Perhaps one the more significant defining digital attributes of the first decade of the the 21st Century could be the size of the ginormous digital media collections so many of us have amassed--media collections made of up a disparate assortment of video, photos, and audio files from a wide variety of sources. The advent of digital cameras and digital camcorders has converted many people into virtual shutterbugs and documentarians--collecting events from our lives, ranging from the mundane to the life altering. No longer encumbered by the time and cost of having to send film off to be developed and processed, the only seeming limitation is having enough storage space to hold all the content that we create. Many people also create digital copies of commercial movies, such as ripping DVDs; not to mention the increasing availability of downloadable movies and TV shows--from origins legal and otherwise. And lest we forget the large audio collections that many folks have amassed from ripping audio CDs as well as acquiring digital audio files (once again, via legitimate and other means).
Yes, we’ve gone digital, but when it comes time to watch or listen to much of this media, we’re still often tethered to our computers. Portable media devices, such as the ubiquitous iPhone and iPod have enabled us to take some of our media with us, but sometimes we just want to consume that media in the more traditional setting of our living rooms, as we sit on the couch, viewing it on TV--especially when we want to share it with others, such as with vacation photos or home movies. There are a number of devices on the market that let you do just this; some more popular examples are the Apple TV, WD TV, and Seagate FreeAgent Theater+ HD Media Player, as well some gaming console platforms, and even a bevy of Windows Media Extenders to choose from--and this list represents just a sampling of the available options.
You can add another product to this growing list of media devices that play content on your TV: the Asus O!Play HDP-R1 digital media player. The O!Play is a relatively small (1.9x7.1x4.9-inches), unassuming black box with rounded corners. It doesn’t have any onboard storage, but is designed to connect with media stored on attached drives or over a 100Mbps Ethernet connection. The left side of the unit has a USB 2.0 port, a combo eSATA/USB 2.0 port, and a reset button. The back of the unit houses the device’s output ports, which include analog stereo audio, composite video, digital audio (optical S/PDIF), HDMI, and a 100Mbps Ethernet port--the HDMI port supports up to 1080p 60Hz. The front of the unit contains two LEDs: one for power status and one that indicates when an attached storage device is detected.
MSRP: $99.99Asus claims that the “O!” in the O!Play’s name stands for “all”--as in all media. We’re not quite sure we get the connection, but it’s probably just lost in translation to us. But based on the spec-list above, that claim isn’t too far from the truth, as the O!Play supports a wide selection of media files types and codecs. The O!Play even plays back RM and RMVB video files, which is not common on many media player devices. We did encounter a few glitches with the device (which we’ll discuss shortly); but we also encountered a number of undocumented media types the O!Play was able to play.
Note: Firmware version 1.17N was released after this review was written. Once we've had a chance to put the new firmware through the paces, we will post an update to this review.
|Setting up the O!Play|
The O!Play comes with a remote control, a pair of AA batteries for the remote, a set of composite-video/stereo-audio cables, a printed Quick Start Guide, and CD that contains a more detailed user manual. The Quick Start Guide devotes only two pages to setting up the O!Play, but for most users this will be enough to get the device up and running; setting up the O!Play is fairly easy--at least as far as using it to play files from an attached storage source, such as a hard drive or USB flash drive. More detailed setup and usage details can be found in the user manual on the CD.
To get up and running, all it takes is plugging in the O!Play’s power connecter, attaching a USB storage source containing media files, and connecting the device to video and audio outputs. In our testing, we used a 320GB Seagate FreeAgent Go external hard drive and a handful of USB flash drives as our direct-connected USB media sources. Drives formatted with FAT32, NTSF and HFS (Mac OS), all worked flawlessly. It bears noting that the FeeAgent Go drive is a bus-powered, 5,400RPM drive, and we didn’t run into any stuttering or latency issues during media playback with the drive. The only issue we ran into with the O!Play’s connections--and it was a minor one at that--is that the combo eSATA/USB port is a bit snug, so you’re going to have to use a little elbow grease to attach any drives to this port.
In order for the O!Play to also access media files over your local network, the device’s Ethernet port needs to be connected to your local network via a switch or router. The Ethernet port’s speed is limited to 100Mbps, but this connection appeared to be fast enough for all our test files, including a number of high-bandwidth video files. Asus has also announced an updated version of the O!Play--the Asus O!Play HDP-R3 (MSRP: $139.99)--which adds 802.11n wireless networking support.
We connected the O!Play to several HDMI-based displays, including a 1080i 42-inch Plasma TV and a 1080p 24-inch LCD monitor. As soon as the HDMI connection was made, we could play both video and audio on the displays without any additional necessary configuration. However, in order to make sure that the O!Play was working optimally, we went into the O!Play’s Setup utility to make sure that its settings met our needs.
|Setting up the O!Play (cont.)|
|When the O!Play first turns on, the Home menu is displayed. The following options are offered, which are accessed via the navigation buttons on the remote: Movies, Music, Photos, Setup, and File Copy.
