Cut the Cable with PlayOn Media Server

I cut the cable TV cord back in college when I lived with four other males in a house where the thermostat’s agreed-upon winter setting never rose above 60 degrees, even when it was below 20 degrees outside. In a house where you don’t pay for comfort-level heating, you definitely don’t pay for cable.

Since that time, I’ve never looked back. If I could make it then, when I actually had time to kill watching TV, I figured I could make it without cable for life. Here’s how I managed to do it!

A Little Back Story

Ultimately, I got by borrowing TV series DVDs from friends, checking out movies from the local library, or using the universally free Redbox codes on every credit card I owned. As Internet video began to flow, I at least gained some reprieve via my laptop and services like Hulu or ABC’s flash player, but watching anything on a 13″ screen at your desk is not ideal.

It all started with a severe lacking in sports. Like most red-blooded Americans, my fondness for watching grown men (or women) in flashy uniforms gallivant around a lined playing surface trying to put an inflatable shape into a goal approaches an unhealthy level that should be reserved for my wife or child.

Reasoning that most big games are on network television, I successfully completed a sub-$10 coat-hanger antenna as outlined on YouTube to bring my total number of free, non-cable channels to one. Yes, at the time, the area where I lived had only one over-the-air channel (ABC) available–we’re now up to two with the addition of CBS. The networks only cover the main events, though; something needed to be done for the rest of the sports landscape. I couldn’t continue to invite myself over to a friend’s house to watch weekly college football match-ups or regular season NBA games.

Besides, even friends tend to give you a quizzical look when you explain that you own a 42-inch HDTV but don’t pay for cable and, therefore, need to watch the game on their console TV.

Somewhere in the last few years, I stumbled upon a little app called PlayOn that promised to remedy the situation. Bridging the gap between the Web and TVs via gaming consoles, PlayOn claimed to bring the Internet’s vast expanses of free video content to my television.

What’s PlayOn bring to the table that other media server apps don’t? The app was a media server for video game consoles at heart, but instead of solely relying on the user to provide the video content and then stream it from the computer, PlayOn acted as a sort of middleman for the console and Internet video. It fooled ESPN3, Hulu, and similar Flash video providers that your Xbox or PS3 was actually a computer (this was before the Xbox Live/ESPN3 contractual agreement that helped immensely).

It sounded like a gold mine for cable cutters, but at the time I half-expected it to be served with a cease-and-desist order for its practices. I waited a few months for word to get around and much to my surprise, PlayOn was said to deliver on its claims and wasn’t shut down. After a free trial (and error) period, I begrudgingly paid the $20 one-time fee because it was as close as I could get to cable without paying three-times that every month. It wasn’t a perfect solution but its flakiness was something I could overlook.

PlayOn’s strength is it’s “all-in-one” approach to television content, and its killer feature is the ability to stream free Internet television content to a TV. While some of the channels provided may require a separate subscription—Netflix, HBOGo, Amazon Video On Demand—PlayOn puts them all in one place and adds the content from network sites like ABC, CBS, and Hulu. And this is the free Hulu you’d find on your computer, not the premium Hulu Plus that requires a fee for access.

Using the App

PlayOn general settings tab

Make sure that PlayOn is "running" in the green box on the general settings tab. If the box is yellow or red, there's a problem with your setup.

When you install and open PlayOn, you’ll see eight settings tabs at the top of the window. Since PlayOn is designed to hide in your system tray most of the time, once you get everything the way you want, you really won’t need to do much more than open it whenever you want to use it.

Or you can leave it running, but one thing to remember is that PlayOn’s use is affected by the Windows sleep function so if your PC or laptop goes to sleep while streaming a show, the episode will freeze and error out.

You should consider modifying your power settings or using a “no sleep” app when running PlayOn so you don’t have any playback errors.

After you’ve input all your subscription-based channel information on the channels tab and tested your computer for adequate resources in the System Check tab, you’re ready to start streaming.

Click the “General Settings” tab and make sure that under the PlayOn media server area, the current status shows as “running.” Now head over to your game console and fire it up. For the Xbox, the PlayOn app will show up in the Video Library area of the My Xbox screen; for the PS3, it will be under the Videos icon; and for Wii, it will require navigating to www.playon.tvon your Wii Internet channel. You can also use PlayOn with iOS devices, either on a home network or over a cellular data connection.

PlayOn system check tab

The System Check tab shows you areas where your setup may be deficient. In the picture, PlayOn is recommending a faster Internet connection and more free hard drive space.

PlayOn channels tab

PlayOn supports both free content and subscription-based providers like Netflix and Amazon Video On Demand.

PlayOn has come a longway since it was first released, and the developer, MediaMall, has added a lot of functionality that didn’t originally come with the product. Aside from the aforementioned addition of an iOS mobile functionality, they’ve added social media plugins to display what you’re watching via tweet, Facebook, or even mySpace (throwback!).

In addition, the number of channels available has expanded immensely, and there is now also a plugin option that allows users to install third-party channels to increase the content even more. Some of these plugins include MTV, Discovery Channel, and others.

Essentially, if a provider has an online flash player to host its full episode content, you can bet that there’s a plugin for it or one in the works. You may have to scour a handful of forums for the one you want, but it’s worth the short search.

The PlayOn site has some brief, but helpful videos for getting your PlayOn install up and running.

