It's not much to look at coming out of the box, but boy, does the O!Play pack a wallop! It's an outstanding first effort from Taiwan-based Asus, a company known more for Eee Netbook
and notebook computers than home entertainment devices. With Asus being a newcomer to the media player field and my having tested so many bad players, I was a bit hesitant to order the O!Play, but now I'm a believer. With its exhaustive list of supported video codecs and network connectivity, it is nearly the perfect player, capable of playing everything from VCD to DVD to Blu-ray/HD DVD rips. Most notably, it supports RMVB, an important feature to fans of Asian shows and one that most of the major-brand players lack, including the otherwise superb WD TV HD Media Player
and WD TV Live Network-ready HD Media Player
. ASUS seems to be very actively developing firmwares and I'm impressed by their diligence.
Setup is easy and literally takes 30 seconds. On the side is 1 USB port and 1 eSATA port to connect local hard drives should you need them. HDMI and optical cable (S/PDIF) are not included, so you'll need your own. I really appreciate Asus using a 2-prong power cord instead of a wall-wart that blocks neighboring outlets. True to Asus's PC pedigree, the AC adapter looks like a PC laptop's AC adapter. It's very small (about the size of a Hostess Twinkie
) and has a pleasant (and VERY BRIGHT) blue LED. Upon boot-up, the device asks you to configure it with TV settings, network settings, time and date, etc. After plugging in the LAN cable, it found my NAS units (D-Link DNS321 Gigabit Network Storage Enclosure
and D-Link DNS323
) right away. The O!Play did have a problem interpreting non-Roman characters on my NAS, so folder names and files got garbled. Some files did not show up on the O!Play until I removed the offending non-Western characters (Chinese and Japanese).
With the new firmware, UPnP has been added, along with some slightly improved icons. With UPnP, the O!Play sees Chinese and Japanese filenames properly, but none of my MKV's showed up, a problem I had on all networked players I've tested. Only a fraction of my total library was listed. If you want to see your entire list, don't use UPnP.
INTERFACE AND USABILITY:
From a total off and unplugged state, the O!Play takes 10 seconds to boot to the home screen, compared to as many as 40 seconds for the Iomega ScreenPlay Plus HD Multimedia Player 1 TB
. The home screen is bright and attractive, but the folder navigation scheme leaves a bit to be desired. It's spartan, white text on black, and not nearly as attractive as the WDTV or WDTV Live, but it gets the job done. The remote control is big and solid, though the buttons seem to be bizarrely grouped and scattered about, forcing me to look down each time to make sure I'm pushing the right button. The bottom group of buttons is arranged in a circle around the music button for example, mixing different functionality into one area: volume controls (+/-) with subtitle (Aa), audio track (head icon), repeat mode (circular arrows), picture zoom (magnifying glass), file display mode (Mode), and device setup options (Setup). "Mode" is a file listing filter, toggling between Movies, Music, and Pictures. With it, you never need to go back to the home screen. Unfortunately, there's no "Show All" mode which lists every file together at the same time. To PageUp or PageDown long directories, use the |< and >| buttons.
During video or image playback, the picture can be zoomed up to 8x. During video playback, the fast-forward/rewind can go up to 32x. The inclusion of volume control buttons is very thoughtful and useful. You can turn video preview on or off. Pausing over a file for a second will play it in a smaller window on the right (with audio). There is a slight delay of a second or two when reading the file's metadata off a drive or the network, during which time you can't push the play button. This can be a potential problem for people and gets annoying. For music, pausing over the file displays the ID3 info (song name, artist, album name, year, etc).
One cool feature is the ability to adjust the device options while playing back a movie. The menu overlays on top of the movie and you can adjust your settings (Brightness, Contrast, Aspect Ratio, etc) and resume. There's also a Noise Reduction option, but I suggest turning this OFF. It caused strange and distracting frame shimmering in some movies. Lastly, O!Play also remembers where you left off on each movie and can resume the next time you play the file.
This is where the O!Play really shines. It played all of the 100+ random files I threw at it, except for a few stray (and poor quality) .WMV files I got from the internet. MKV, AVI, MPG, DIVX, RM, TS all played flawlessly, both standard def and hi-def 720p/1080i/p content. It even plays Flash Video (FLV), a feature rarely encountered. DTS and Dolby multi-channel audio is downsampled to stereo, so there's no need for an audio receiver if you just want to output through the TV for convenience.
