Hands On: PlayOn
Posted by Zach Kaplan
Because there's no Hulu streaming disc
We recently had the opportunity to try out the video-streaming application PlayOn from MediaMall Technologies, which acts as a conduit between your Wii and the countless number of videos locked away on the Internet. It turns out there's a lot more than YouTube out there, and while the program's appeal clearly once was built on providing access to Netflix before the service produced its own instant streaming disc, there's still a lot of content that you'd otherwise have to watch on your computer rather than your television set.
You access the software by visiting a website on your Wii Internet Browser, so there's no way to get rid of that pesky "i" in the corner, though after awhile it feels like any other logo that you'd see when viewing a normal television channel. It's all incredibly basic, which is definitely a plus – even when a website works on the Wii, you'd normally have to get past more flashy webpage designs than are worth the effort. You're first presented with a simple menu of the channels that you've enabled against a blue background, and the menus never become much more complicated than that.
One of the biggest drawbacks to Netflix Instant has always been its organisation; you have to view either your Instant Queue in its preset order or traverse its archives by genre or by looking at a list of new arrivals. Here, however, you can look through each by alphabetical order – in fact, it's the only way to view the genres and new arrivals, while you can still elect to view your queue in its normal progression – but you can't simply look at it as one consecutive list, instead viewing it as split up by letter or by groups of letters.
This isn't the same with each programme, some of them having better or worse organisational setups, and the non-uniformity can be a bit jarring, especially as you're required to pay a subscription fee; more on this later. Some programmes don't hide the fact that you're simply accessing website archives through a back-door whatsoever, a fact that's exacerbated by the inability to use any means of navigation besides that of the PlayOn software: YouTube clips end by suggesting unclickable related clips, for example. Another program that's definitely made worse by its non-interactivity is Pandora; normally you can skip a track, but you're unable to press the thumbs down button with PlayOn. It also can be a bit annoying to point at the screen and press the pop-up pause, fast-forward or rewind button instead of just having a simple remote control handy, and there's never any status bar, so skipping to a select spot can be a minor hassle.
Another drawback is the inability to type. This means that in YouTube, you can only see what's in your favourites list or view the entire library by accessing such basically useless lists as those of the most popular or most recently added videos. This is not the way in which we like to navigate YouTube.
One thing that will appeal to many is the ability to access Hulu, with its sprawling collection of full television programs and clips. While still a very cool addition, however, make sure that you search their library before you get excited. Hulu talks a big game, but after searching for four or five TV shows that we enjoy (a task that would have gone a lot faster with the ability to type), we eventually had to settle for an episode of H.R. Pufnstuf – definitely not our first choice. However, we were able to find some entertaining stuff later on, so even if you don't find what you're looking for specifically, if you're open to discovery then you will more than likely find something to entertain you.
You're also able to access a few sports networks, which can really come in handy if you've got a good enough Internet connection. It's a lot less embarrassing to invite your friends over to watch the game on your television than on your computer monitor; ESPN.com, ESPN3, MLB.com and NHL.com all come pre-packaged with PlayOn, so you'll usually be able to stream your team live as well as the games of just about any other team, depending on the sport.
Another feature that's still in beta testing is My Media, which accesses files on your computer to play through your Wii. It's still got some kinks, so whereas we were impressively able to view almost automatically our 65.6GB music library when organised by artist, it froze when we chose to see all the tracks at once, and some of them just wouldn't play. There's also no way to play a series of songs one after the next, and it can be a hassle to select each individually.
There are a number of other channels that come with PlayOn, such as Comedy Central, which lets you view full episodes of such programs as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, as well as the music video library Vevo (though YouTube has quite a few music videos in its archives), TV.com, Amazon Video On Demand, The Ultimate Fighter, CNN, PBS, Fox News, SpikeTV, and MTV.
None of these libraries are perfect or will appeal to everyone, but there are countless easy-to-install user-made plugins that give you access to just about everything that PlayOn automatically does not, such as [adult swim], the Game Show Network, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon as well as channels like Creepy Flicks, with its archive of public domain horror and science fiction movies. Since these aren't professionally compiled you'll hit a few dead links, but depending on your taste this library might make a decent alternative to possibly more expensive cable television. You can't view most of this content through the Wii's Internet Browser, but you can through your computer's (except in particular situations that occur on an individual basis), so it all comes down to how much you think it's worth it to watch it on your television screen and through PlayOn's easily navigable interface.
Whether PlayOn is worth getting will largely come down to a person-to-person basis. It's got its flaws, but it's by no means a bad programme. Obviously without fast Internet access you won't get the best picture quality, though whether or not you're picky about this will come into play as well. This also affects load times, and if you have a slow connection you might have to pause and wait for your video to catch up. And, of course, whether the available programs have the content that you want will play a huge part in your selection.
The main detriment, however, is the subscription fee – $39.99 the first year and $19.99 a year from then on, or a one-time fee of $79.99. Compare this to the price and programming available on cable or satellite television in your area, however, and this could be a bargain. You might not even have access to what you would have with PlayOn where you live, and in such a case, this programme could really come in handy. It all depends, of course, on how important it is to you to watch television on a traditional set instead of your computer; we certainly find it more comfortable, but $39.99 a year comfortable? Perhaps not. PlayOn is also a complete waste if you're able to link your computer to your television as you would to a monitor, a feature that comes standard on many sets nowadays.
If you're on the fence, you can head to the PlayOn website for a 14-day free trial.
Note: While PlayOn is available worldwide – unless your country bans use of the PlayOn website – only content already available in your region will be available through the service. If you can't normally access Hulu or another programme, you won't be able to through PlayOn. Also, PlayOn will not affect the quality of your video streaming, so, for example, YouTube videos will still play at the same quality through PlayOn as they would if you accessed them through the Wii Internet Browser.