After taking a look at Western Digital’s WD TV Live Plus a couple of weeks ago, I’ve found the bar raised so high that other players are going to have a hard time keeping up. In the case of AC Ryan’s Playon!HD mini, it would have been a media player I’d fall in love with if not for having seen the kind of quality that’s possible with such devices.
But to be more specific, let’s break things down and first take a look at the good. Although the Playon!HD mini is larger than the WD TV Live, it’s not by much, and personally, I find that it looks quite a bit better aesthetically. I prefer devices like these to be black since they tend to look better when sitting next to or under what’s sure to be a black TV. But color aside, the general design of AC Ryan’s unit is preferable.
I also prefer the remote here as well, compared to the other media players we’ve looked at so far. Some might find it too large, but if you like a full-featured remote and one that won’t be easily lost, this is a almost a winner. Why almost? I still question the button layout, as it will take a bit of getting used to, primarily with the fast forward, rewind and related buttons.
Though it seems a bit minor, the inclusion of an HDMI cable to me is huge. Many people who haven’t used the HDMI port in their display but pick up this device aren’t likely to have an HDMI cable on hand, so the inclusion saves time. Plus, it’s a solid cable with a nice sleeving, so it’s not as though you’re going to want to run out to the store to replace it.
Physical attributes aside, the performance of the Playon!HD mini is top-rate. Everything from DVDs to Blu-rays to even images and music loaded fast. Any media that had to transition from one file to the next wasn’t quite that fast, but I haven’t see another media player that’s been any more instant. I’m not sure why that’s the case, but it is.
Interestingly, this was the first media player I’ve used that has managed to playback a huge Blu-ray direct rip ISO without issue. The movie I tested this with was Live Free or Die Hard, which comes out to be a 42.5GB file. When played back through my external USB hard drive, the entire movie played without a hitch, I was quite surprised.
Similar playback wasn’t possible through my network, but that’s to be expected given we’re dealing not so much with huge bandwidth, but a massive file. Theoretically it should work, but I haven’t found a network appliance to handle that kind of playback reliably – yet. In order for truly reliable performance there, a Gigabit network might be required, and generally, devices like these don’t support that.
If you opt in for the wireless adapter, performance is going to be even more limited, and if the performance we saw from the wireless O!Play is anything to go by, you won’t see much 1080p action there. AC Ryan sent us this adapter, but we didn’t have time to test it for this article. I’ll be including my thoughts on it with our review of the non-mini model.
One other plus the Playon!HD mini has is DVD upscaling. Compared to my PlayStation 3, which has fantastic upscaling abilities, there was no discernible difference in quality between the two, so overall, the device proved to be superb for this purpose.
Now, onto the “bad”. I use quotes because there’s nothing that’s a true show-stopper here, just minor things that add up and remain noticeable. The first complaint I have is debatable depending on your likes, but I found that the actual UI for the Playon!HD lacked a bit of polish. The main screen looks good, but all of the sub-menus are kind of bland, and there’s no sense of real artistic direction.
Again, this is an area where the WD TV Live spoiled me, because for the most part, all of its UI looked quite good. On the Playon!HD, there are some parts that looked like they were done in a hurry, such as the white box that hovers above your current top-menu selection. That in particular doesn’t even have to be there, but for some reason, it is. Aesthetics aren’t that important in the grand scheme, but I do feel that when people use devices like this, they like to see an attractive interface, myself included.
The other problem is that there were some features I couldn’t immediately figure out, or that didn’t work right off the bat. I’m not sure why, but my Internet Feeds and Internet Radio sections didn’t work at first. The former did after a while, but I never managed to get the Internet Radio to work for some reason.
Hardware-wise, I found only one small issue. The first is that the AC power plug for some reason doesn’t plug in all the way to the back, though it looks like it’s supposed to. That means that because it’s not plugged in all the way, moving the device could accidentally unplug it, and in my case, that happened a couple of times. Whether this is a one-off, I’m not sure, but I’m waiting to hear back from AC Ryan to find out for sure.
Possibly the biggest hit against the Playon!HD mini is its price, at $140 USD. Whether that can be considered high depends on your opinion, but most of the competition, such as the WD TV Live, can be had for $100 or less, so $140 is a bit hard to stomach, given the “cons” mentioned above. The HDMI cable adds some value, but those can be had for cheap via other stores, so it doesn’t quite make up for the $40 premium.
I have little doubt that the reason for the premium is due to the fact that the company is smaller in size compared to the other competition, and also that its headquarters are way over in the Netherlands. Whether all of the product is produced there as well, I’m not sure, but I’m leaning towards the chances of that being the case.
In the end, though, despite the cons, the Playon!HD mini is a fine product. It’s a bit more expensive than the competition, and has a couple of minor downsides, but it’s a solid product, and the performance we saw through all of our testing was top-rate. If you don’t mind paying a little bit more for your media player and don’t particularly care about aesthetics, then this is a worthy choice.
As mentioned before, we still have the non-mini version here as well, which I’ll be testing out in the near-future. If you’re more interested in that model, stay tuned for our review. And if you have any questions about the Playon!HD mini that I didn’t answer in the review, feel free to post in our related thread and I will tackle them as soon as possible.
September 13, 2010 Addendum: AC Ryan responded to a couple of points from our review. First, the UI is set to be revised in the near-future as the company plans to upgrade to the Realtek SDK 3.x platform, and all current Playon!HD devices should be eligable for that upgrade. Regarding what I thought was a slightly odd layout of buttons on the remote, the company is also planning to revise that in a future release. Though I received a unit with outdated firmware, all shipping units should be equipped with a recent or most-recent version.
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