOX.

    The only question I’d have about the PopBox at this point is whether it can handle multi-channel FLAC audio in MKV or other video files. The Popcorn Hour boxes cannot do this because it has to decode FLAC via software; there is no hardware decoder for FLAC at the moment. The main processor can do this fine for pure 2-channel audio FLAC files, but having to demux it from an MKV file, send the video stream to the video processor, decode the FLAC audio stream, and make sure the results are properly synchronized, and send it out is apparently too much for the main processor to handle. I’ve also discovered the box can’t handle 24-bit or higher, 96 kHz or higher, or multichannel (5.1 audio) FLAC files either, which suggests a processor limitation. I’m actually pretty amazed that it can do subtitle overlaying at the same time (which I think is handled via software, but that also explains why the A-110 doesn’t do styled and positioned subtitles).

    Again, I hope to have the writeup finished tonight or tomorrow; hopefully I can avoid distractions this time!

  2. As the owner of a D-Link DSM-320 media player, I’m happy to see that set-top media players are still being developed.

    I really only have two complaints with my current D-Link…
    1) no on-the-fly playlist generator (Boxee looks to correct that, I’d imagine Popbox will as well.)
    2) not addressed, that I’ve seen… no easy way to get my DVD’s into the system. Hopefully one of the two have that ace up their sleeve. It would be nice to easily be able to convert my umpteen hundred DVD’s into a legal(ish) and viewable format AND do it in a way that doesn’t require hours of babysitting while I chunk through 3 different programs to get a good file.

  3. I think i saw the popbox does have USB support, so theoretically you could just hook up a disk (or big flash drive) as usual. That functionality on my DVD player is the reason i bought it. Plus they also suupport SD cardsm but thats really not pragmatic for video of course.

    would you be able to use any USB wifi adpater with the unit? thats a key point – i have a spare linksys one lying around that I could use, and then the effective cost of the box would be closer to Roku. Im not keen on paying another $50 for something proprietary that should be rights be off the shelf.

    as far as FLAC goes, teh popbox page does claim FLAC codec and container support, but as far as multichannel FLAC support, I have no clue. I wonder if theres a forum somewhere that we can ask?

    Bear – the idea of ripping a DVD the way we do a CD is pretty much poison to any of these guys 🙂 IT would be great but theres no way theyd make it happen. we can dream though 🙂

  4. Unfortunately, it’s not *any* WiFi USB card, but this one specifically:

    Though the Popcorn hour is running a Linux kernel, they couldn’t include every wifi driver with it. Though there do seem to be standards for USB DVD/BD drives, USB Hardrives/Flashdrives, and USB keyboards, USB Wifi adapters do not have any standard interface to the hardware.

    You can, of course, always use a ethernet -> WiFi bridge (I used to do this as I also have other devices that were wired network only until I tired of performance/interference issues and just ran an ethernet wire across the house to the AV stack (Hint, learning to crimp your own wires means you can save lots of money to do a 100 ft run…))

    I’d imagine the PopBox will probably have something similar available down the road (if it isn’t updated to simply use that particular unit).

    As for FLAC support, that would depend if the hardware decoder they are using is updated to include FLAC decoding. The main processor is rather slow (250 to 300 MHz? I don’t remember but it’s around that range), but it has to be for the Popcorn Hour (and PopBox, I suspect) to be able to get away with passive cooling.

    As for DVD ripping, heck, CD ripping was poisonous to the music industry. As it is, if something like HandBrake could include CSS decoding without getting into legal problems, I’d think they would go for it and simplify the process of dumping a DVD video into an AVI or MKV file.

    That said, despite some of the issues of the A-110, it’s a far superior solution to building an HTPC that could handle 1080p output or burning XviD avi files (after converting MKVs to them if needed) to DVDs to play in my old XviD-capable DVD player (that could actually only handle videos that are max 720×480, no 720p or 1080p videos that way). As it is, I can get on my desktop, click on most torrents, download videos straight to the Popcorn Hour, then go to the living room, select the video file, and enjoy.

    1. im definitely leaning towards popbox when it comes out in march for the reason you describe – sending a torrent to oit and watching on my TV is basically heaven.

      unfortunately running a ethernet cable is a problem as it would have to cross open walking areas no matter how I run it, so the kids etc… blah blah blah. If I do get a popbox I’ll likely try my existing USB wifi dongle, and if it doesnt work i’ll just buy the proprietary one. since i dont have the hardwrae already lying around for a ethernet-wifi bridge it wouldnt really save me any money.

      was cd ripping really poisonous to the music industry? sure cd sales are down but the ripping created the market for mp3s and ultimately the itunes store which has been a huge financial success. I think youd see something similar from the movie industry but the MPAA is even more reactionary and closed minded than the RIAA.

      totally agreed that all of these solutions actually are superior to building your own media box. I wonder how the Apple TV compares?