Windows for the Win

If PlayOn sounds dreamy to any Mac users out there, let me take a moment to disappoint you. PlayOn is a Windows-only application and any hopes of it becoming universal went out the window with a 2010 blog post on PlayOn’s site essentially saying that developing the app for Mac would not be cost-effective.

That being said, as a Mac user, PlayOn is one of the only reasons I run Windows. Once you set up a Virtualbox Windows installation, it’s easy enough to open it in parallel to OS X when you want to use the PlayOn server setup.

Criticism and Pricing

While I am a PlayOn believer, I cannot promise a seamless experience every time you power up your console. PlayOn is quite dependent on system components and a good Internet connection in order to operate without a hiccup.

That being said, due to my slower DSL line, I’ve never been able to test it above a 6 mb/s speed. Even without the ideal setup, the app is still quite functional; it just may give you grief if you try to rewind a video or skip chapters. I’ve also had some issues resuming an episode later, but these could all just be personal grievances that you may not experience.  

As for pricing, when I first found PlayOn, it was $20 for a one-time fee lifetime license (though that license has been downgraded to “basic”). Nowadays, there are a few options for adding PlayOn to your app collection. Below is a breakdown:  

  • Monthly fee: $4.99. This could be preferable if you want to try out the service for longer than the 14-day free trial without making a long-term commitment.
  • Annual fee: $39.99. This is cost effective if you like PlayOn but are unsure of its usefulness in the event that technology changes.
  • Lifetime license: $79.99. This will include all future upgrades and new features.

If you think this service could help you cut out cable, then the lifetime license is the best deal at roughly the same price as two months of cable service (maybe one month depending on your channel package).

If you end up dissatisfied though, you might regret it.

I recommend using the 14-day free trial to help you decide. There’s no obligation, and it only requires providing your email address.

Conclusion

PlayOn was born of a need to solve a problem. The Internet is awash with free video content from network and cable providers via their personal Web site flash players, but watching quality television shows on a PC or even dealing with the hassle of connecting your laptop to the TV can be less-than-ideal. Since many people already have a gaming console or iOS device, PlayOn can easily help you get that online content to you television.

Combining all of your subscription services with access to free provider programming and the option to supplement with third-party plug-ins gives PlayOn a solid value. So if it piques your interest, I recommend you take a few minutes to download the free trial, slide into a recliner with your game controller, and power up your television experience. There’s nothing to lose and a lot to gain.


Summary

PlayOn helps make your TV a portal to Internet video content.

8
  • Giovanni Galasso

    I think this article is extremely misleading. The app doesn’t really replace cable TV at all. It does allow you to get internet based content to your TV if you don’t own something that connects to your TV or don’t want to watch on your computer. Also mentioning things like HBOGo is completely false, the only way you get HBOGo is with a cable subscription afaik.

    Final point, rather than spend 80 dollars for a life time license put that money to just building yourself a mini htpc. You’ll get way more functionality and use out of it and be able to use free media center apps to replicate the same functionality that this app provides.

    • DylanHerx

      I didn’t mean to be misleading so I’m sorry if you feel that way. I think I made it clear that the app is not perfect, but it can be convenient for many. I did make mention of the subscription requirement for some of the content:

      “While some of the channels provided may require a separate subscription—Netflix, HBOGo, Amazon Video On Demand—PlayOn puts them all in one place and adds the content from network sites like ABC, CBS, and Hulu.”

      You’re right that for many an HTPC may be a better option but some people may not have the time or know-how to build one so PlayOn may be fine for them. Thanks for your feedback!

      • Giovanni Galasso

        Maybe I was a bit harsh in my response. I guess the title was misleading to me, since much like yourself I can’t bear to pay the price for cable TV and I was hoping this would offer some solution. Honestly though, the app only provides you with the content you can already get either for free or through some subscription service. I mentioned HBO-Go in particular because you can’t just sign up for it like you can Netflix or Hulu.

        In any case, thanks for the write up!

  • Justin

    For me however there are several free HTPC options out there that make this hard to justify.

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  • http://www.mikesouth.com Mike South

    I have issues with PlayOn from a technology perspective. The application takes a video stream, converts it to a lower quality lower compression theme then streams it to your PC where your PC one again converts it on the fly. The basic setup is it gets H.264 streams converts them to mpeg2 transport streams then reconverts them on your pc based on its performance.

    my issue is that since all of its incoming streams are H.264 and all of the devices it supports support H.264 streams why the two unnecessary conversions (one by playon and one on your pc) why not save computing power and bandwidth and simply reroute the stream to your device. This would improve the quality, lower the bandwidth and make playon infinately more useable

    as it is now play on is an archaic arcitecture which may have been a good idea before universal acceptance of H.264 but now its just bloatware

  • http://playonscripts.com Sedric

    I personally think this is a pretty good review. I have found that the reason my experience is better than most is -> because I wrote my own scripts to pull in the content I wanted to see from the web. (I wrote a plugin called 5 star flicks and tv shows). With it, a pretty good computer, and a high speed internet connection (12mbps), I have a decent time watching whatever I want to watch. Not only that -> I can watch it WHEN I want to watch it. It is something you cant get back from cable, as you do not work on your own schedule (unless you dvr). Therefore I would recommend it if things work well for you during the trial period.

    I have used it for about 2 years now, and have seen a drastic change in the app since the beginning. I believe that if there are improvements to the app (and improvement to the 3rd party developer support), then they would really have a great product. One day I will sit down and figure out how much money I save over the course of a year :)

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