Exclusive hands-on: Get the full version of Hulu on your iPhone (or iPad) with PlayOn

The makers of PlayOn, a useful media-streaming program for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, have a new iPhone version of the PlayOn app that streams the full version of Hulu and other Web-based TV content.

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Web video streaming has always been a selective experience on Apple devices, limited to specialized apps and HTML5-enabled Web sites. Even the recent announcement of Hulu Plus doesn't fully solve the problem, with its selective library and high monthly cost.

The makers of PlayOn, a useful media-streaming program for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 , have a new solution, in the form of an iPhone version of the PlayOn app. It will be available in the iTunes App Store as a free download starting July 15, but it requires you to own the PC-based PlayOn software, which unfortunately recently moved from a one-time purchase to an annual subscription model, with rates running from $5 to $40 per year, depending on whether you're an existing customer (discounted deals are occasionally offered as well).

Previously, I described how PlayOn helped me decide to mothball the media center PC connected to my home theater setup, as it provides for on-the-fly streaming and transcoding of Hulu (and content from a handful of other online sources), plus video files from the local PC the PlayOn server software resides on. It's an imperfect, sometimes clunky solution, but the ability to get Hulu running on a big-screen TV via your game console makes it a killer app.

PlayOn's plain-looking interface isn't very flashy, but unlike Hulu Plus, it doesn't cost $120 per year.
PlayOn's plain-looking interface isn't very flashy, but unlike Hulu Plus, it doesn't cost $120 per year.

The new iPhone app works much the same way, streaming the content from Hulu and other sources from a base PC on your network to your iPhone. Simply download and install the PlayOn software on a laptop or desktop (there's a two-week free trial), and have it run in the background. Once you install the PlayOn app on your iPhone, it will see the PC and connect, then let you choose from a variety of media sources.

Navigation within the app is as clunky as it is on the Xbox 360 or PS3, and Hulu especially requires a lot of scrolling to find a specific program. A good workaround is to sign in to your Hulu account (there's a tab to enter your log-in info on the PlayOn server app on your PC), then add shows to your personal Hulu queue, which is easy to get to on the iPhone app.

Even though this is an iPhone-only app, we managed to get it installed and working on an iPad as well. Image quality was fine on the smaller iPhone screen; blown up for the iPad it was clearly low-res, but still watchable. [Update: a PlayOn rep says the company is working on adding support for higher iPad-resolution streams in the very near future.]

Watching "Justified" on Hulu via the PlayOn iPhone app.
Watching "Justified" on Hulu via the PlayOn iPhone app.

Hulu is the main attraction here, especially if paying $20 or so per year sounds preferable to the $10 per month Hulu Plus plans to charge. Many of the other channels built into the software, such as Netflix and Pandora, are already duplicated by native iPhone/iPad apps, but some are unique, including Comedy Central, CBS, and PBS (these are all essentially repackaged versions of what these broadcasters offer on their respective Web sites).

Though the PlayOn iPhone app largely works as advertised, the prerelease version we tested did crash occasionally, and it required a very robust Wi-Fi connection. If one has a properly configured UPnP router, it's possible to stream the content to your iPhone remotely, without having to be on the same Wi-Fi network (but we haven't been able to get that set up properly yet).

One major shortcoming is the lack of transport controls while watching a video. The onscreen controls are limited to volume, pausing, and rewinding to the start of the episode (as the PlayOn software on your PC is transcoding as it streams, so media player shuttle controls probably wouldn't work--and in fact, fast-forwarding and rewinding even on the Xbox 360 or PS3 with PlayOn is iffy).

PlayOn for the iPhone hits the iTunes App Store on July 15, and is free to download, but keep in mind that it requires the sold-separately PlayOn media server software.

 

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