Streaming video keeps exploding in popularity, with sites like Hulu offering hundreds of TV episodes and Netflix providing thousands of movies. For busy notebook PC users, though, there's always been one big hitch: the need to be hooked up to the Internet while watching the videos. That's where PlayLater software steps in.
What if you want to watch your favorite TV show or a movie your friend has recommended at a time when you're going to be on an airplane, or somewhere else with little or no Wi-Fi or 4G access? Promoted as a DVR for online videos, PlayLater is aimed at letting your pre-record streaming video from many popular sites -- including Hulu, Netflix, YouTube, and the individual sites of many TV networks and then play them back later whenever and wherever you'd like.
In testing PlayLater on an Acer mini-notebook, I found that PlayLater is certainly not perfect in doing all of this. The recording process doesn't always work, the recorded videos can be glitchy, and PlayLater can drain PC resources. Still, PlayLater can come quite in handy for laptop users who travel a lot.
Installation and Setup
The program can be readily downloaded from www.playon.tv/playlater as a free 14-day trial. The initial download is under 6MB, and it takes well under a minute at broadband speed.
Before starting the installation, assume that you'll also need the Microsoft .NET Framework on board, along with Internet Explorer (IE) 7 or higher (which is pre-installed on most PCs, anyway).
Installation of PlayLater takes about seven minutes. After installation, double-click on the PlayLater icon and a very clean-looking UI (user interface) will appear, offering four main choices: Guide (the opening screen), My Recordings, Settings, and Help.
The use of Settings is optional. However, the Settings menu lets you pick which directory to save recorded programs in, and what quality level to try to achieve (there are four choices here, plus automatic - PlayLater recommends leaving the program in Auto mode to get the best possible picture quality, so that's what I did).
I found that setting PlayLater to record a program is quite simple. First, from the Guide, you select a service to record from, such as Hulu. PlayLater offers no ability to search among the various services for a program. You must already know or have a hunch about which of the 32 currently available streaming sites you'd rather visit.
Within each service, you can search freely, though. The PlayLater's UI appears the same throughout the services, making it easier to quickly scroll through the offerings. Also within each service, you're given a choice of either short clips or full episodes. Make a choice, and a list of available shows will appear.
Once you find the episode you want to record, simply click on it, and a "Record Now" option will appear. Click on Record Now, and recording begins. You can then continue to find more programs to record, and when you click on them, PlayLater will put them into a recording queue. You can easily tell it to record many different things, and then come back several hours later and find all (or most) of them waiting for you.
Two Big Problems
Two major problems can occur during recordings, however. First, the recording process doesn't always work. About one in ten recordings that I set up would either fail entirely or stop before making it to the end of the show. PlayLater would usually alert me to an error. Also, it's easy enough to go back to the main screen and tell it to try making the recording again, and this usually fixes the problem (in all fairness, this problem might have been related to Internet connectivity issues in my office).
The second problem is a drain on computer resources. If you're going to set the computer to record programs and then just walk away, this won't impact you, But if you're thinking about using the same computer to simultaneously read email, surf the Web, and so forth, you should be aware that running PlayLater in the background might slow down everything else you do. The extent of resource consumption depends on the capabilities of your PC, of course, as well as on the size of the recordings.
A faster PC model with more memory should be less affected. The recordings themselves can occupy a considerable chunk of hard disk space, but this varies. I found that each half-hour TV episode occupied roughly 200 to 450 megabytes of disk space, and an episode of 60 Minutes consumed about 900 megabytes.
You're also tying up the same amount of bandwidth that streaming video requires for live viewing, so the speed of other Internet activities might be affected, too. Netflix, Amazon VOD, and other subscription services require a paid account. To use these services, you must already have a username and password entered in the Setup area of PlayLater (an excellent test button here quickly checks if login info works). Other streaming video services available today are free (ad supported), and no setup is needed.
Consistent with PlayLater?s simple UI, each item in the PlayLater list of recordings contains a big ?Play? button to activate playback. When you click on a program title's Play button, it launches Windows Media Player. You then?have access to the usual Windows Media Player controls for fast forward, pause, rewind, and for making the image appear at full-screen size.
The PlayLater files, however, are in a proprietary ?.plv? format that only works when PlayLater is installed (and will stop working when the free trial ends, unless you buy the service). In addition, these files can only be played back on the same PC that recorded them. No file sharing is possible.
I used the HDMI connection on the Acer mini-notebook to hook up to a 34-inch TV to see how the videos would look on a flat panel TV display. With Windows Media Player set to full-screen mode so that all the controls and Task Bar disappear, the results looked similar to but not quite the same as watching ordinary TV.
Picture and Sound Quality
The quality of video and audio that you get also varies. This depends on several factors. First,, what you see and hear is influenced by whatever quality levels the source site (Hulu, Netflix, etc.) makes available. Second, the network connection you're using might limit the stream quality that you can obtain -- meaning that even if there's a better quality stream available, the bandwidth of your particular connection might not support receiving it.
Third -- and this is what irks me the most about PlayLater -- you do end up with the usual glitches and errors that occur while watching streaming video on the net. Fortunately, the audio tracks usually sounded flawless. As for video, some recordings turned out better than others. 60 Minutes looked fantastic (especially the commercials). Netflix movies looked good, but "The Colbert Report" was only so-so.
Ironically, for the same amount of time it takes to make a recording of a choppy, jerky Internet video stream, you could instead be downloading a pristine video file. The only rub here is that the powers that be -- Hulu, Netflix, etc. -- do not make these files available. So PlayLater is at best a grand compromise between current legal and business forces that somehow make streaming available (although not downloads).
Not Quite a PC DVR
I'd say that PlayLater falls a little bit short of its billing as a DVR (digital video recorder) for online video, A true DVR -- such as TiVo or a cable/satellite-TV box DVR -- always incorporates a unified EPG (electronic program guide) and other features that make it easy to automatically record the same show every day, or every week, or whenever a new episode becomes available.
Instead, you must specifically tell PlayLater to record each and every episode you want. You must also double-check after making a recording to be sure that the recording worked. This is no huge deal, and you can easily restart a recording that got messed up along the way. Again, PlayLater is not really in the same league as a DVR.
Also when you're using PlayLater, you must plan ahead, and set aside enough time to allow the recordings to take place. When I'm heading out for a long drive, sometimes in the last few minutes of packing I'll quickly go online and download some radio programs to my iPod. Such an approach would never work with PlayLater, because you must start the recording process long before you leave.
PlayLater is a great product for its times. Yet I also envision that PlayLater will ultimatey prove to be transitional.
If the streaming sites would simply make download file buttons available, PlayLater would be unnecessary. Better yet, if you could subscribe to episodic TV programs as you can with a podcast, PlayLater might be even more unnecessary.
A lot of the convenience I'd like to see does exist already at Apple's iTunes Store, but in that case, you need to pay for specific content in addition to a subscription episodes of The Daily Show go for $1.99 each on iTunes, for example. For the here and now, PlayLater is a pretty sweet deal, at $49.99 for a lifetime subscription, or $19.99 per year under a current discount offer.
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