Not too long ago we dedicated a lot of time to media centre software for your PC here on Zath. However, we neglected to inform you of alternative hardware on the market. Having a PC to watch your movies on is all well and good if you can spare the sort of cash it takes to create such a setup.
Fortunately, there are cheaper alternatives than buying a not-so-cheap Apple Mini (that many people do), some very good ones in fact and with the PlayOn! HD Mini from ACRyan being a fraction of the price of a substantial HTPC, it certainly puts up a convincing argument against the latter.
For starters, the form factor of the box is dramatically smaller than any PC on the market today, smaller even than the average HD set top box and that of the ASRock ION 330-BD Media Centre PC at 151 x 102 x 42mm in size. Adding to that, the glossy black exterior with a literally glowing logo embedded into the front of the device alongside some logo’s detailing compatibility, the device is aesthetically brilliant and compact.
To the rear of the device you will find an abundance of connectivity options. Firstly, you have a pair of USB 2.0 ports through which you attach the external drive, a necessary and perhaps costly companion to the player with their being a lack of internal storage. However, this is not a huge obstacle to overcome, but unfortunately for me being a faithful Mac user, there is no compatibility for HFS formatted drives, only NTFS, which requires drivers for my Macbook Pro.
However, for the more than 80% of computer users who dabble with Windows, it will be perfectly accustomed to your needs. Alternatively, you can attach the Wi-Fi b/g/n adapter through one of the USB ports to unveil several extra features of the player. However, for those who prefer the wired approach and the extra available USB port, there is an Ethernet port too
In terms of A/V output, the PlayOn! HD Mini is obviously in its element playing back HD video, so with that comes the necessity for either an HDMI port or HD Composite Video and Audio connectivity. Thankfully, ACRyan have been generous to include both, though for some bizarre reason they fit the HDMI port the other way up to the tradition, but as far as I know all HDTV’s will be catered for sufficiently. Additionally, there are both Y/Pb/Pr Video ports and SPDIF optical TOSLink audio output.
It seems to be a growing trend in the tech business that products are becoming simpler and simpler to setup and get on your way with. This is a trait evident in the PlayOn! HD Mini, particularly if you are using the HDMI port. There is a single power DC power adapter, which requires no bulky transformer so will hopefully not create an unsightly media setup.
Once all things are go, and you turn on the player for the first time it prompts you to configure some simple settings, which is easily done and you are away. It’s really that simple!
As I said earlier, the device is unfortunately incompatible with HFS formatted storage, but in terms of media playback the player is in a league of its own, similar to popular HTPC media playback software such as Boxee or VLC Media Player.
It exceeds that of its closest rival the WDTV by supporting DTS audio, as well as supporting popular HD movie container MKV as well as the more traditional ones such as AVI, DivX or MP4 as well as audio formats such as MP3, FLAC, AAC and DTS.
There are various settings from within the player itself which enable you to alter the default output of audio from stereo to surround and vice versa, it really all goes without saying until you get the point of setting the resolution and it all takes a turn for the worse. As far as I can tell, the method of setting the resolution is absolutely inexplicable, in that you have to use the remote to position a red box on your TV, setting the ‘size’ of your screen.
However, it is rarely the case that this is representative of the native resolution, therefore you are left with a sub-standard resolution. For example, the default resolution on my 1080p Sony Bravia HDTV is a bizarre 1186×676. It is alterable, and this doesn’t seem to have any affect on the quality of the video playback as for some reason it sorts itself out for that, but navigating the menus is an unattractive experience to say the least.
The highlight of the player for me is the sheer number of features included when compared to its market rivals. For example, though not available yet, a future firmware update promises to enable the ability to download via BitTorrent to external media. The focus on network media playback doesn’t stop there either, with access to streaming facilities such as Picasa, Flickr as well as various news feeds. Plus, you can listen to Internet Radio easily as well as access media stored on network-attached storage such as the Synology DS410 we reviewed last month.
Furthermore, you can also manage files on your external storage from within the player, which is a necessity when you consider that you may never remove your external storage from the player particularly if streaming media directly to the player.
The amount of features is also backed up by the complexity and depth of the settings. Though this is not perhaps the most attractive of traits the device will boast, for advanced users it can create an excellent insight and great usability.
Obviously, with it being a media player, you will also find the ability to watch HD movies, TV Shows, play music and view slideshows of your photo collections not so much a bonus, but an expected feature excellently executed.
Lastly, the mini edition of the PlayOn! HD uses fanless cooling technology, meaning you are left with only the noise of the drive being accessed which is minimal anway so for the most part, a silent media setup.
Having used the WDTV for a lengthy period prior to receiving the PlayOn! HD, I was impressed by the simple UI of the Western Digital offering. However, as far as ACRyan are concerned I am disappointed by the UI here. However, I am assured that an update is nearing the end of the development pipeline and should enhance the interface greatly, so stay tuned for an update on that.
In terms of how you access various features of the device, it is simple enough, but as I mentioned earlier the problems with resolution causes poor clarity of text and images all over the interface. However, what is more important are the things you can do with it.
So let’s start with the home screen. A simple enough layout, mostly black with blue text and logos which locates a horizontally scrolling menu along the lower half of the screen with links to a file browser, media library (never used if you manage your media on a PC rather than the device itself), internet feeds, internet radio, file management and setup/settings. All that you need on the device is never far away as the accompanying remote has a ‘home’ button and all features are easily accessible from there.
The file browser is the most important aspect, as this is where you will access the majority of your media. It is identical in layout to the media library, which may prove to be a more popular route for some. Once you enter the browser, you are given the choice of where your media is stored; USB, DVD (no optical drive, though), Network, UPnP or NFS.
From there you simply enter the device you want and you are given further details related to that device, such as drive partitions. After that you access the folders and/or files stored within and you can elect to view a preview of your movie on the right hand panel. Across the top you can delegate specific filters for accessing Movies, Photos or Music. All files are shown with their file extension, which although handy is another slight downer on the looks.
So overall on this front, simplicity is the essence, however on a device like this, looks mean a lot and unfortunately, it’s not a looker.
The complexity of the ACRyan PlayOn! HD Mini media center is nothing to be feared. For basic users the depth of settings is not a necessity in the slightest in order to enjoy the device, but for advanced users it allows for an array of features, which will definitely suit your needs.
Costing around £90 at the moment, the device is definitely worth considering if you’re apprehensive about spending two or three times that on a decent HTPC. In terms of being a dedicated media player, it is packed with essential features and more.
Hopefully the upcoming GUI update will improve the slight worries I have over the current performance in this area and will enhance this devices already substantial case for the best in its area. Certainly as a media player, it is better than the WDTV hands down in my opinion.
I’d give this worthy 4 out of 5 stars!