tech lab plus

A new way to see broadcast TV

Boxee Box and Boxee Live TV by Boxee Inc.

Boxee Box, $167.99; Boxee Live TV, $49, at

They’re the cable TV industry’s nightmare. “Cord cutters’’ - the people who give up on paying monthly cable bills because they can get all the TV they want over the air or online. Boxee caters to would-be cord cutters with a simple, attractive device that streams Internet video services to standard TV sets. You can get thousands of popular TV shows and movies, many of them free, or hook up to popular subscription services like Netflix.

But what if you want to watch the Super Bowl or the evening news? You can just switch to your TV’s over-the-air mode and fall back on an old set of rabbit ears. Boxee has just made the process easier with its Live TV device, a little dongle that plugs into a USB port on the back and connects to an antenna.

The same software that sorts through video choices on the Boxee Box generates a channel guide that tells you what’s playing on broadcast stations, and lets you see what’s coming on later in the day. You can share your viewing choices with friends on Facebook or Twitter.


Mind you, $50 is a bit steep, when you could just plug the antenna directly into the set. You get fewer nifty on-screen features that way, but then your Facebook friends don’t care what you’re watching anyhow.

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Still, a cheaper version of Live TV, built right into the Boxee Box, would make cord cutting more attractive than ever.

OnLive Desktop for the iPad by OnLive Inc.

Free for basic version; $4.99 a month for Desktop Plus, at

The Apple Inc. iPad does a pretty good imitation of a laptop computer, especially when you combine it with an external keyboard. But sometimes it’d be nice to fire up our old friend Microsoft Office for some serious word processing or spreadsheet crunching.

There are rumors afoot that Microsoft will bring a version of Office to the iPad, but why wait? A free app called OnLive Desktop gives you cloud-based access to Office, running on a remote Windows 7 computer. You also get two gigabytes of storage to stash any documents you might create. It’s such a good idea that OnLive has just released a version for Android tablets, and plans to make it available on other computing devices.

And for $4.99 a month, you can get Desktop Plus, a service that gives you access to all the features of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser. You can browse the Web for free using the Apple Safari browser on the iPad, right? Well, Safari doesn’t support Flash videos, so you’re barred from thousands of popular websites that use the technology. Desktop Plus and its Microsoft browser give you full access to every Flash-based site.


Personally, I found the extra speed irrelevant for most desktop applications. And while it’s nice to have Flash access on the iPad, it’s not essential. The coolest thing about OnLive Desktop is the ability to run Office from everybody’s favorite tablet.

Swann HD PenCam by Swann Communications USA Inc.

$59.99 at

I don’t have the martial arts skills or insolent cool needed to be a secret agent, but I’ve sure got the gadgets. This pen, for instance. It’s a nifty little writing instrument that’s also a surprisingly decent video recorder.

Swann’s an Australian outfit that‘s figured out how to squeeze a 720p high-definition camera into a ballpoint pen. Yes, it writes. But push a button on the top and you can shoot video through a barely visible pinhole lens set just above the pocket clip.

Actually, the pen isn’t ideal for making secret video recordings. I found that when tucked into a pocket, the lens was almost never pointed in the right direction. And there’s no image stabilization feature, so you can’t move around. But when you point it right at someone, the PenCam takes surprisingly good pictures. The company says you can get 45 minutes of video shooting from a full battery charge, but make sure you’ve got plenty of flash memory. The pen takes a microSD card, which is not included. One gigabyte of memory equals about 10 minutes of video. You can also use the pen to shoot still images.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at