Product: PlayOn Digital Media Server
Rating: Recommend* (For now)
We're pretty big on media servers here at Unplggd, seeing as we've featured nearly a gazillion articles on the topic alone, but it's always a good idea to stop ourselves once in a while to take a look at how things have evolved since the introduction of Tversity last year.
In comes Media Mall's PlayOn Media Server software - one of the most feature heavy media server software on the market today - with the ability to stream Hulu, YouTube, and a plethora of channel add-ons such as Tekzilla and HGTV (to name a few). So, does PlayOn succeed in delivering the same internet TV experience to your HDTV? Click through to find out.While we realize the PlayOn Media Server works on any DLNA-enabled device on the market (ie. Xbox 360, Wii, HP MediaSmart TV, and Moxi HD), but we've decided to give it a go on the Sony Playstation 3 to keep it consistent with previous reviews on similar software.
The Install: Not much trouble here. The thing installed like a charm on our Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit desktop PC. Unfortunately, the software only runs at 32-bits, but no media server software out there has even touched the surface of taking advantage of 64-bits, so we won't complain too much here.
Oh, and no codec packs. Everything's included in the package.
The Interface: As for the interface... well, it's very, very straight forward. That's not to say it's perfect. Straight-forward design can be an effective thing, if used in the right context. Given the audience using this software are probably media buffs, we imagine something like Tversity's updated UI would be found to be much more appealing than the standard off-gray windows we've seen for 10 years+ now.
The Performance: But where style is a bit lacking, functionality and performance definitely makes up for it. This is where having features stacked 10 feet high pays off. We were floored at how well Amazon Video-On-Demand and Hulu streamed (wirelessly on a G-network, mind you), as well as having all of our local media (which consists of a million different formats including MKV, MP4, FLV, AVI, MOV, and much more) available through a single program interface. Granted it still wasn't exactly HD (PlayOn places a firm limit on a 4Mbps transcoded bitrate to keep things smooth and steady), we were still pretty impressed.
The Add-ons: While 3rd party plug-ins are officially not part of the program, one can easily acknowledge the draw of having external developers help generate value in its platform. PlayOn does just that; with an army of channels awaiting our viewing over at Playonplugins.com, we couldn't resist installing a bunch to get the most out of our PlayOn software.
All you need to do to install the channel is drag and drop a "plugin" file into the PlayOn Program Files folder. This wasn't too bad, though we'd prefer it if we could load it through user-interface of the program itself (kind of like in Firefox fashion). Older channel files required some really cumbersome process of throwing files in 3 different places, but we suggest staying away from those channels since half of them didn't work anyway.
What Could Be Better: We found there were a surprising number of times where the software would simply stop functioning properly. The video would stream for 2 seconds, then stop completely. We were baffled. Jumping into the forums, we didn't find much help there other than a suggestion to restart our computer. Doing so fixed the issue - but what the hell does it all mean? We still don't know, but it's one annoying bug we've seen time and time again with all of the media streaming software we've tested.
Summing It All Up: Overall, we found ourselves utilizing nearly every single feature set provided by PlayOn. Whether it be Amazon VOD, Netflix streaming, Hulu, or just local media streaming, being able to launch a single program to view anything on your cloud media queue or from your local computer has been something we at Unplggd rarely see pulled off without a few hitches.
But there are hitches: A dated-looking interface isn't a good first impression for any TV and internet media buff. Neither is forcing users to rummage through forums to look for add-ons. Having some kind of a channel store would be a much cleaner, integrated approach. Oh, and no Mac support? Tsk. Tsk.
That said, we believe PlayOn has tons of potential for expandability, and despite its few flaws, remains one of the best media server software solution out there right now. We've also heard from many readers that the PlayOn staff is very responsive to feedback and continues to work hard to add more features onto a very strong feature set.
Pros: Streams SD video flawlessly. Automatically chooses best speed according to connection. Easy install. Resource friendly.
Cons: Doesn't do true HD streaming. User-interface needs a bit of an update. Annoying "freeze after playing 2-seconds" bug. No Mac support.