The PlayOn Beta. Bridging Internet Video To My TV.
About a month ago I was selected to download MediaMall‘s PlayOn Media Server and try their beta version of software that bridges content from several Internet video provider sites to a TV. In reality it requires a few more components along with the software to make it work, such as a PC to run the PlayOn “bridging” application that runs as a service in the system tray and a PS3 (in my case), an XBOX 360 or an HP MediaSmart TV to stream the content to. I have a primary desktop that runs 24/7 and my home network includes a CAT-5 connection to an Ethernet switch on the first floor in the living room where my PS3 lives, so this was an easy set up for me.
With PlayOn, we leverage the existing browser and UPnP functions of game consoles and networked televisions, and use the PC in the middle to bring in the content from the Web, passing it over your home network to the device.
The software is a quick and simple installation with minimal configuration needed and uses the DLNA/UPnP protocol to instantly appear on the PS3 as several media channels in the Video menu.
The PlayOn software creates several new “channels” on my PS3, the CBS site, CNN (coming soon?), ESPN, Hulu (NBC’s site), YouTube and even Netflix which allows for streaming movies from a user’s “Instant Queue”. Originally, the Hulu and Netflix sites were not working for me until I recently upgraded to the latest beta (version 2.58.3196). Now they are working flawlessly. The configuration screen has a future setting section for media sharing from my own collection which would be very cool indeed and could obviate the need for my XBMC to stream video netcasts and DVD ISOs. One of the inexplicable lackings in the off-the-shelf PS3 is its ability to natively play no more than just a select few digital video formats – such a waste. Several video netcasts I download regularly simply will not play on this hobbled supercomputer and I have to use my XBMC.
In navigating the CBS site I had spotty results. I was able to watch a classic episode of Star Trek, and a couple episodes of classic Twilight Zone, however some attempts to play other episodes would result in a timeout and if I was persistent in trying to watch it the PS3 would declare that the file was “corrupt” and thereby prevent me from attempting to cue it up again. In addition, much of the recent or semi-recent content that CBS (and ESPN for that matter) did provide was in clips ranging from around 90 seconds to 3 minutes and NO LETTERMAN!!! Apparently the Letterman clips are devoted to a separate, dedicated site and require going back to your computer if you care to view them. Never mind…
Thankfully, navigating Hulu was a breeze and without drama and Hulu has far more content than the CBS site. As an example, Hulu currently makes available The Daily Show episodes (the ENTIRE episode) the day after it airs on Comedy Central, which I really like.
The amount of content, both fresh and classic, available on Hulu is simply quite stunning. When a person then has the ability to bring all of that to the living room TV, it really eclipses PVR devices like TIVO since PVRs will only record what is airing or has recently aired (BTW, I do not consider the TIVO “feature” of purchasing Amazon Video-On-Demand movies to be the same or even in the same club as this).
The next über-awesome feature PlayOn software has is the ability to link to a Netflix “Instant Queue”, display each title added and stream them just as quickly as I had experienced when viewing content on Hulu. Here I have not only a couple movies, but the entire first season of Dexter, Heroes (season 3-to-date) and the Penn & Teller Bullshit series (season 5) ready to watch.
Overall I am absolutely thrilled with this product! This is not just adding a glitter feature to the PS3, it goes a long way to bridging the chasm that still separates the “new media” viewing experience by shuttling it through a gaming console and onto the living room TV in direct competition for attention from “appointment television” viewing. I’m also perfectly happy with the PS3 controller acting as the remote – it is easy to navigate and the control options are the same as one would expect manipulating media on the PS3. What little media the PS3 could manage on its own that is…
Regarding picture quality; I am able to see quite clearly, on my 65″ wide-screen HDTV, that the colors are muted, the detail is a bit soft and some frames are dropped at irregular intervals in the streaming process. Quite honestly, I expected as much so I am not wholly disappointed when I noticed it. Although you can see flaws if you look for them, the viewing experience is still quite good and I am picking some relatively minor and anticipated nits here. It does not compete for DVD quality, however it is still better than any analog cable channel.
If you are looking for or hoping to use this in a home theater and skip the wait for the DVD to be delivered, simply adjust your expectations accordingly. Watching a standard DVD in a decent (or better) home theater setup will be far more satisfying than streaming the same movie into the same home theater.
One gripe I do have is the the lack of “search” for the YouTube streaming feature, in PlayOn’s current implementation only the primary YouTube site channels show up when you select it. Because of the way YouTube has structured the content on their site, and the fact that most of YouTube’s content is utter crap, you wind up with the “Featured”, “Most Active”, “Promoted”, etc. So, to really get the most of this PlayOn feature you need to add the names of users on YouTube into the PlayOn “User Management” settings that have worthwhile content available on their public feeds. Otherwise you’ll end up watching tripe like:
The coming feature I am really interested in is the local media folder sharing/streaming. If I can stream my DVD backups (ISOs) and downloaded video netcasts such as Webb Alert and Diggnation to my television like I can Hulu, then I will be able to finally retire my aging XBMC and this will become a “must buy” piece of software. Don’t wait. Get on the list and download the beta when your number comes up and give it a go, you aren’t likely to be disappointed.