Original Link: http://www.anandtech.com/show/3912/boxee-box-the-inside-story



Most media streaming enthusiasts are aware of Boxee, the XBMC fork which has gained a huge following for its 10-foot user interface combined with social networking features. It is available for multiple platforms based on the x86 architecture, but the core business model has always remained a mystery. Some of the components of Boxee are proprietary, and Boxee has always shown keen enthusiasm in licensing the software to third party hardware and operating systems. At the 2010 CES, Boxee took its first step towards extending its business model by developing a hardware set top box in partnership with D-Link.

Current day media streamers based on the Sigma Designs and Realtek chipsets are often treated with disdain by some users because of the lack of a proper user interface. While XBMC and other such applications provide a great interface, they are unfortunately restricted to HTPCs. The mainstream consumer doesn't want the hassle of setting up and maintaining a HTPC in his living room, and it is exactly this demographic that has been targeted by the multitude of media streamers in the market right now.

The ideal solution in the living room would combine the popular UI of HTPC based media centers with the decoding power of the present day media streamers. Unfortunately, these UIs are dependent on some sort of OpenGL acceleration being made available in the base platform. Till now, the powerful media streamer platforms from Sigma Designs and Realtek have had very rudimentary OpenGL support, which makes porting XBMC onto such platforms an exercise in frustration.
 

The Boxee Box announced at the 2010 CES was based on the Tegra 2. In a post made on my personal blog right after the CES announcement, I had expressed my reservations on how it would be foolhardy to expect the same sort of performance from an app-processor based device as what one would expect from a dedicated media streamer or HTPC. Just as suspected, Boxee had to replace Tegra 2 with a much more powerful SoC. After evaluating many solutions, Boxee and D-Link decided to choose the Atom based Intel CE4100 for the Boxee Box.

We met with Avener Ronen (CEO of Boxee) and Brent Collins (Director of Consumer Marketing at D-Link) yesterday to discuss the changes in the Boxee Box. The next few sections present what we gleaned from the discussion and our analysis of the same.



Tegra 2 was a platform developed primarily to serve the smartphone / tablet market. We were quite surprised earlier this year when it was chosen to power the Boxee Box. With Boxee's HTPC background, consumers were bound to have tall expectations and we were not too sure that Tegra 2 would be able to fulfil the necessary requisites.

The unit which was demonstrated at the 2010 CES did have a Tegra 2 SoC inside. Things were looking good, and the unit was slated to go into mass production towards the end of Q2. However, as Boxee started doing some stress tests, they realized that Tegra 2 wasn't living upto expectations. In particular, they found that the Tegra 2 was incapable of playing back high profile 1080p H.264 videos at even 10 Mbps. Boxee was well aware that if they shipped the unit with any sort of limitation, it would reflect very badly upon them. They went back to the drawing board and started approaching other companies with similar chipsets. Boxee's requirements were three-fold. The platform needed acceleration for Flash, considering that most of the online video content is delivered through it. The second requirement was that the platform had to support a browser platform (WebKit), and finally, the platform had to support decode of even the most demanding video encodes. The shift from Tegra 2 to CE4100 delayed the mass production to the middle of Q4, but that was inevitable once Tegra 2 had to be replaced.

Boxee was primarily developed for HTPCs based on the x86 platform. However, the form factor of the Boxee Box ruled out any sort of a real motherboard / x86 processor inside with similar multimedia capabilities. An x86 SoC was the need of the hour, and fortunately, Intel had just released a solution. This was the Atom based CE4100, their second-generation x86 based SoC targeted at the DTV / IPTV / STB / Blu-Ray player market. Prior to the CE3100, Intel used to have SoCs based on the XScale platform. The CE3100 had a Pentium-M core, while the CE4100 has an Atom based core, but we will cover this more in detail in the next section. In the SoC space, it is not possible for Intel to have the same sort of margins that it gets in the microprocessor space. This is one of the main reasons why no mainstream products based on the Intel CE3100 were seen in the market. Promising devices such as the Yuixx were announced, but they never saw the light of the day. In the meanwhile, Intel released the next generation product (Sodaville) at the IDF in September 2010. Things are looking up for Intel now, and at $199, the Boxee Box seems to be the perfect mainstream launchpad for the CE4100.

Being a SoC, the CE4100 has all the necessary IPs built in, including a specialized GPU, a video decode accelerator and an audio DSP. The more powerful nature of the CE4100 also brought with it some design challenges for D-Link and Boxee in the form of increased power consumption and more heat to dissipate. We weren't allowed to open up the unit during the meeting yesterday, but suffice to say that we saw a pretty big heat sink through the heat dissipation vents. There is also a very small fan inside the unit, but it was very close to being completely silent. We really would have a hard time seeing people complain about this unless the fan spins up really hard under load.



