o!play 2

Update: I’ve been informed that Asus is working on a series of firmware updates that may address some of the issues highlighted in this review.

The Asus O!Play is a media player that you can use to stream digital media to your standard or high definition TV. Just plug the O!Play into your TV using the included composite cables or an HDMI cable (not included) and connect a USB flash drive or USB hard drive with pictures, music, or movies.

For about $100 (Amazon), if that’s all the O!Play did, it would be a halfway decent deal. The little box can handle a wide array of audio and video formats including MPEG1/2/3, DiVX, XViD, and H.264 and it can connect to USB and eSATA drives. But the O!Play also has an Ethernet port which lets you play media stored on a shared network drive. In other words, if you’ve got a computer running in your bedroom or office that has your music and video collections on it, you can use the O!Play to access that media in your living room without putting a PC by your television.

If you don’t want to run cables throughout your house you can always move the router into the living room or pick up a cheap Powerline adapter which makes your home electrical wiring function as an Ethernet extension cord. You can plug a Powerline adapter into your router and another into a wall socket near your TV and just run a short Ethernet cable from the adapter to the O!Play.

At $100, the O!Play is the cheapest device I’m aware of that lets you stream media from a shared network drive to a computer. Western Digital just released a similar box, but it runs $120. And the Netgear Digital entertainer Live EVA2000 supports similar features and then some, plus WiFi networking with an optional adapter, but has a list price of $180 without the WiFi adapter.

I was pretty excited when Asus sent me a demo unit to test, as I just finished setting up a new TV in the basement that I plan to use while exercising. I already have a PC plugged into the TV in the living room, and it has a digital TV tuner for recording over-the-air broadcasts. But I wanted an easy way to watch them on the basement TV, and the O!Play seemed like just the ticket. Plus it would let me access my music collection.

But after playing with the Asus O!Play for a while, I’m not that impressed with the software interface. Don’t get me wrong, in many ways, the O!Play works exactly as promised. It can stream audio and HD video smoothly over a home network. But the interface is clunky. It can take a long time to find the files you’re looking for, and the on-screen menus leave a bit to be desired.

For instance, I have about 400 folders in my music directory with different artists and albums. When you want to listen to a song, you have to select the music player, and then sit there holding the arrow key indefinitely until you find your folder. It takes half an eternity to scroll through 400 folders because no matter how long your finger is on the key, the O!Play software scrolls at a constant speed. In other words, if you want to listen to They Might Be Giants, and you have an extensive collection of albums from artists with names starting with A – S, you might have to wait a few moments.

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Making matters worse, if you have some folders labeled with upper case letters and others with lower case letters, you’ll have to go through all of the upper case folders before you get to any lower case letters. In other words, you might have to go through the alphabet twice if your TMBG album is in a folder labeled “tmbg.”

Fortunately, you can add directories to a shortcut menu, which can save you a little time in some situations.

Video playback was excellent. While most of my videos are in DiVX, the O!Play was even able to handle uncompressed transport streams recorded using my TV tuner and BeyondTV software. But if you have a large video collection you’ll have to deal with the same navigation problems that you have with large music folders.

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You can fast forward, pause, or rewind video at 1.5x, 2x, 4x, 8x, 16x, or 32x speeds. But I kind of wish there was a TiVo-like progress bar to let you know where you are in a video. You can hit the Display button on the remote control to bring up a widget that tells you the current time in the video (for instance, 3:32 of a 34:00 video). But in order to keep this widget active you need to hit fast forward before hitting display, not the other way around.

For some reason I had horrible results when I tried to view a picture. I navigated to a network drive that has all of my photos, and images that look excellent in Windows Media Center looked horribly pixelated on the O!Play. These were JPG files I shot with my digital camera.

Update: The problem only seems to occur with high resolution images. They don’t scale properly to the screen. When I tried viewing lower resolution images they looked great.

There’s a zoom button on the remote control that lets you focus in on a particular portion of an image. There are several zoom levels and when you hit the top one, hitting the zoom button one more time takes you back to the 100% view. There’s no dedicated button for zooming out, so you’ll have to cycle through the zoom levels if you want to go back to normal.

You can set up photo slideshows or just view a single image.

