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PLAiR review:

A buggy streaming stick short on content

The real appeal of PLAiR is using a plug-in for the Chrome browser. Here the pitch is a lot more enticing: stream any video on available on the Web to your TV simply by hitting the PLAiR icon. Even better, once you tell PLAiR what to play, your computer isn't needed in the streaming process -- the plug-in simply passes the URL of the stream to the PLAiR stick, so you can even turn off your computer if you'd like.

It all sounds great in theory, but it's more disappointing in practice. A lot of content doesn't work; other content is plagued with annoying glitches, and even the content that "works" generally has poor image quality -- more on that later. Trying to stream a program with PLAiR always feels like a roll of the dice, and most times you end up losing.

PLAiR screenshot
Matthew Moskovciak/CNET

"Saturday Night Live" streams, but full episodes of "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" and "Conan" don't. "Children's Hospital" worked for about eight minutes, until it stopped and showed a "reload" icon in the center of the screen. Vimeo videos had the supported PLAiR icon but wouldn't stream. "The Colbert Report" would stream, but only with overlay on the screen; "The Daily Show" worked, but only with closed captioning permanently on. "Austin City Limits" worked, but suffered from low frame-rate issue, while "NOVA" was relatively stable.

Overall, I tried watching quite a bit of programming and never made it through an entire show without at least a minor glitch, and most times the glitches were significant.

That makes the experience feel an awful lot like an unsupported hack, and that's because, well, it sort of is. The other lurking issue behind PLAiR is that most of these Web sites, especially the major networks, don't want you to stream their programming to your TV, which they made perfectly clear by blocking Google TV's similar functionality. (Note that CNET's parent company, CBS, is one of the networks that continues to block Google TV devices from streaming video content.) PLAiR isn't blocked at the moment, but if it became popular enough to get the networks attention, I wouldn't be surprised to find it subject to the same restrictions. (Pure mirroring approaches, such as AirPlay mirroring on OS X Mountain Lion, avoid this problem by streaming to laptops first, then transcoding the video to stream.)

There's also a lot that PLAiR doesn't even attempt to do. Big-name streaming services like Netflix, HBO Go, and MLB.TV are off the table. (Amazon Instant apparently works, although PLAiR requires you to enter your Amazon e-mail and password, which I didn't feel comfortable doing.) It won't stream your personal music collection, nor does it work with streaming music services like Pandora and Rdio. It's mostly a one-trick pony -- Web video -- and even then it's hit-or-miss.

Image quality: Far from HD
Once you do find some content that will stream, the quality of the video also varies by quite a bit. Some stuff looked good, like a 1080p stream from Comedy Bang Bang's YouTube channel. But other content looked rough on the big screen. "Saturday Night Live" looked like overcompressed Web video blown up; unsurprisingly, since that's essentially what it is. A lot of content also suffered from windowboxing, with slim black bars on all four sides of the content. And the aforementioned frame-rate issues were present on a lot of content, not to mention glitches where videos would jump ahead, skipping entire parts of the program.

What are the alternatives?
Another problem for PLAiR is that there's a lot of stiff competition when it comes to $100 streamers. Roku 3 and Apple TV are both polished, highly recommendable products for the same price, and they also offer a lot of free Web video content, in addition to subscription services like Netflix and Hulu Plus. If you're looking to play your own personal files, the WD TV Play is also a much better option for just $65.

It's true that none of these alternatives do quite the same thing as PLAiR, but PLAiR doesn't quite do what it promises either. It's not nearly as convenient, but your best bet if you want to stream this content is still the classic lo-fi solution -- connecting an HDMI cable from your laptop directly to your TV.

Conclusion: Interesting concept, but poor execution
PLAiR's concept remains intriguing, especially for those that watch a lot of Web video on their laptop, but there are just too many limitations, glitches, and reliability issues with the current incarnation to recommend.

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