Boxee co-founder Avner Ronen took to the official Boxee blog this morning to announce the Boxee Live TV tuner.
It's a $50 TV tuner dongle coming in January that connects to one of the Boxee Box's USB ports and works with either free over-the-air TV signals (which typically include the major networks, plus PBS) or unencrypted Clear QAM cable channels. (There's a useful overview on Boxee's site.)
The pitch is that the Live TV tuner makes the Boxee Box an exceptional cable-cutting device, letting you still watch major TV events like local sports and award shows, while catching up on other TV and movie content via streaming video services like Netflix and Vudu. (But not Hulu Plus, which still hasn't been added to Boxee, despite the announcement over a year ago.)
That all sounds great, until you remember that every modern HDTV already has a built-in ATSC tuner that allows you to watch live TV. Sure, the Boxee Box Live TV tuner will save you the hassle of switching inputs on your TV and it will likely have a prettier interface, but $50 is a lot to pay for that convenience. (Especially if you have a Harmony universal remote you can program with a handy "Watch TV" command to effortlessly switch from the Boxee to the TV's built-in tuner.)
Skepticism aside, there are a few ways that Boxee can bolster its over-the-air TV support to make the $50 dongle a better value.
1. DVR capability
The blog post mentions that DVR capability using an attached USB hard drive if enough users request it. We think it's a must-have feature, not just for recording shows, but also for pausing live TV, which is a feature we just expect with our live TV experience now. We'd also love to see a new Boxee Box with an integrated hard drive and tuner, to cut down on USB-dongle clutter.
2. Better guide data
One of the major failings of many over-the-air DVRs without a monthly fee is subpar electronic program guide data. These budget DVRs typically use the guide data already contained within the over-the-air TV signals, but that data is often spotty and only goes out a day or so. If Boxee can offer a better experience here, that could be a worthwhile reason to use the Boxee tuner rather than the one already built into your HDTV.
3. Cross-platform search and browsing
Everyone from Microsoft to Google to TiVo is trying to nail cross-platform search and browsing. If Boxee can make search and browsing work between all of its supported video services and over-the-air content, it would be another solid reason to use Boxee's tuner, rather than the one you already have.
Don't get us wrong: Boxee's Live TV tuner is a step in the right direction and cord-cutters, myself included, are desperate for an easy solution that combines streaming content off the Web and solid over-the-air support. (TiVo is the best current option, but it requires a monthly fee.) But until and unless Boxee offers some significant over-the-air features, the tuner is mostly saving you the trouble of changing the input on your TV.