My pal and fellow cord cutter Ant Pruitt has been telling me how much he likes Playon.tv, which lets you stream Internet video on your TV set, so I gave it a try.
The bottom line is that Playon kind of worked for me, but is not ready for the mass media prime time.
Read: your grandma will not like it.
I downloaded and installed the free Playon server on my laptop then installed the Playon “channel” on my Roku box. Playon offered me a selection of content from major sites like Hulu, Netflix, ESPN, CNN, NBC, PBS, Fox, MTV and Comedy Central. I decided to try Comedy Central, since I could not get it on my Roku box alone.
I started the Playon server on my laptop, turned on the Roku, selected Playon, and, after a few seconds’ delay, it discovered the laptop on my home Wi-Fi network. I navigated through the menus to find Comedy Central and selected a recent episode of John Stewart’s Daily Show with President Obama as a guest. After about 30 seconds for buffering, the stream began playing. As you see in this snapshot of my TV screen, the quality is not HD, but it fine for this sort of slow-action video.
Everything was cool, but about 10 minutes into the program, the image stuttered, tried rebuffering, and then displayed Playon’s version of the Blue Screen of Death:
The load was too much for my Dell laptop with 4 GB of RAM, an Intel Core 2 CPU with a 3.06 Ghz clock speed, and Nvidia Quadro FX 770M with a 1920 x 1200 pixel display. I had anticipated streaming problems, so had taken the precaution of rebooting my laptop and starting the Windows Task Manager to monitor performance before running the test. I also started the Paint.Net image editor for saving the Task Manager images. The baseline performance load before starting the video was minimal:
While I was streaming the video, the resource requirements had increased significantly and my laptop was heating up and its fan was on, but it was still up to the task.
When the video crashed, the relatively steady load become unstable, as shown here:
I don’t know what caused the crash — the Roku box, my laptop or some interaction between the two, but I decided to reboot both and try again. The show ran to completion the second time.
The performance problem I experienced will become a non-issue in the future. My next laptop will have at least 8 GB of memory and a faster CPU. I have no doubt that Playon will run smoothly even if I am browsing the Web or doing something else at the same time. My next Roku or similar device will also have more memory and CPU speed and I will probably be upgrading my Wi-Fi network as well.
Even then, I probably won’t watch much Playon video because there is a lot of overlap between the channel selections on my Roku box and Playon. Its value to me lies in being able to deliver content — like Comedy Central — that Roku does not offer.
The success of Roku, Playon and the other services for getting content onto your TV screen hinges on their ability to deliver that content. Like their hardware, the vendors’ video offerings change over time as they make deals with content providers. You can track those changes with this terrific spreadsheet created by Veronica Belmont.