Updated: 10 Feb 2010
I was strolling through one of the CES press events last month when I spied PlayOn's table. What grabbed my eye was an attractive user interface up on the demo TV similar to those I've become accustomed to seeing with Netflix and HuluPlus.
I mentioned to the guy manning the table that I had tried PlayOn and wasn't a fan of its endless folder-inside-folder interface. I also said my household's main internet media player was a Roku box, not the PS3 / Xbox 360 / Wii featured in their pitch. When I was told that Roku's players were, indeed, supported, I said I'd take another look.
MediaMall Technologies' PlayOn is a media server that runs on a Windows PC that combines media aggregation with built-in transcoding / preprocessing. It's aimed at providing access to online media services like Netflix, Hulu, etc. for devices that don't have access built in.
My first encounter with PlayOn was while reviewing NETGEAR's EVA2000 Digital Entertainer Live, which debuted at CES 2009. This short-lived box played free content from YouTube and vtap. But the good stuff came from pay-per-view movies from CinemaNow and video via PlayOn.
Determining exactly which devices PlayOn supports is confusing. The User Guide and Website have different listings. But neither list mentions Roku.
PlayOn Supported Devices - User Guide
But there's section in the PDF User Guide that describes how to add a private Roku channel (code MYPLAYON). So despite the Roku Forums posts to the contrary (and with my own successful install), it appears that you can access the PlayOn server from Roku's players.
I received the following response from PlayOn's PR agency to my query about Roku support:
PlayOn supports Roku through what Roku terms a “private channel”. We (MediaMall Technologies, PlayOn) leverage Roku’s open platform, like hundreds of other Private Channel developers. This open platform requires no official relationship with Roku. This is actually quite similar to PlayOn’s support of Xbox 360, PlayStation3, and Wii. All of these technologies have allowed for companies and individuals to develop solutions that allow their customers to access content.
Our previous silence on Roku was a result of wanting to perform further tests and build out the offering before announcing it to customers. We'll be officially releasing the Roku version of PlayOn this week, along with instructions for customers on how to create their very own private PlayOn channel moving forward.
PlayOn Supported Devices - Website
Pricing And Content
I haven't spent the extra bucks to move up to PlayOn's current three-tiered licensing scheme. Lite gets you only the ability to play your own local media files, i.e. a "My Media" UPnP / DLNA server and access to Pandora and YouTube, while Basic (the former subscription plan) adds access to Hulu, Netflix, CBS, ESPN, MLB, CNN and Amazon VOD to the Lite services. You'll note that the more interesting additional services require separate subscription fees.
When I purchased my license last March, licenses were going for a one-time $30 (I'm rounding up by a penny for all pricing). Shortly after, MediaMall moved to the yearly subscription model now known as its Playon Premium. This is $40 for the first year, then $20 per year or a $80 one time payment. I didn't pony up and also skipped the promotional upgrade price that was offered until last September. So now upgrading to PlayOn Premium would cost me $20/year or a $55 one time payment.
So what do you get with Premium? Again, it's tough to sort through PlayOn's various and conflcting lists. But the current additional Premium content providers look like Adult Swim, NHL.com, BET, Cartoon Network, Comedy Central, ESPN3, Fox News, NFL, Nick, TV.com, NFL Rewind, Oprah Winfrey Network, SpikeTV, SyFy, TBS, The Ultimate Fighter, PBS, PBS Kids, MTV and Vevo. You can also try your luck at third party sites that have other content plugins and scripts available.
I installed Playon's latest 188.8.131.522 server on three PCs: an Acer Aspire Revo 3610 (Intel 1.6 GHz Atom 330, 2 GB RAM, Win 7 Home Premium), Acer Aspire 1810T (Intel 1.3 GHz U7300 CPU, 4 GB RAM, Win 7 Home Premium) notebook and custom-built Win 7 desktop (Intel 2.53 GHz E7200 Core 2 Duo CPU, 2 GB RAM, Vista Home Premium).
PlayOn has built-in network and processor performance tests that showed my Gigabit Ethernet LAN connection and 5 Mbps down DSL service provided "Maximum" Online Bandwidth. But the CPU Performance test rated the performance of the Acer 3610 as "Low", the Acer 1810T as "Medium" and only the custom desktop as "High".
These results correlated with the picture quality I obtained from each server, with the custom desktop providing the sharpest picture, comparable to that obtained with the native Roku Hulu app. The Acer 3610 had the softest picture and the Acer 1810T somewhere in the middle, although more like the desktop than the 3610.
Once I got the PlayOn server running, Private Channel added to the Roku and launched the PlayOn app, I saw no sign of the spiffy interface I saw at CES. The screenshot below of the top-level PlayOn app shows a screen that will be familiar to Roku users—a single scrollable line of "channels". The (Premium Preview) indicates that I haven't upgraded to the Premium service, but provides a taste of the content available via clips and some full episodes.
This display is semi-attractive in that it at least shows channel logos. But scrolling through the single line gets old real quick.
Unfortunately, I saw no sign of the whizzy display that grabbed my attention at CES. I selected Hulu and found the familiar PlayOn nested folders were still alive and well as the screenshot below shows. Note that only the currently highlighted folder shows the show title. There is also no way to search folders.
PlayOn TV show selection
Only when you get into the actual show episodes do you get a slightly more pleasing view. But the navigation is still a single line.
PlayOn TV show episode selection
So maybe what I saw at CES was the interface for the PS3 or XBox 360? Not at least from the demo videos on PlayOn's website. Both the PS3 and Xbox 360 demos show similar boring and dysfunctional user interfaces. The bottom line is that finding your way through PlayOn's content remains an exercise in frustration.
Update: PlayOn told us that the device used to demo PlayOn at CES was the Logitech Revue. They also said, which I should have realized in the first place, is that the user interface is controlled by the device, not PlayOn, just like any other media server. But that still leaves PlayOn (or its developer) at fault for the crappy Roku app GUI.
Once you find content, playing it can be frustrating. As noted above, I have 5 Mbps down DSL service and both the PlayOn server and Roku were connected via Gigabit Ethernet. But Hulu videos took about 30 seconds of "preparing" and "retrieving" to start and sound didn't sync up until a few seconds into the main program.
And even after all that, each video would play for about 10 seconds, flash to the "retrieving" screen for a few seconds and then restart at the beginning, including intro headers and pre-roll commercials! This happened consistently and definitely does not add to PlayOn's WAF.
Where's The Value?
In the end, it's hard to see how you get your money's worth from PlayOn. Microsoft and Sony have steadily expanded their built-in web video offerings. Netflix is available on just about anything that can connect to a network and display video and HuluPlus is already on Roku and PS3 and is "coming soon" to Xbox 360.
Given that you need a pretty powerful Windows system to get decent video quality from PlayOn's pre-processing anway, you're better off to look for a non-Atom-based notebook with HDMI output and just skip PlayOn entirely. You certainly can't do worse for user interface and the $20 / year you'll save can be put toward content subscription fees that you're likely to see as more content transitions to web distribution.