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Should you spend $20 on Orb's PS3 streaming disc?

CNET goes hands-on with Orb's $20 Blu-ray disc for the PS3 that adds Hulu and Amazon Instant streaming.

Back at CES 2011, Orb announced a $20 Blu-ray disc to come in February that would add streaming-media functionality to older Blu-ray players. After several delays, the company has finally released a Blu-ray disc that will work exclusively with the PS3, with the generic Blu-ray player version still "coming soon."

We're familiar with Orb's products from the Orb TV and Orb MP-1, and we took the PS3 disc for full hands-on spin over the weekend.

Right off the bat, the appeal of Orb's software on the PS3 isn't quite as clear as it is on an older Blu-ray player. The PS3 already has several excellent built-in streaming media services, including Netflix, Hulu Plus, Vudu, and MLB.TV, without any need to use a disc-based workaround. However, there are still holes in the PS3's streaming offerings and Orb's software can add high-profile services such as free Hulu content (no need for a Hulu Plus subscription), Amazon Instant, and Pandora.

If you're not familiar with Orb's video-streaming software, you can check out full review of the Orb TV for more information. The short story is the software requires a PC running the Orb software, which transcodes video and streams it to your TV. Using a PC for transcoding is how Orb gets away with streaming free Hulu to your TV, which is typically blocked by Hulu. Orb has a smartphone app for iPhone and Android to control the software; you can also use a PC-based controller.

Our first experience streaming media with Orb's disc was as bad as it gets, which was our fault. We didn't check the system requirements and our laptop's 2.1GHz Core 2 Duo processor was slightly below Orb's recommended system requirements of a 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo processor. The resulting video was unwatchable--completely out of sync and stuttery. The main takeaway is that you need a relatively recent PC with a speedy processor to make Orb's disc work.

Orb iPhone app
You can browse TV shows from services like Hulu and Amazon Instant using the smartphone app. Matthew Moskovciak/CNET

Switching to a newer laptop fixed the issue and we were able to stream an episode of "The Colbert Report" on Hulu smoothly. The video quality was OK, but poor compared with other streaming video sources you may be familiar with. The picture was noticeably soft and any time there was a lot of camera motion we could see some stuttering. It certainly doesn't compare to Netflix or Hulu Plus on the PS3, although it is free.

Of course, an alternative to using Orb's disc is simply connecting a laptop with an HDMI output directly to your TV. There's no transcoding taking place and we found the image quality to be better using that arrangement, although you lose the ability to control playback via a remote.

We could put up with the subpar video quality, but frequent glitches were more frustrating. Sometimes the Orb software would run smoothly and we'd be able to stream a few titles in a row. Other times, it would get stuck on the "loading screen" and even restarting the Orb software didn't always work. Maybe the problem was with our home-networking environment, but we haven't had issues streaming Netflix or videos off a Synology DS109j. Once Orb started streaming it was generally glitch-free, but its unreliability makes us hesitate to recommend it as a main media streamer.

There's also the fact that Orb's software seems to run counter to Hulu's terms of service. From Hulu's terms of use: "You may not either directly or through the use of any device, software, Internet site, Web-based service, or other means copy, download, stream capture, reproduce, duplicate, archive, distribute, upload, publish, modify, translate, broadcast, perform, display, sell, transmit, or retransmit the content unless expressly permitted by Hulu in writing."

While we sympathize with Orb's perspective that its software is theoretically the same as connecting an HDMI cable from your laptop, there's definitely a chance that Orb (and similar products like PlayOn) reside in a legal gray area.

As much as we love the idea of getting access to free Hulu streaming (and other services) through our PS3, we can't help but feeling that the list of caveats really limits the audience for the Orb's PS3 disc.

If you: 1. Have a PS3 and relatively recent PC/laptop; 2. Don't want to connect a PC/laptop directly via HDMI; 3. Are willing put up with noticeably inferior image quality; 4. Are willing to keep a laptop running; 5. Don't mind putting a disc in the drive every time you want to stream media; and 6. Don't care about possibly violating Hulu's terms of service, the Orb PS3 disc might be worth your $20. Still, it feels like a lot of hoops to jump through for not that much of a payoff.