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Hands on with PlayOn and PlayLater, an iffy media server

Wes Novack | May 12, 2014
A smorgasbord of video content is spread out atop the table of the web, but much of it is inaccessible to TVs and devices like Roku. But for content hounds who want to have it all, including the kitchen sink, MediaMall says it has the solution. The company's PlayOn media server plays internet (and local) video on your PC and streams it to your game console, Roku, Chromecast, or another supported device connected to your TV.

A smorgasbord of video content is spread out atop the table of the web, but much of it is inaccessible to TVs and devices like Roku. But for content hounds who want to have it all, including the kitchen sink, MediaMall says it has the solution. The company's PlayOn media server plays internet (and local) video on your PC and streams it to your game console, Roku, Chromecast, or another supported device connected to your TV.

It's even got companion software, called PlayLater, that records that internet video to your hard drive, so you can play them back later. Netflix, Hulu and other video sites often have content rotating in and out of availability due to licensing agreements. A video that you can "watch instantly" today might not be available next week. PlayLater lets you save those videos and watch them forever — even though that's against each service's stated terms.

Since MediaMall just added Chromecast support, we were excited to dive in. What we found was hit or miss — but mostly miss.

At lest the setup is easy

During the thankfully simple install process, PlayOn and PlayLater will automatically detect the browsers that you have on your PC and ask if you want to integrate them with PlayOn, via their handy browser extensions. Internet Explorer, Chrome, Firefox, and Opera are all supported.

A Quick Start Guide walks you through setting up and configuring the PlayOn server, registering, entering channel credentials, and specifying local media directories. It also gives instructions for using PlayOn with various TV-connected devices: PlayStation 3 and 4, Xbox 360 and One, Wii and Wii U, Roku, Chromecast, Google TV, and OmniBox.

The most time-consuming part of setup is the Channels tab. You'll need to provide your username and password for the many content providers that require authentication. But of course, the more credentials you provide, the more sources PlayOn has to work with.

All of the major video websites are in PlayOn's channel list — Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, Amazon Instant Video, and many more. Some require a pay TV provider's credentials in order to function, but there are plenty of non-pay-TV channels available as well, making PlayOn a worthwhile consideration for cord cutters.

Why do we need this again?

So far PlayOn might kind of sound like Roku channels you get on your PC and stream back to your Roku, but stay with us here. Due to licensing restrictions, there is a lot of content that you can only watch on the web, not in a provider's apps for mobile devices and smart TVs.

The TV series Hannibal is just one example — Hulu has it on the web but not in the apps. PlayOn can fling this web-only video to your TV-connected device, thumbing its nose at the restrictions. You don't even need a Hulu Plus subscription to see plenty of full episodes.

 

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