AC Ryan, as a brand name, sounds rather like the name you'd associate with a US soap star. We can picture the stubble, the slightly rippled abs and the possibility of an eye patch right now. It's actually a Dutch company that, according to the company bio, has "managed to retain the drive and passion that are the essential ingredients in the development of innovative, award winning products, products that consumers can't do without!" So there you go.
In the case of the Playon!HD Essential, it's a media streaming box that's a touch larger than most of the units we've seen recently. Visually it's unremarkable, with dual USB sockets, media card reader and a USB host socket on the right-hand side, and composite and HDMI and coaxial audio output out the back. The remote control is mid-sized with squishy rubber buttons and a rather cluttered layout that throws some buttons in odd places.
The standout feature of the Playon!HD Essential is the inclusion of a bundled 1TB on-board drive for copying media files to. If you're after a semi-portable unit with plenty of storage, this obviously has some merit, but it hides one of the Playon!HD Essential's major flaws. One feature that's notably absent from the Playon!HD Essential is any kind of in-built networking. There is an optional 802.11n Wi-Fi adapter available, but no kind of wired Ethernet at all. Wireless performance varies widely, and while we weren't able to test the Playon!HD Essential's Wi-Fi performance, we'd be cautious about investing in a wireless-only media streaming solution.
We're not keen on a non-networked media streaming solution, but it's hard to fault the Playon!HD Essential's video format support, which encompasses AVI, MKV, TS, TP, TRP, M2TS, MPG, MP4, MOV, M4V, VOB, ISO, IFO, DAT, WMV, ASF, RM, RMVB, FLV and BD-ISO, codec support for MPEG-1, MPEG-2, MPEG-4 SP/ASP/AVC (H.264 | x264), XviD, DivX, WMV9 (VC-1) and RealVideo 8/9/10. If you'll pardon the pun, essentially speaking, if you've got a video file, the Playon!HD Essential will probably play it. Photo and Audio format support is also in-built for MP3, MP2, WMA, AAC, FLAC, WAV, OGG Vorbis, PCM, LPCM, MS-ADPCM, LC-AAC, HE-AAC, COOK, RA-Lossless and JPEG, HD JPEG, BMP, GIF, TIF and PNG respectively.
The PlayOn!HD Essential's menus look quite slick, and certainly a lot more refined than many streaming players we've tested recently, although some of that slick presentation is only skin deep. There's a few little oddities in the way that menus work, like not flicking back to the top of a list when you reach the bottom, or the way that the enter key sometimes goes into a menu, and other times out of it in nested menu situations. It's not helped by the squishy remote buttons, which we found sometimes unresponsive in our testing.
As for actual playback, it was smooth and clear in all of our tests with a variety of media sources. We can't fault the Playon!HD Essential in the direct playback stakes at all, save for noting that the remote is, once again, a slight weak link in the chain because it's not always as responsive as we might have liked it to be.
As a straight media player, the Playon!HD Essential does its basic job well. The problem is, it's by a long shot not unique in this playback field, even though it does offer support for a wide range of file types. At this kind of price point we'd have liked to see a direct Ethernet connection, and it is worth pointing out that AC Ryan does offer units with integrated Ethernet. We'd suggest those might be better buys, but as it stands, the Playon!HD Essential is lacking features we tend to think of as actually essential.