Pretty much all of these issues are software issues and could be addressed in future firmware updates. Asus isn’t making any promises, but when I contacted the company about the problem finding files in large directories, I was told that they would look into it. It’s possible that the company could make it easier to jump to a specific letter in the future, or adjust the scrolling speed.

oplay3On the bright side, setting up the O!Play to connect to a home network was quite easy. You just enter the Setup menu and either let it auto-detect your settings or enter an IP manually. If your network hard drives are password protected, an on-screen keyboard will pop up asking you to enter your username and password.

I barely had to glance at the user manual to use the O!Play. Most of the controls were quite intuitive. One thing that I learned from the user manual that wasn’t obvious was that if you hit the OK button on a file, it will play that audio or video file and then stop. If you hit the play/pause button instead, it will play all of the files in the folder. So if you want to play an entire album, make sure to hit play/pause instead of OK.

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If you’re looking for a budget media streaming device with network connectivity, the Asus O!Play could do the trick. But I’m hoping for a firmware update that will make the device easier to use. Fortunately, you can easily updated the firmware from the Setup menu when the box is connected to your home network.

The other thing worth pointing out is that the software is based on Linux, and some folks are already looking into the possibility of adding functionality or even creating a whole new custom Linux operating system for the O!Play. You can read much more about hacking the O!Play from Liliputing reader Mikez in the comments on my unboxing post and at the NetbookUser forum.

I shot a video of the O!Play user interface this afternoon. Pardon the video quality, but this is what happens when you sit in a poorly lit room and point a standard definition digital camera at a high definition TV. The one thing I want to point out is that near the end of the video I complain about the pixelated images of my cat. They look much worse in real life than they do in this video.

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16 replies on “Asus O!Play HD Media Player overview – Video”

  1. how do you access online streaming like intenet TV and internet radio channels with it? I can’t find instructions in any of the online manuals πŸ™ I’ve got it plugged into my wifi router via LAN cable…now what?

  2. Hey guys and gals, On a recent shopping trip I grabbed the O!play Air thinking it may be superior to my Eureka. Anyway I like it enough, the wifi feature is awesome allowing me to stream over the air. I wish the interface was better and was hoping i would be able to use something like XMBC but I read that was not possible. So i decided to continue my search for the perfect interface or just a better one and I came up with MOVIEJUKEBOX. I thought this would be the best option since the O!play has a https server, now i know nothing about how this thing works but I thought since it has the ability to be an https server then maybe it could display a https page…I’m hoping one of you brilliant minds on this board can help and take it from here.

    My thinking was that if I could connect to my shared drive and access the index file created by MOVIEJUKEBOX my problems would be solved. Also in the last firmware update i noticed I now have the ability to access online TV networks however i have not figured that out yet, anyway if you could add the movijukebox index file then that might work too.

    Here are some links to MOVIEJUKEBOX I got it working on my computer and its awasome…

    MOVIEJUKEBOX
    https://code.google.com/p/moviejukebox/

    Screenshots
    https://code.google.com/p/moviejukebox/wiki/MovieJukebox

  3. Brad –

    Thanks for the UI review: just what I wanted before dropping 80 quid on this device πŸ™‚

    A few of minor questions (especially in light of the updated firmware, which I’ve read about on the page you link to…):

    * Does the “file copy” go from USB to network *and* vice versa?
    * If you had a more hierarchical directory structure for music/films, can you see the file selection issues (which would be over the network, for me) being less important?
    * Is there any provision for setting bookmarks up to frequently-used areas on the network, or do you just hit the root of each network share each time you start using it?
    * Have you tried NFS? *Was* it NFS you were using?
    * Did you try any multi-subtitled .mkv files? Did the subtitle button on the remote control cycle between them, or do something less useful? [Did the language displayed perhaps have anything to do with system’s global language settings, and how did that work when the subtitles weren’t correctly tagged in the .mkv container?]

    Many thanks for a really useful review!
    Jonathan

  4. If most of your video library in DIVX how you did not find out that it can’t handle
    divx home theater profile – advanced simple profile. I did not check QPEL,
    but packet bitstream it can’t play smoothly.
    If you make review – run DIVX test disk, as it was done by everybody
    5 years ago – to check if a new divx standalone player proper handle DIVX.

  5. Great demo of this product.
    You did a great job showing both the good and the bad of this product.

  6. Mikez,

    Maybe you can start a hacking community around this product? Sounds promising. I agree with neilkeven that the credit card remotes blow.