The Intel CE4100 (codenamed Sodaville) was introduced on September 24, 2009 at the Intel Developer Forum. Based on the Atom CPU, it is a full blown SoC. A basic block diagram of the CE4100 is shown below.


 

The x86 core in the SoC is based on the Atom CPU. We suspect that the CE4100 is a slightly modified single die implementation of the Lincroft and Langwell SOCs used in Moorestown, albeit in the 45nm process. While the Moorestown platform had a 32 bit DDR interface, the CE4100 increases this to 64. Other than that, the core components for the OpenGL and video decode support seem to be the same.

The Atom core with 512K of L2 cache is the host processor in the SoC. Though the internal L1 cache details are not public, it is likely to be the same as that of the Lincroft SoC which had 24K of data cache and 32K of instruction cache. Owing to a single die implementation, as well as the process geometry, the TDP of the SoC must be a bit high compared to Lincroft or Langwell taken alone. The higher DRAM bus width also contributes to an increase in the TDP.

The memory controller can support two separate channels of 32-bit DDR2-800/DDR3-1333. This is in contrast to the single channel 32 bit DRAM support in the Tegra 250 which was the earlier SoC under consideration. A NAND flash controller helps the system boot from attached Flash storage. The ability to boot from NAND flash has the potential to reduce the board costs.

Next, we shift our attention to the most interesting gray box in the diagram. This block consists of the video decoder, display processor and the graphics processor. While the block diagram removes any doubt that the graphics processor used is the same as the one used in the iPhone 4 (Imagination Technologies PowerVR SGX535), the origins of the other two components are not entirely clear. We have been led to believe that Imagination Technologies is behind these components as well. The decoder would be a member of the PowerVR VXD series, and it is indicated that two simultaneous HD streams can be decoded. There is also hardware acceleration for decoding JPEG pictures, so one may possibly look forward to snappy photo slideshows in products using this SoC. The scaling, noise reduction and deinterlacing features of the display processor need proper programming in order to be able to deliver good results, and the quality of the Intel drivers would ultimately decide the HQV scores for media streamers based on this SoC. The display controller also needs proper configuration in case a product based on this SoC is supposed to end up supporting native frame rates. It is also responsible for OSD blending, subtitles and miscellaneous video functions.

From the perspective of the Boxee Box, the Audio/Video inputs go unused. However, using this SoC in a DVR / PVR system would make the usage of these inputs necessary. For media streamers, HDMI 1.3a is the key feature. Considering that this SoC was launched almost one year back, the absence of HDMI 1.4 is excusable. For general I/O, we have GbE support, but the Boxee Box only enables 100 Mbps Ethernet. The 2 SATA ports also go unused, but both the USB 2.0 host ports are taken advantage of. Some of the other I/O ports are configured for supporting SDIO. Without a look at the board, and knowledge of the pin configuration, it is not evident which I/Os are configured for supporting the SD card.

The CE4100 also sports a dual audio DSP from Tensilica, the Tensilica HiFi2. It is capable of downmixing / decoding two lossless HD audio streams (as per Blu-Ray bitrate specifications) simultaneously. The Transport Processor would be useful for a STB product. We have been given to understand that the security processor is not disabled in the Boxee Box. This should enable the Boxee Box to access premium online content and also get a license from the Blu-Ray consortium.



The new Boxee Box retains the same form factor as the one that was displayed during the 2010 CES. While the model shown in CES had a USB port in the front, the new design's USB ports are both at the back. Other than that, the external appearance also remains the same. For a recap, there is a SD card slot on one side. The Boxee logo (capable of lighting up) is on the other side. At the rear, one of the sides is plain, while the other side has an Ethernet port (100 Mbps), a HDMI 1.3a port, SPDIF for multichannel digital audio out to an AV receiver, stereo audio ports for direct speaker connections and the dual USB ports. There is also a slot for a DC power connection from a plug-in adapter. This side also has slots for heat ventilation.


 

The remote is more interesting. FCC filings for the remote are now public. It is one of the revolutionary remote designs that we have encountered. It is imperative that other remote manufacturers (particularly those who manufacture the Media Center varieties) follow suit and start including keyboards on the rear side of the unit. Of course, consumers may have the usual crib about this being of the non-IR variety. For those who need to use their universal remotes, the USB IR dongle is always an option.


 

Once past the hardware specifications, let us look at the Boxee Box in relation to the Smart TV push from Intel. The Intel CE4100 also powers the yet-to-be-released Google TV. While the Google TV is supposed to help Google by making people use the TV to search and browse the Internet, Boxee gave us the impression that browsing the Internet through their box is only a fall back, and not the intended mainstream usage. For example, websites such as Vimeo which aren't directly supported by Boxee can be opened in a web browser, and Boxee auto detects the Flash content being played and pushes it out to occupy the whole screen. This is a fundamental difference between the Google TV and the Boxee Box, considering that both are based on the same platform. While Google TV will be based on Android, the Boxee Box runs on a custom Linux distribution from Intel.