The Setup module includes options for Audio, Video, Photo, Network, and System settings. Audio settings for the Digital Output include HDMI LPCM, HDMI LPCM Multi Channel, HDMI Raw, SPDIF LPCM, and SPDIF Raw. Within the Video options, you can set the aspect ratio (Pan Scan 4:3, Letter Box 4:3, 16:9, and 16:10), Brightness, Contrast, Noise Reduction (on or off), the TV system, Resume Play, and Movie Preview.
The TV System options are: HDMI Auto, 480p, 576p, 720p 50Hz, 720p 60Hz, 1080i 50Hz, 1080i 60Hz, 1080p 50Hz, and 1080p 60Hz. We found that the O!Play’s HDMI Auto mode correctly identified the optimal settings for both of our displays. The O!Play also includes a separate on/off toggle for 1080p 24Hz for BD video playback. The Resume Playback feature gives you the option of resuming watching a video where you previously left off. The Movie Preview option plays a preview of a selected movie in a small preview window when navigating though folders that contain supported video files; if you are slowly scrolling through a folder that contains a lot of video files, you might want to disable this feature as there is a noticeable delay as the O!Play caches the video for preview playback.
Photo options allow you to set the Slide Show Interval (with options from 2 seconds to 2 minutes), Transition Effect (such as Cross Fade, Left to Right, and Dissolve), and whether or not to turn on the “Ken Burns Effect.” The Transition Effect and Ken Burns Effect appear when transitioning from viewing one photo to the next photo whenever you view photos, whether or not you are viewing photos in Slide Show mode. We’re not big fans of the O!Play’s Ken Burns Effect, as it tends to zoom in too far into photos, losing key elements of the photos, such as people’s faces.
The Network options lets you set the O!Play’s IP address manually or via DHCP. The System options lets you set the device’s Menu Language, Text Encoding, Time, perform a System Update, turn the Screen Saver on or off, and Restore the Default settings. Our unit initially came with firmware revision 01.11N; but following Asus’s suggestion, we updated the firmware to version 01.13N, which we downloaded from Asus’s website. Since then, firmware 01.13N has subsequently been pulled from Asus’s Website. Asus informs us that version 0.1.13N was actually a beta--although we don’t have any memory of it being identified as a beta when we downloaded it. Asus also informed us that the next official firmware version, 01.16N, would be due out in a few weeks; we chose to not to wait for this firmware update, however, as it would have significantly delayed posting this review. Those interested the status of the O!Play’s firmware should monitor the Asus forums.
The O!Play’s lightweight remote control is medium-sized--neither too small nor too large, and it fit comfortably in our hands (the remote is 6-inches long, 2.25-inches at its widest point, and 1.2-inches at it deepest section). The remote has a total of 25 buttons (see the images above to see what the remote looks like and what its different functions are).
|Navigating Your Media Collection(s)|
Selecting the Movies or Photos modules from the Home menu, opens new screens that lets you select the files to play from a Folder menu, or based on the Date of the files or from Recently Played files. Those same options are also available with the Music module, but a number of additional file selection options are available, such as Album, Singer, and Genre. Note that the Date and Recently Played options only display media files that are accessible from direct-connected USB drives; the only way to access network files is through the Folder navigation option. When you select Folder, the three options are Storage Device, Network, and UPnP.
The Storage Device option shows all USB-attached drives. You can access each attached drive and navigate through the folder structure of the respective drives to find the media files you want to play. Unfortunately, the O!Play does not let you search for specific files, so you either need to know where your files are located or be prepared to spend some time hunting for them.
Selecting the Network option takes you to a screen with two options: My_Shortcuts and My_Neighbors. Selecting My_Neighbors displays a list of Windows XP or Vista PCs on the local network that have folder-sharing enabled. When you choose one of these systems, you are given the option to create a shortcut to the system. Any shortcuts you create get added to the My_Shortcuts menu. We had little trouble getting the O!Play to see our networked HP Pavilion Elite m9550f desktop running Windows Vista; but despite all attempts, we could not get the O!Play to see our networked Windows 7 system--it turns out that accessing Windows 7 networked systems is not supported by the 01.13N firmware or earlier versions. Asus tells us that support for accessing networked Windows 7 systems will be added with the 0.16N firmware.