The Asus also plays .IFO/VOB files with DVD chapters, menus, and all disc features as if it were the original DVD. That's great news for users looking to make a centralized DVD collection on a server or a big hard drive. The only problem is there doesn't seem to be a button to get back to the menu. You have to stop the movie and start it again.
For photos, the ASUS has a problem displaying progressive JPEGs. Images will fit to screen and can zoom up to 8x, but there's no 1x view to see it at the original size.
I tested external .SRTs and internally embedded subtitles in .MKV's in a number of languages, including Chinese, Japanese, Russian, English, French, and others. All worked when saved as UTF-8. For multilingual families and fans of foreign film, this is great news. You can also set the interface to one of 10 major world languages. Subtitle files can be downloaded from sites like DivxStation.
With firmware 1.11, external and internal subs are both recognized if both types co-exist for a movie. Previously, only embedded subs were seen when a movie had both types. Now, pushing the subtitle button pops up a submenu where you can select the subtitle, change its encoding, font size, position, color, and importantly, syncing (many downloaded subtitles are off by a few seconds). This is very useful! No more re-saving. Just cycle through the available encodings or adjust the timing until the sub looks right (but you should still re-save to avoid doing this every time). Where multiple external subs existed, the O!Play did not recognize their names, showing only a number (like "Subtitle: 2 (SRT)", even when named according to the movie's filename (e.g. "Batman.mkv" -> "Batman - English.srt"). Pushing the info button a second time shows extended info like codec, resolution, and bitrate. It is better to mux the subtitle into the file using something like mkvmerge GUI and metatag the language name onto it. Subtitle line-spacing is a bit of an issue (too much). You can change the font size and color, but not the gap. Lastly, I wish for a thick black outline around the text like the WDTV Live. Sometimes the subtitle blends into the movie, no matter what color you set it to.
10/100 NETWORK INTERFACE:
This is a weak point for the device. With no gigabit Ethernet, it is less future-proof against monster 8GB+ .MKV files and other bandwidth intensive HD content. Also lack of wireless connectivity means I do not have freedom to locate this device wherever I want.
The O!Play is truly a multimedia beast. It plays nearly everything under the sun and as a WDTV and WDTV live owner, I can safely say that Western Digital has some serious competition here. At $99, it is a very capable device at a fantastic value, and its homely interface is forgivable. It is, however, rather boxy and brick-like, taking up as much space as a 3.5" external hard drive or an average Bible. It's 2x the size of the WDTV. Lastly, WDTV Live has Flickr, YouTube, and Pandora streaming. O!Play has no internet playback capabilities as of the current firmware release, though that can quickly change. ASUS has already added substantial improvements like the subtitle fixes and UPnP.
If wireless connectivity could be added with a firmware update, then this player will be all things to all people. (WDTV Live supports third party WiFi dongles). This is THE player to get if you want MKV, RMVB, and DVD .IFO support and don't care about wireless. Great value coupled with a great firmware support attitude makes this a highly recommended buy, and I hope ASUS surprises us with more software features down the road.
UPDATE #1: Dec 10/09: Firmware 1.17 is now available, which adds BD .iso support and lets you jump forward by 5/10/15/30 mins.
UPDATE #2: Feb 15/10: Firmware 1.21 has just been released. It adds MAJOR internet content connectivity as well as the option to wirelessly connect your R1! This is something users have been clamoring for since this product's release and a giant leap forward. With a compatible USB dongle, this thing does everything the Air does, except the media reader capabilities (which you can add that with an external USB reader). I am upgrading my rating to 5 stars as a result of the obvious effort ASUS put out to make this player what users want. It's still rough around the edges and the interface still needs polish, but this update adds major value to the player-- a truly excellent buy at $99. I can now watch TV streams from all over the world, including my favorite, NHK (Japan). WDTV Live, the gauntlet has officially been thrown down.
UPDATE #3: Jul 1/10: A user notified me that he could find no mention of the WIFI upgrade. I checked on ASUS's site and do not see any mention of it. Sadly, ASUS seems to have removed external dongle WIFI support from the firmware, probably to avoid competing with the Air.
UPDATE #4: Sep 20/10: A recent firmware added external DVD support. I bought a Samsung USB 2.0 8x DVD Writer External Optical Drive
to test and have mixed results. The DVD I tested (Feeling Minnesota) did not play, giving a "cannot decode encryption" error, so there are some DVD playback codecs missing from the release. An MKV file burned onto a DVD+R DL worked fine however.