Wide file-format support; internal hard drive bay; HDMI cable included.
Generic and clumsy menu; no Internet services; no DTS passthrough to receiver.
Media streamers—devices that put your PC’s video files on a big-screen TV—are emerging as the next hot product category, as more people look to move downloaded and transcoded movies from the desktop into the living room. Patriot’s Box Office is a low-cost media streamer that’s configured much the same as its similarly priced competitors, but includes a few unique hardware features to help differentiate it from the crowd.
Powered by a 400MHz Realtek chip, the Box Office plays video and audio files from USB-connected portable hard drives and flash keys (PC-formatted only), funneling high-definition media to your TV with either an HDMI or composite interface. An Ethernet port lets you stream files from a NAS box, but network connectivity feels a bit wasted without the ability to tap into web services like YouTube or Pandora. The native BitTorrent client, however, is a welcome feature.
A clumsy and laggy file browser mars the user experience with the Box Office.
Video format compatibility is generous; the device played all of our high-bitrate 1080p test files and even worked with FLV Flash and RealVideo (though a firmware update is recommended out-of-box for improved MKV file playback). We recommend sticking to connected USB drives for videos, as network-streamed HD videos showed minor visual artifacts. Audio format compatibility is sufficiently robust, but while DTS decoding is supported, the Box Office can’t pass through DTS HDMA or TrueHD audio to receivers, which will leave some audiophiles disappointed.
The Box Office’s brushed-metal chassis is a little bigger than the WD TV Live, but still has a smaller footprint than a DVD case. That larger size is due to its inclusion of an internal 2.5-inch drive bay for an optional SATA local storage device (not included). We only needed to remove two screws to pop the device open for a really easy drive install. An included Mini USB cable lets you connect the device to a desktop PC, which recognizes the Box Office as just another portable hard drive so you can copy your files onto it. But since we had no problems streaming files off external USB drives or a wired network connection, we only used the internal drive to store files downloaded with BitTorrent.
Unfortunately, the Box Office’s Achilles’ heel is its user interface. File navigation felt clumsy and slow, and diving through layers of directories on networked servers is frustrating. It’s up to you to organize your files before connecting to the Box Office, but we wish its UI was smarter at discovering and sorting files. This seems to be a limitation of the Realtek chipset and software stack, as the media streamers we’ve seen using the 500MHz Sigma chipset don’t have this problem.
With a street price of $100, the Box Office is competitively priced at the low end of the media-streamer spectrum. It won’t replace higher-priced alternatives, but its unique features and robust operation make it more than just a budget box.