In the meantime, there is a workaround for accessing networked Windows 7 systems, but it involves a bit of Linux hackery: You need to telnet into the O!Play as root (there is no password), and update the /usr/local/etc/dvdplayer/script/run_tail file to include a mount point for the network folders you want the O!Play to access. Following a reboot, the O!Play will display these mounted shares in the Storage Device menu. Obviously, this approach is not for the feint of heart--non-Linux users need not apply. A big downside to this approach is that if the shared folders being accessed are password-protected, your username and password must be included with the mount instructions in the unencrypted, text-based run_tail file. This also shows a significant security hole with the O!Play: Anyone who has access to your network can telnet into the O!Play as the root user, and see and alter the entire contents of the device as well as any mounted drives or folders.
In addition to storing media files on a networked Vista system, we also made media files available on two networked, UPnP-enabled NAS devices: a Synology Disk Station DS409+ and a WD My Book World Edition. When we selected UPnP from the O!Play’s file navigation menu, the two NAS devices appeared as available network devices--albeit, not every time. The O!Play’s UPnP connectivity was a bit flaky--sometimes we’d select UPnP, only to see that neither device was available. We’d hit the Return button on the remote and then navigate back to the UPnP menu, mere moments later, only to see one or both NAS devices appear. It was a veritable crapshoot as to which devices would appear whenever we select the O!Play’s UPnP option. Asus claims that this network instability will be fixed with the 01.16N firmware.
Another network-related issue we ran into (and also which will purportedly be fixed with the 01.16N firmware update) is that even when we could access one of the UPnP devices and navigate to the folder we wanted, sometimes the files in that folder didn’t appear; we saw this most often with photo files. Yet another issue we encountered was that the O!Play occasionally performed spontaneous reboots when trying to access media files; this only happened to us a handful of times, but each time that it happened was when we were trying to play a video file over a network connection.
We found the most convenient way to navigate through all of our disparate media collections was to use the Folder navigation option. This quickly made us realize, however, that our current system for storing files was less than ideal, as we had folder and file names that often made little sense. Making matters worse was that some folders contained hundreds of files, making finding the one file we were looking for tantamount to trying to find a needle in a haystack. If you’re thinking about jumping on the media player bandwagon--be it with the O!Play or similar device--we highly recommend you spend some time organizing your media collection into folder structures that are easy navigate and with file names that are self-explanatory.
|Viewing and Listening to Media Files|
Regardless of whether you are playing files stored on a direct-connected USB drive or via a network connection, the playback experience is the same--assuming, of course, that you can find the files you are looking for.
As to video files types, the O!Play supports video files with these extensions: ASF, AVI, DAT, DIVX, FLV, M2TS, MKV, MP4, MPG, MPV, RM, RMVB, TS, VOB, WMV, and XVID. It is important to keep in mind that these file types represent only the “container” within which a video is stored. Many of these file types support videos encoded with a variety of different codecs. The video codecs that the O!Play supports are H.264, MPEG-1, MPEG-2, MPEG-4, RM, and RMVB. We successfully played video files using all of these files types and codecs. Additionally, we also were able to play M4V video files as well as ISO files of DVD and BD movies--even the navigation on the DVD and BD movie menus remained intact. Some additional unsupported video file types that we tried, but the O!Play could not play, were 3PG, FLC, M1V, M2T, M2V, SWF, and VC1; unsupported and unplayable codecs included CVID, DV, SVQ3, and VC1. The O!Play also supports SMI, SRT, SSA, and SUB subtitle formats--all of which we got to successfully work with the O!Play.
Playback quality was entirely dependent on how the video file was originally encoded. For instance, while a highly-compressed FLV video appeared blocky and blurry, an uncompressed M2TS looked relatively close the quality of the original file. We encountered two issues with video playback, however. The first is that sometimes the video and audio were out of sync--sometimes we were able to recover from this by exiting playback, going back to the Home menu, and then going back to view the file, resuming where we left off. The 01.16N firmware is supposed to resolve this issue. The second problem we encountered was that the O!Play would often play a video using the incorrect aspect ratio. We would have to go into the Setup menu and manually change the aspect ratio in order to get the video to display correctly.
The remote does a capable job of handling typical video playback functions, including play/pause, fast-forward/rewind, and next track/previous track. Supported fast-forward and rewind speeds are 1.5x, 2x, 4x, 8x, 16x, and 32x; audio still plays when fast-forwarding at 1.5x and 2x speeds. The Zoom button allows you to zoom into the playing video at 0.9x, 1x, 2x, 4x, and 8x; when zoomed in, you can use the remote’s navigation buttons to scroll around the image. If the video contains audio and subtitle tracks (as you would expect to find on a DVD ISO), you can select which tracks to play through the remote as well.
The list of supported image file formats is much smaller than the supported video files: BMP, GIF, JPEG, PNG, and TIFF. We tried a number of unsupported image files as well--PCX, PDF, and RAW--but these files wouldn’t even appear in the file navigation list. When you scroll through the contents of a folder, a preview of the selected image appears in the preview window, below which appears the name and size of the file. Clicking on the remote’s right arrow causes the display to switch to thumbnail view; depending on the size and number of the files in the folder, it can take a while for the thumbnails to populate--we found the thumbnails sometimes never appeared when viewing images from network folders. Clicking the Display button once on the remote shows the file name. Clicking the Display button a second time shows some additional information, such as the file size and dimensions; if EXIF data is present, items such as focal length, exposure, and ISO data are also displayed.