    I am waiting for a full review of the WD model too. I might want to get one of these types of boxes soon.

    1. Working on it, not finished configuring it yet (but you can register).
      Information about it in a thread that parallels the “pry it open” thread.

      These devices have been around for awhile but a lot of new ones are
      being pushed out in time for the holiday shopping season.

      Brad likes little gadget boxes, I am sure he will review whatever he can get.

  7. Unlike nearly all the other HD multimedia players that we see in the marketplace, Asus did not opt for the credit card-style wireless remote. Instead, the provided remote control is a little more conventional both in look and form factor.

  8. I am within driving range of the new Cowboys stadium. . .
    Anybody want to know how it looks on a 2,241 inch, high def. screen?
    πŸ˜‰

  9. Three more notes:

    You don’t need a tv or display with HDMI inputs –
    I am using a HDMI-to-DVI adapter cable to a computer monitor.

    I have also patched the composite outputs into my video digitizer –
    which drives a VGA monitor at (about) 720p for any input.

    If you happen to set the output to something your display device
    can’t display – the ‘reset’ button will return it to 480i.
    Don’t forget to reset your initial settings after using the ‘reset’ button.

  10. The menus are actually a ‘slide show’ of bit map images;
    not a computed menu like a computer user is familiar with.

    That translates into a lot of person-hours for ASUS to change
    the menu ‘slide show’. They have to be ‘pre-computed’ and
    stored into bit map images.

    There are a lot of features inside of this box that have not yet
    made it into the menu system. A person can hope that ASUS
    is working on those and will post updated firmware images.

    In addition to the most common Windows and Linux disk formats,
    the device also can read SCO unix and MAC OSx disk formats.

    Only the Windows network file system (cifs) is on the menus;
    but the box can also read from Linux/Unix/MAC network file systems (nfs).
    The ASUS support forum for the device has the directions but
    they aren’t for the ‘newbee’. πŸ˜‰

    The box’s firmware can also record the media stream it is displaying;
    more things that need to be put on the menu system.
    I.E: It is also a PDVR (personal digital video recorder), internally anyway.

    The box’s firmware also has a webtorrent client included –
    not (yet) on the menu.

    The box’s firmware has a https server running, making it possible to control
    it from your web browser anywhere on your home network.
    Not on the menu, no web pages for it (yet).

    Of course, without being inside of the mind of the ASUS marketing department;
    there is no way to say if any of the above is *supposed* to work on this <$100
    model. Those may be things for a higher dollar model to be introduced later.

    With full hardware decode of video and audio *plus* a 400Mhz MIPS processor –
    this little box has a lot of resources waiting to be used for something. πŸ˜‰

    1. If they did it efficiently, they would have editable prerenders they can quickly update, then just reoutput a new set of images. No telling if that’s how they did it, though.

      If they release their source, it probably wouldn’t be that hard to create a new menu “skin” with a toolchain for menu editing. Though it would probably take a while to build one that was easy for casual users unless an existing menu editor could be adapted to the purpose.

      If there was a working menu toolchain, I would imagine there would be a ton of features that could be easily added.

      1. My thought – similar to what calls ‘per-rendering’ – –

        Just code the menus for a and
        once it gets the graphic arts department approval, just do “screen captures”.

        ASUS has had a simple GUI of their own for nearly two years –
        most people know it as the EeePC “Easy Mode” interface.
        Something like that could probable be made to look good on a TV.

        It might even be fewer person-hours than pulling out your copy of povray.

        1. I was thinking more along the lines of scripting ImageMagick.

          Design a background and design button selected/unselected graphics. Design icons as needed. Then composite the images together and render the appropriate text over the relevant buttons using whatever text properties you need.

          It looks like that one screen uses a flying 3D render effect that you wouldn’t be quite as simple, but you could probably get pretty close using a path and scaling.

          Then to define a menu, you could just write routines for how to display menus in general, use an XML file to define the menu system as a whole (i.e. what items are on what screen and what the text and image are for each of those items), and use an outer loop to iterate through all the valid menu states and perform renders.

          Edited to add: if there’s already a menu system that does what you want, that would completely get it done. I was just thinking of a way to define an arbitrary bitmap-based menu renderer. It probably makes the problem harder than it needs to be, however.

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