For years, the message from TV networks has been clear: They're willing to put a lot of free content online, but they don't want you to watch it on your TV. There have been numerous workarounds over the years, and the latest is PLAiR ($99, available at plair.com) -- a stick-like device designed to stream free Web video wirelessly, straight from smartphones, tablets, and Chrome browsers to your TV. It also cleverly doesn't rely on your computer to do any video processing, so as soon as you start playing the clip, you're free to shut down your laptop.
It's a neat-looking device and an intriguing concept, but it just doesn't work very well in practice. Many Web videos don't work at all, others work with distracting menu overlays, and even those that work the best often run into frustrating playback glitches. Web content on tablets and smartphones is limited to sources that PLAiR curates, which often ends up being clips rather than full episodes. PLAiR also doesn't work with high-quality subscription services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, and HBO Go, all of which work on the competing $99 Roku Streaming Stick and Roku 3.
PLAiR as a concept has some merit, and its form factor is interesting, but it needs a lot more work to earn a space on your TV's back panel.
Design: Quirky, but cheap feeling
PLAiR is a quirky-looking device. It has a familiar "USB drive"-like design, reminiscent of the Roku Streaming Stick, but its sleek teardrop shape and colorful cases gives it a neat visual flair. My review sample came in magenta, but PLAiR is also available in teal and black.
The visual appeal wanes once you get the device in your hands, though. The build quality veers toward feeling cheap, with the plastic casing giving the impression of being less than solid. In fact, when I initially pulled PLAiR out of its casing, the device's case split apart and that wasn't the last time that the plastic case didn't feel secure.
The shoddy casing isn't much of a problem if you permanently park PLAiR behind your TV, but it does put a slight damper on the device's portability. PLAiR's ultracompact design makes it easy to throw in a bag, but I'm not confident it would hold up well in long-term use for travelers.
Setup: A streaming box without a box
Popping off the black cover reveals PLAiR's HDMI plug, designed to slide right into a spare port on your TV. The only issue is that, unlike USB or MHL, HDMI ports don't provide much power, so PLAiR requires a separate power source.
The tiny micro-USB port on the side of PLAiR is what powers the device and it draws power either directly from a power outlet using the included adapter or from your TV's USB port, if it has one. The extra cable certainly spoils quite a bit of the sleekness that the "just a stick" design implies and that PLAiR tacitly encourages with its marketing materials, which rarely show the power cable. (PLAiR says it's working on an MHL-compatible model that wouldn't need a separate power cable.)
More frustrating was that PLAiR's careless construction made it tough to actually get it powered on. The problem is the micro-USB port just didn't quite align with the opening in casing, making it difficult to get the USB plug in there. It's possible that I got a bad unit and that others work fine, but again, the overall build quality isn't reassuring.
Once I got the device physically installed, setup went a lot better. The onscreen instructions are simple, and after only a little fussing it connected to both my laptop and iPad.
The only glitch I ran into was using my dual-band router, which is configured with separately-named 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks. PLAiR doesn't support 5GHz networks and requires the device to be on the same wireless network, so I had to reconfigure all my devices to use the more crowded 2.4GHz network. Dual-band support would have been a nice for a device that relies so much on wireless streaming; Roku supports dual-band in both of its $99 streamers, including the Streaming Stick.
Content: Limited section, glitchy playback
Streaming from tablets and smartphones is done strictly via the PLAiR app, which offers curated content from various Web sources. At first glance it looks promising, with high-profile shows like "Conan" and "The Colbert Report", but that fades quickly once you figure out you're limited to clips, rather than full episodes.
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.
"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.