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Plair 2 review: A plucky Chromecast competitor misses the mark

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Perhaps the control scheme just isn't for me; I'm on the record as preferring real buttons to the virtual ones. But even accounting for that, I frequently found the device not responding the way I wanted it to and taking longer than it should for simple tasks. I'd prefer a Roku LT with a regular remote any day.

What's there to stream
The concept that's made Plair so interesting from the start is its commitment to letting you play a wide variety of Web video content on your TV. With the original Plair, that was done via screen mirroring, but with the Plair 2 the idea is that you should be able to install and use any app available in the Google Play store. The reality is a little more underwhelming.

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The good news is that several major apps come preinstalled, including Netflix, Hulu Plus, HBO Go, Crackle, CNN, Pandora, NHL GameCenter, Spotify, and Xfinity. That's a big step up from the first-gen Plair, which didn't support any apps natively.

The bad news is that even though the Plair 2 theoretically has more content sources than, say, a Roku LT, I ended up feeling like there was more I wanted to stream on a Roku. I couldn't find an Amazon Instant or PBS app on Plair, two major apps I use frequently on my Roku 3. (Apparently you can access them via screen mirroring, which I didn't test this time around.) HBO Go works, but only in standard definition. And several of the "supported" apps weren't reliable in my testing.

Image quality and reliability, or lack thereof
While Hulu Plus and Xfinity are technically supported, I couldn't get any of them to stream reliably. Hulu Plus would get stuck in a "buffering" loop. The ability to stream from Xfinity's app sounds awesome, but I tried three different shows and never made it through a full episode without the video entirely freezing before the end. I eventually got a live stream of CNN up, but every time the app would automatically adjust its image quality, the entire screen would flash a few times.

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Matthew Moskovciak/CNET

Netflix worked most times, although it still crashed once during testing. Image quality on Netflix was decent, but there were still issues. For one, all of the video content using the Plair 2 is subject to a slight bit of windowboxing; in other words, it doesn't quite fill your entire TV screen. You can get rid of that by adjusting your TV's aspect ratio, but it's not a limitation any other video streamer suffers from. I also noticed some occasional jerkiness to video playback (likely due to dropped frames) that you don't expect from a Netflix streamer these days.

And even when image quality was decent, there were other hiccups that made the Plair 2 feel unpolished. At one point, an Android-style notification popped up letting me know about an injured NHL player, even though I never opened the NHL app during my testing. (It's installed by default.) Videos from Netflix and other sources often suffered from strange flashes of green during the first few minutes. Those eventually go away, but it's another set of annoyances you'll have to put up with on the Plair 2.

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Matthew Moskovciak/CNET

Finally, there's the issue of overall reliability. Once you run a few apps, the Plair 2 seems to become unstable and sluggish, with apps becoming unresponsive and the device sometimes rebooting on its own. All of these issues happened with less than 10 hours of testing time on my part, which doesn't speak well for the day-to-day reliability of the device.

What are the alternatives?
The other difficulty with the Plair 2 is it faces two strong alternatives: the Roku LT and Google Chromecast.

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The Roku LT is my favorite of the two, offering up over 1,000 channels, including Netflix, Amazon Instant, HBO Go, Hulu Plus, Pandora, MLB.TV, Amazon Cloud Player, and Vudu. Yes, it's limited to 720p output, but image quality is still excellent overall.

Google Chromecast
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Sarah Tew/CNET

Also worth considering is the Google Chromecast, which is just $35 and has a similar form factor. Don't put too much stock in the screen-mirroring feature, which I've found doesn't work that well, but for basic, cheap streaming from services like Netflix, YouTube, Pandora, and Hulu Plus, it's worth considering. And it's much more reliable than the Plair 2.

Conclusion: Ahead of its time, again?
The Plair 2 is a better product than the original Plair, thanks to the lower price and support for major content sources like Netflix, Pandora, and Hulu Plus. But I still wouldn't recommend it in its current state, unless you're the kind of gadget enthusiast who can tolerate a lot of flakiness in the hopes that future firmware updates will improve reliability.

It's hard not to feel like the Plair 2 may be ahead of its time again, as the idea of a small, cheap TV device that offers access to the full Android ecosystem has some appeal. (And there are reports that Google TV may be reimagined as Android TV.) But the window for such a device may be shrinking, especially if Google's Chromecast continues to add content partners.

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