After moving quite a bit the last few months, the last thing I wanted to do was sign on for another year of ridiculously overpriced cable service. Despite my desires for viewing a constant steam of visual content like all twenty-something year-olds, I just wasnít ready to bleed financially, all for watching a few hours a day of nonsensical programming.
The notion of cutting the cord has never been more of a reality for viewers than it is today. High priced television cable packages are serving as unnecessary expenses for many in this digital age, especially when the Internet is flooded with both broadcast and cable content for free. But for some, watching your favorite programs on a tiny computer screen just doesnít replicate the fun familiar feeling of TV viewing on a 50Ē plasma. In steps PlayOn, a streamable service that allows users to watch a wealth of content from the companyís extensive library of broadcast and cable channel programming on any DLNA compliant gaming console, including your Wii, Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 console, as well as Apple iOS devices. Pretty nifty, right? Hereís how it works.
First, download the PlayOn software onto your Windows based PC. The download is free as part of a 14-day trial, but the service will cost you $39.99 for your first year and $19.99 for every year after. However, if you enjoy the content provided, thatís minimum coinage compared to the average monthly cable bill, which floats around the $70 range. Once installed, just follow a few minor steps, and youíre able to access the PlayOn library on your console of choice.
First, when using the PlayOn service, you need to have the installed application open on your Windows PC. That way your gaming console will be able to recognize the server to retrieve content. Itís recommended that either your PC or the device itself be connected to your router to ensure an uninterrupted connection. Based on my home setup, it was only plausible for my PC to be connected, so my impressions are based on that.
The PlayOn content library is quite impressive, and as the service grows, so will the channel selection. As it stands the service offers content from such channels as ESPN, MTV, CNN, Comedy Central and Spike, as well network content from ABC and CBS. You can also enjoy Hulu and YouTube videos, while Netflix subscribers have access to their own Instant Streaming library. Thatís thousands of movie and TV programs all accessible via your gaming console.
So how does the service perform on the Wii, PS3 and Xbox 360 consoles? I took PlayOn for a test drive on all three gaming consoles to let you guys know the good, the bad, and everything in between:
PlayOn is currently in beta on the Wii console, but there were no hiccups to be had in my many view-sessions. To access PlayOn on Wii, youíll use the Wiiís Internet Channel to visit the official PlayOn website. Once there, youíre fully able to access the wealth of hosted video content. Similar to services like Hulu, many channels offer the option to watch full episodes or shorter clips from their programming. I took a trip down memory lane, and watched a few episodes from MTVís back-catalog, including Daria and True Life (youíll be surprised by the diversity in the library of both old and newer programs). The video and audio quality was good, similar to streaming standard definition content online. In between program segments are brief commercials, some however hover around the minute-and-a-half mark. Itís a little discouraging when paying for a service to still have to endure commercials, but offering access to premium video content is quite an experimental business model. Although covering new ground in the way we view content, Iím hoping the commercials can stay below the 30-second mark in the future.
The menu interface is easy to navigate, separating content by channel icons, and then alphabetizing the available programming. And the ease of using the Wii Remote as your PlayOn remote was an added bonus, making it easy to point-and-click on desired menu operations. Menu navigation buttons disappear as you watch your program, and can easily appear by pointing the Wii Remote towards the screen, offering a fluid experience. The PlayOn service on Wii is quite impressive, and easily worth the low annual cost.[/SPOILER][SPOILER="PS3"]
Using PlayOn on the PS3 console is where the product stands out. For comparison sake, I watched the same content I did on the Wii console, as well as other shows including Comedy Centralís hilarious Amy Sedaris starring comedy Strangers With Candy. The video quality is absolutely great, truly blurring the lines between streamed and broadcast content.
The menu interface is also fantastic, broken down into a list format in line with the PS3ís standard organization method. PlayOn strives to look like an extension of your consoleís menu interface, and not its own entity, a feat I applaud. Once inside, simply select the channel you want, and select your program. One small glitch that happened more than Iíd like to admit is the ďcorrupt dataĒ error message. This common error occurs as an episode loading roadblock, forcing you to return to the menu screen. It doesnít signify a problem with the video itself, just a connection issue. Youíre encouraged to attempt to re-open the same video again, which worked for me every time. Itís a bit of jumping through hoops, but because my second attempts at reopening the episode worked every time, itís nothing to cry about.
I must stress the difference in video performance when using a direct connection between your PC or PS3 console and your router via an Ethernet cable, versus a Wi-fi connection. During my test time with my PC connected to my router, playback was near flawless. Unfortunately, Wi-fi was unreliable; videos often buffered causing extremely choppy playback. Youíre forced to hit the pause button to help the video catch its breath, which after a few moments does the trick. But switching back to Ethernet fixed every connection issue instantly, providing a steady stream of picture perfect programming.[/SPOILER][SPOILER="XBOX 360"]
Once PlayOn is running on your PC, you can easily access the PlayOn service as it will appear in your Xbox 360ís dashboard in the Video Marketplace. Once inside, the service runs similarly to PS3ís overall setup, but with a traditional Xbox interface.
All programs are easy to find, divided into their respective channels. I played a collection of different programs from different channels and was again impressed by the video quality, which rivals that of the PS3. With some buffering up front, the videos played without any noticeable hiccups. That was, of course, with my PC hooked directly to my router. I tried to play videos with my PC wirelessly, but was only able to manage about 15 seconds of video playback before an equally long buffering session took place. But this was expected, given my findings for the PS3.
The experience was just as smooth as viewing on the two other consoles otherwise.[/SPOILER][SPOILER="Overall Impressions"]I only became aware of PlayOn about a month ago, and after my two-week test session, I have to admit Iím amazed. The service runs surprisingly well, even on the Wii console. Video playback, when your PC is connected to a router directly, is near-perfect. The video quality on the PS3 and Xbox 360 consoles was stellar, while the Wiiís PlayOn service, which is still in beta, still looked good.
Surprisingly, when using my PC, the Wiiís video playback suffered no buffering issues compared to the other two consoles. Itís a shame that the PS3 and Xbox 360 performance suffered greatly when the PC is not connected to a router by Ethernet. But PlayOn is hardly the only service to have an issue sharing impressive video quality over a Wi-fi connection.
I highly recommend the PlayOn service to anyone who is looking to ditch the cable box for a less expensive alternative. While the service doesnít offer the amount of channels that youíd get from a traditional cable plan, the level of content is sufficient, and said to improve. Where the service thrives is serving more as an on-demand library of shows past and semi-present, more so than a library of brand-new current episodes. While PlayOn doesnít necessarily endorse it, there is a strong online community of members actively adding new channels via plug-in downloads. Channels like Food Network, Revision 3 and G4 are available to download free through easy to find online forums. I took Revision 3 and G4 for a test drive, both passing with flying colors. The G4 channel featured clips taken from current episodes of the channelís lineup of shows, which is pretty refreshing considering the channel is usually only listed as a premium offering for most cable plan packages.
If your home entertainment setup allows your gaming console or PC to be attached to your router, then PlayOn offers a truly fantastic TV viewing option. The only true benefit of the service over a TV plan is the sum of cash youíll save each month. While I wouldnít necessarily recommend the product to anyone looking to add the service if youíve already got an impressive 200 channel cable package, itís certainly a worth-while product for those that donít.[/SPOILER]