Time to Play (on)
Firing up the assembled Playon! DVR TV reveals a clear and straight forward interface that’s fine if all you want to do is jump straight in and start watching TV. Actually setting up the TV channels, as well as configuring the playback options, takes a little digging in the setup menus though, but nothing is too heavily buried and with the help of a surprisingly well written manual we were soon up, running and watching endless Top Gear and Red Dwarf re-runs thanks to the Playon's auto-tune function.
The time shift feature, which allows you to pause and rewind live TV, works decently, as does the ability to mark shows for recording using the digital tuner’s electronic program guide. It's worth mentioning though that, as the Playon! doesn't include dual digital tuners, you can’t watch one channel and record another without switching to the secondary analogue tuner.
Shows are recorded into MPEG-2 with selectable quality levels (a setting again buried in the setup menu) and can be viewed from a different menu option. There’s even the ability to record direct to MPEG-2 from the composite input, allowing you to convert all those old home movies or that ageing pile of VHS tapes into a digital format - a fantastically useful addition.
Click to Enlarge - Menu's are clear and easy to navigate
On top of the DVR and set top box functions, the Playon! is also able to play a variety of digital video files, as well as music and view photos, from a number of external sources on top of either of the configurable hard drive partitions. Browsing the media is surprisingly simple with the remote which, while hardly oozing class and sophistication, is perfectly functional if a little confusing in layout. The Playon! happily found a host of systems sharing files on our network, as well as the bit-tech
The supported list of formats is a healthily expansive one, with all the common standard definition formats such as MPEG-1, MPEG-2, MPEG-4, DivX, XviD, and VOB well covered. Sadly, there’s less love for common high definition formats, with a lack of support for Apple’s QuickTime .mov format or the much used x264/.MKV, making high definition playback very much a marginal inclusion.
Although the Playon! is able output a 720p and even 1080i signals, we were only able to actually play a 720p .avi file. A high bit-rate 720p file refused to play at all and just browsing to a 1080p file caused the unit to lock up as it attempted to load and preview the video, ultimately faltering under the strain.
While this isn’t a huge issue if high def playback doesn’t concern you, Western Digital’s WD TV HD Media player is a safer bet if your tastes lie in HD, although it lacks the DVR and network functionality of the Playon!
While we were a little disappointed by the HD playback options, browsing and playing standard definition files is simple thanks to the clear, clean interface which, while perhaps not as attractive as competing digital video players, is perfectly up to the task. The large video preview window is a particularly excellent inclusion, especially when browsing large groups of similarly named files.
Click to Enlarge - Sadly the NAS function is only temporary
When browsing network media the Playon! will also test network bandwidth before commencing playback to ensure it can play the video smoothly, making it a good partner for a DVD library backed up onto a NAS or stored elsewhere on the network. However, copying files from networks or external drives using the Playon! and the bundled remote is a fiddly process which will require you to mark individual files rather than folders, making managing the Playon!’s media a task best done over the inbuilt network socket.
Unfortunately, the final card in the Playon! DVR TV’s deck, functionality as a NAS, is a real let down. We’d initially hoped that it would simply appear as a networked drive onto which we could easily drag and drop media, but this isn’t the case. While the Playon! can browse the network it’s connected to at will, its own NAS feature has to be manually enabled in the setup menu, during which all other functionality is disabled.
That means that transferring files via network to the Playon! requires faffing around in its setup menus first, lessening its appeal as a media hub. Once enabled, transferring files to and from the Playon! was simple, with both Windows Vista and Windows XP based machines having no trouble accessing the drives but it’s a real shame you need to force the NAS mode on first, and that it’s only temporary.
Still there’s a lot to like here in regards to the huge amount of functionality on display. As a Digital TV receiver and DVR the Playon! is extremely capable and playing standard definition video in a host of popular formats was easy, with the inclusion of a network port and 802.11g wireless adapter making the Playon! DVR TV a fine companion to an extensive digital media collection stored elsewhere on the network. While there’s still plenty of room for improvement, especially when it comes to support for high definition formats and the flawed NAS functionality, you’re still getting a lot for your money and if you’re looking to combine your set top box with a capable DVR and a decent SD digital video player then the Playon! DVR TV is certainly worth a look.
- Build Quality