When viewing an image, pressing the remote’s right arrow or next chapter buttons, advances the view to the next image in the folder; pressing play puts the O!Play into Slide Show mode, sequentially displaying the images in the current folder. Slide Shows do not automatically include a music soundtrack; but you could first start playing a song in the Music module and then come back to the Photo module to start a Slide Show while the music continues to play. You can also zoom into images at 2x, 4x, 8x, and 16x, and scroll through the zoomed images using the arrow keys on the remote--response time was slow with large image files.
We encountered one significant problem when viewing photos--as we encountered with videos, the photos would often appear in the wrong aspect ratio. It’s easy enough to reset the aspect ratio, but we wish that the device could auto-detect the image’s proper aspect ratio and adjust on the fly. We also discovered that when you press the Display button when viewing network-based images, incorrect file size and dimensions are displayed and all EXIF data is missing.
Supported music files include AAC, AIFF, FLAC, MP3, OGG, and WAV. In addition to playing these file types, we were also able to play M4A and WMA files. While the O!Play can play AAC files, they must be unprotected AAC files--protected AAC files are not playable. We also unsuccessfully tried to play these unsupported audio file types: 3G2, 3GP, AA, AC3, AMR, APE, AU, M2A, M4B, M4R, and MP2. One feature we really like is the dedicated Music Shuffle button on the remote--pressing the button plays random music files from direct-attached USB drives without changing what is currently displayed on the screen.
When you select an audio file and press either the Play button or the OK button, the O!Play starts playing that file, and sequentially plays each audio file in that folder--unfortunately, the O!Play does not support playlists. You can fast forward and rewind through songs (at 1.5x, 2x, 4x, 8x, 16x, or 32x), skip forward to the next audio track or backward to the previous one, and you can set the repeat function to repeat the file presently playing or all audio files in the current folder.
One last option available from the Home menu is the File Copy module. This allows you to copy or move files between direct-connected USB drives and networked systems. You cannot copy files from or to UPnP devices, such as NAS devices (unless you were to perform the Linux hack we previously discussed, which would make a NAS device media folder appear to the O!Play as a direct-connected drive).
As to using the O!Play to play media from direct-connected USB storage sources, we’re not sure if it is really worth the time it takes to physically copy files to a removable hard drive or flash drive just to be able to view them on a TV. Accessing these files over a network connection from a system, NAS device, or other UPnP device, however, is a much more useful feature--albeit, the O!Play suffers from a few network-related problems. Hopefully, these issues will all be resolved with the forthcoming firmware update--especially the inability to connect with Windows 7 systems. It is also important to note what the O!Play is not--it can access media that is either stored on an attached hard drive or stored on a system or device connected to the local network, but the O!Play cannot access media from the Internet, such as from YouTube, Flickr, or Pandora.
Even with the network functionality working as expected, there are still the issue of potentially navigating through a tangled web of file folders and oddly named files, and having to scroll through folders that contain hundreds of files. If you were to use the O!Play on a regular basis to view your media files on your TV, you’d really want to spend some prep time organizing your media collection so that it is easy to maneuver through with the O!Play’s limited navigation capabilities and inability to search for files.
After spending a few weeks living with the O!Play, we’ve come up with a number of usage scenarios in which we feel the O!Play would be ideal. The first is for showing home movies and photos to visiting friends and family--instead of everyone crowding around a computer screen, your visitors can watch from the comfort of the living room couch. Another viable scenario is for those users who download a lot of video from the Internet--although the caveat here is that unless the video is high quality it’s not going to look all that great when blown up on a widescreen TV. Some users (who have lots of storage space) like to rip all of their DVDs; such users could use the O!Play to access their entire movie library and switch to any title, simply on a whim--all while never leaving the couch. There are probably dozens of additional usage scenarios that haven’t even occurred to us (or others that have occurred to us, but we chose not to mention because they condone illegal activity or potentially morally prurient behavior)--if you have digital media, the O!Play offers a relatively inexpensive means for you to view it on your TV.
In our opinion, the O!Play feels like a product that isn’t quite finished yet--it has yet to achieve its full potential. If the 01.16N firmware update delivers everything it promises, then the O!Play will come even closer to a finished product in our eyes. An Asus spokesperson even told us that in addition to what has be announced about the 01.16N firmware, it will also bring with it “a few other surprises.” We like surprises.
Note: Firmware version 1.17N was released after this review was written. Once we've had a chance to put the new firmware through the paces, we will post an update to this review.