  5. Did some reading up, and it looks like the PopBox will not have BD Drive capabilites; only the Popcorn Hour C-200 will have that. The PopBox isn’t even a replacement for my A-110 (much like the C-200 wasn’t really a replacement of the A-110, though its feature set other than size largely supersets the A-110). There are other things the PopBox cannot do that are features on the A-110 and C-200 (torrent support, usenet downloader), but I don’t use those options anyways. Netflix support is nice (though I also get that through my Samsung BD-P2550 player), but Crunchyroll support has my attention. I hope that Sybase shoots themselves in the foot and includes Crunchyroll support in a firmware udpate for the A-110 too. Actually, if they do that, it’ll make me more likely to buy a PopBox and move my A-110 to a TV in my bedroom…

    As it is, I’ll be keeping an eye on the PopBox and The Boxee Box.

  6. From what I remembered, the Apple TV isn’t even on the map when it comes to the set-top boxes. No MKV support and no AVI XviD support (If I remember) basically killed it for most anime fansub viewers. That said, the Apple TV is probalby the only real settop box solution if you get lots of moves through itunes.

    As for my statement, really, the only reason the RIAA seems more openminded was because the “internet” revolution basically hit the music industry before the movie industry. Sadly, the movie industry actually has working models now thanks to events that happened to music (I.E., iTunes, etc.). And CDs didn’t include any real encrypted copy protection built in, and DVDs has CSS, which while easily broken, still had the weight of the DCMA to legally restrict who could decrypt DVDs and in what matter. If the music industry had the foresight to add encryption to CDs as a standard, we’d probably have to go through 3+ tools to rip CDs to MP3/FLAC/whater too.

    You know, my A-110 actually spends much of its time playing shoutcast radio stations. Whether it’s anime music, 80’s popular music, 80’s Hair Metal, Classic rock, or 90’s Alternative (That particular station really brings me back to listening to the radio in highschool!). The lack of playlist or shuffle support for my FLAC connection isn’t really that big of a deal to me.

    As for making an ethernet line run; to me, it made sense given just how many things on my AV stack actually have wired network only connections. It would get worse if I add an XBOX 360 or PS3 to it. Hopefully, in the near future, houses will have ethernet jacks put in the walls as by standard.

  7. “If the music industry had the foresight to add encryption to CDs as a standard, we’d probably have to go through 3+ tools to rip CDs to MP3/FLAC/whater too.”

    The encryption is actually not a very large factor in needing multiple programs. The multiple program route is often needed due to how dvd’s store the info. The video and audio are separate files on the disk (which is how you can have multiple language files on a dvd…).

    A possible rip direction would be: 1) decrypt/create iso file, 2) iso file converted to usable format (this step includes extracting the video and audio data and overlaying them into one stream, i.e. AVI or XviD), 3) break out chapters from large video or combine segments into viewable chapters (depends on how the dvd was authored as to which is needed), 4) hope like heck that what you play the file on likes your settings. …not that I’ve pondered, planned, done anything like that before, mind you… I plead the 5th!

    “Hopefully, in the near future, houses will have ethernet jacks put in the walls as by standard.”

    They’ve been saying that for years and years and years… with Wireless Ethernet Bridges/Access Points becoming cheaper it is really hard to justify the extra parts and labor to put in standardized wall outlets. (unless, of course, you are a hardcore level 20 geek).

  8. Bear: Actually, Handbrake is supposed to be able to handle everything after the decrypt stage.

    Actually, reading through the docs ( ), it looks like Handbrake can do decryption + re-encode as either a two-step or a one-step process (they seem to recommend the two step for various reasons: rip/decrypt to HD, then re-encode), though you may have to supply the decryption libraries separately.

    Gonna give it a try in a bit on my Windows 7 setup, but I know I’ve heard very good things about it on Linux platforms.

  9. Just as an update, looks like it’s only a “one-step” process in Handbrake on Mac OS X or on Linux; Windows users will have to find a different program to rip from the DVD and decode. I’ll give it a try on my Linux laptop sometime this weekend.

    It’s surprisingly difficult to find a good Windows DVD ripping and encrypting software; most of them seemed have been litigated or threatened with litigation out of existence! Looks like AnyDVD is still around (though it’s something like 79 euro for it), but I see it has been banned in Germany. They seem to be the only one that still has an official site available; you basically have to find every other similar tool through third-parties as their official sites are now down.

    Again, it’s the encryption stage that’s the big hangup at this point. Once the DVD is decrypted, Handbrake seems to be able to take care of the rest.

    Just sad that this is apparently easier on Mac OS X or Linux than on Windows at this point (Though, again, I’ll see on the Linux angle).

  10. I am definitely interested in a Windows 7 solution. I saw 1-2-3 DVD at Target, not sure if that is sufficient, have you heard of it?

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