Asus is well known for making computer components that are popular with enthusiasts, but aren't especially user-friendly. The company seems to focus on making things do awesome stuff, at the cost of exterior styling.
The Asus O!Play HD2 costs around £110, which is a very low price for a media player with such advanced features. So, what's the catch?
Looks and feels quite cheap
When it comes to styling, we don't quite know how to react to the Asus. It feels like quite a cheap device, made out of some fairly uninspiring plastic. On the front, there are several sockets for various types of memory card, as well as an eSATA socket for connecting high-speed drives. All of that provides a good deal of useful functionality, but it's also bloody ugly.
The box feels alarmingly light, and the snob in us yearns for the Apple attitude of making stuff out of the heaviest materials known to man, just to make it feel like a premium product. But then we slap ourselves, and remember that there's more to life than looks.
One reason for the lack of weight is that the box is much larger than it needs to be. This leaves room for a user-fitted 3.5-inch hard drive unit. Unscrew the bottom of the HD2, and you'll see a large bay with power and data connectors. There's also a drive-mounting kit included in the box, which allows you to safely screw the drive into your HD2.
Why USB 3?
At the rear of the machine, you'll find USB connections -- including USB 3. Asus claims this is the first such device to hit the media-player market. There's also HDMI, which can pass lossless audio out to an AV receiver and 1080p video to your TV.
At first glance, USB 3 doesn't make a huge amount of sense. USB 2 is more than fast enough to handle any 1080p video you throw at it, even with uncompressed audio. Once you fit an internal hard drive, however, you might want to copy files to the device from your laptop, or from an external hard drive. Doing this can be tedious, as USB 2 can max out. So for file copying, this is the media streamer to buy. As we've mentioned, though, these are enthusiast features, and won't appeal to everyone.
Menus and user interface
The Asus has a pretty reasonable user interface. It's nothing mind-blowing, but it's functional. The front page is nicely laid out, and finding what you want is perfectly easy. It's further down the track that things start to go awry.
Let's assume that, from the front page, you select 'video'. You'll be presented with a second page, which is much more confusing. There are options to search and select files on the left, and any files appear on the right. You can also choose the device you browse here. None of this is user-friendly, though. It's confusing, and if you mount more than one device, you'll quickly get confused about which one is which. USB and memory cards are assigned drive letters, which serve no purpose and should be referred to as 'SD card' instead of 'G'. Everyone knows what files are on what card, but a drive letter doesn't tell you which card or USB device you're accessing. We're confused just writing it, and you're probably confused reading it. So, it's clearly confusing, and that's a shame.
Codec and file-type support
The playback options for the Asus are nothing short of epic. There is almost nothing this device can't play. The most common codecs found online are all supported with no drama -- even codecs like RMVB. This puts the Asus above Western Digital and Popcorn Hour players, both of which have shunned this popular method of encoding Asian animated content, which is enormously popular in the far east and used by anime fans the world over.