No one can ignore the other elephant in the room, which can muscle into the party based solely on its marketing prowess. We are talking about the Apple TV. Boxee admits that they are in direct competition with Apple TV, but go on to suggest that there is space for both parties in the ecosystem. The official line is that people preferring the walled garden approach wouldn't do much wrong in opting for Apple's offering. On the other hand, Boxee believes that they should enable customers to enjoy content from a variety of sources, without restrictions. They do not believe in acting as gatekeepers of any sort, and this is a very important factor for many consumers.

The most interesting aspect of the specifications is that the streamer is a x86 platform at its core. With a clock rate of 1.2 GHz, the Atom core should be no slouch when it comes to CE applications. With the GPU being clocked at 400 MHz, the raw graphics power is close to twice that of the iPhone 4. The powerful decode engine gives it scope to play a much wider variety of media compared to the other media streamers. The x86 host processor technically makes this a HTPC. Online services which try to discriminate against browser access through this CE device will be standing on thin ground from a consumer's perspective. That said, we will have to see how many content providers get on board when the product gets to the market. We also hope that content providers eventually refrain from treating PCs and CE devices differently.



Now that we have an understanding of the new platform which will be powering the Boxee Box, it can be said that it wouldn't be unfair to expect as close an experience on this to what one gets with a HTPC version of Boxee. That said, we did have some queries for Boxee, and they were kind enough to get back to us with answers. Based on our interaction, the pros and cons of the Boxee Box as it stands now are as below:

Pros:

  1. Bitstreams HD audio from MKV, M2TS and ISO containers
  2. uPnP support (DLNA certification will be a technicality)
  3. DVD and Blu-Ray ISO support without menus
  4. 3D playback of content which can be transferred through HDMI 1.3
  5. Multichannel FLAC supported
  6. Gapless audio playback supported
  7. PGS and forced subtitles in MKV supported
  8. Support for SSA / ASS subtitles (first for a dedicated media streamer as far as we know)

 


Cons:

  1. Premium content partners not announced yet
  2. Only SMB and AFS (HFS+) supported for network storage as of now (No NFS / FTP etc.)
  3. No menu support for DVD and Blu-Ray ISOs as of now.
  4. HDMI 1.4a support not possible
  5. No support for MKV chapters as of now
  6. No support for playback of DRM content from external Blu-Ray or DVD drives as of now.

 


Some aspects on which we are awaiting further clarification:

  1. Support for native resolution / frame rate
  2. Support for 23.976 Hz refresh rate
  3. Extent of hackability of firmware for open source developers
  4. Nature of the 802.11n support
  5. Power consumption profile
  6. Support for Real Media
     

From the demo that we were able to see, most of the generic online content is easily accessible, and the WebKit browser is always a fallback option. As the firmware matures further, most of the above cons should disappear. We should get a good look at the capabilities and test out Boxee's claims for ourselves once we receive the review unit. Boxee also went the extra step and requested a copy of our media streamer test suite. This should help them fix up any minor corner case requirements with respect to video decode. As for the other details, we will have to wait for the unit to reach our hands.



Media streamer companies have expertise in either hardware or software, but rarely both. Boxee realized this early on that were they to go out and try to build a box themselves, they would probably fail. By linking a strategic partnership with D-Link which has experience building hardware, and also has a great retail channel presence, they managed to make up for one of their critical shortcomings. D-Link, on the other hand, had to figure out a way to handle the shift in the entertainment ecosystem. For an optimal user experience, a full solution, right from the NAS to the home network to the actual media streamer, had to be created. We have seen attempts at this from both Netgear and D-Link earlier, but all their media streamer offerings failed in terms of the user interface and experience. By partnering with Boxee, they too have managed to overcome one of their shortcomings. How well this has worked out will soon be seen, as the Boxee Box is already up for pre-order on Amazon and should ship before the end of November. D-Link and Boxee also announced that the unit would be up for pre-order internationally (including US, Canada, Australia and the EU).

This product also gives Intel a boost in the mainstream SoC market space. Being the first unit with the CE4100 (actually, any x86 based SoC) to ship to the mainstream consumer (at a palatable $199 price point), Intel would hope that its popularity would be a sign of things to come for x86 based SoCs.

For AnandTech to recommend a media streamer, it must strive to enable the consumer to watch whatever content he wants wherever he wants. Boxee Box seems to have taken this philosophy to heart, unlike some of the other recently announced media streamers. While we hope that the unit can live up to the heightened expectations it has just created, we know that the proof is in the pudding. We will be closely following this streamer as it nears release, and in the meanwhile, if you have something particular that you want to be tested on this unit, feel free to let us know in the comments.

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