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A.C. Ryan ACR-PV73100 PlayON! HD Media Player

Do we need Media PCs anymore?

Given the advent of the ever-more-capable instant on, low power media players that can stream data from any one of a dozen sources, it does make me wonder. The likes of Western Digital TV Live or Popcorn hour are the most well known, but virtually every networking or storage manufacturer is dipping their toe into the market, so there’s a huge amount of choice out there The A.C. Ryan’s PlayON! HD is, in some ways is no different to what you’d expect – it’s a media player capable of High-Definition playback from a number of different sources.

A.C. Ryan has gone a bit further with the design though, including as complete a set of video playback encoding and file wrapping support that you’ll find anywhere, plus space for an internal hard drive and a nice interface to boot.

Previously we’ve looked at A.C. Ryan’s PlayON! DVR TV, that included many of the same features, in addition to a TV tuner for recording DVB-T and analogue TV to its internal hard drive, as well as playback for other media formats too.

A.C.Ryan PlayON! HD Media Player Review A.C. Ryan ACR-PV73100 PlayON! HD Media Player A.C.Ryan PlayON! HD Media Player Review A.C. Ryan ACR-PV73100 PlayON! HD Media Player

Just as with the PlayON! DVR TV, the HD has a very generous bundle that adds to its value. Composite, audio, component and HDMI are all included – the HDMI is particularly nice in its cable braid – and there’s also the much needed remote plus batteries (that load shotgun style! Yes, it’s the unusual things that amuse me).

Playback support includes:

  • Video: AVI / MKV / TS / TP / TRP / M2TS / MPG / MP4 / MOV / M4V / VOB / ISO / IFO / DAT / WMV / ASF / RM / RMVB / FLV with resolutions up to 720p, 1080i and 1080p.
  • Video Codecs: MPEG-1 / MPEG-2 / MPEG-4 SP/ASP/AVCHD (H.264) / XviD / DivX / WMV9 (VC-1) / RealVideo 8/9/10 (up to 720P)
  • Video Subtitle: SRT / SMI / SSA / IDX-SUB / SUB
  • Audio: MP3 / MP2 / WMA / AAC / FLAC / WAV / OGG Vorbis / PCM / LPCM / MS-ADPCM / LC-AAC / HE-AAC / COOK / RA-Lossless
  • Image: HD JPEG / BMP / GIF / TIF / PNG

Even BD-ISO for those of you making full backups of your precious discs, and if you’re using HDMI it even includes LPCM Multi-Channel, DD Plus and DTS-HD Master Audio passthrough too!

A.C.Ryan PlayON! HD Media Player Review A.C. Ryan ACR-PV73100 PlayON! HD Media Player A.C.Ryan PlayON! HD Media Player Review A.C. Ryan ACR-PV73100 PlayON! HD Media Player

While we didn’t go to the lengths of testing all the more exotic codecs, we did test the usual MOV, WMV, DivX AVI and MKV h.264 – even with DTS-EX audio – and in every case it took two seconds to start playing it back flawlessly. Very nifty. Admittedly we couldn’t check the multi-channel audio, and the only option of using it is over HDMI, so if you have a more unique setup that requires multiple RCA inputs you’re out of luck.

The device itself is bigger than most media boxes out there, but that’s warranted by the fact that it has a 3.5in hard drive inside. As for the design, well, it is very smart and European with its minimalist, single button fascia. In comparison, a lot of the competition clutter up the front with “marketable features” at the expense of simplicity and usability. Here we just have the central A.C. Ryan logo, an on button and a backlight that changes from blue to red to show the machine’s ‘on’ state. The metal box certainly feels solid and its construction is very good, but we liked the brushed finish of the older DVR more. The plastic is still a little cheap for the lounge, at least if you’ve got pricier amps and other equipment in there.

A.C.Ryan PlayON! HD Media Player Review A.C. Ryan ACR-PV73100 PlayON! HD Media Player A.C.Ryan PlayON! HD Media Player Review A.C. Ryan ACR-PV73100 PlayON! HD Media Player

Underneath the unit the hard drive can be accessed via releasing two (clearly marked) screws, and despite the whole thing standing on four rubber grommets and A.C.Ryan shipping it with green/low power hard drives, the disk still evidently vibrates the box quite a bit and is its loudest part. Despite Harry’s strong objections to 40mm fans in principle, the one included at the back makes next to no noise, and if you don’t use a hard drive, you can manually unplug it.

Play On.. and on and on?

To match its epic playback support, the PlayON! HD also has more inputs and outputs than most other media players we’ve seen. We have HDMI 1.3, component, composite and optical and coaxial S/PDIF out. Both component and HDMI can output up to 1080p and there’s even 24Hz support thrown in too.

As for getting media onto the PlayON! HD, you can connect it directly to a PC via USB, or plug in an external USB flash drive or even pull media straight off a camera from SD, SDHC, MMC, MS and MSPro cards. On the back, there’s an RJ45 LAN socket too so you can either surf other networked devices or have the unit act as a NAS box itself.

The big downside is that it’s only 10/100, not Gigabit, so you’re limiting to filling Terabytes of data at just 8MB/s. Yawn.

A.C. Ryan claims this is because of the transfer protocols and internal chipset, the latter we can believe, but filling the 1.5TB version with your media seems like a good way to waste a weekend over a 100Mbit/sec network. Even USB is faster. And no eSATA either? Shame.

A.C. Ryan PlayON! HD Media Player Review Play On.. and on and on?

What is absolutely missing is a hard-reset button. If you set the output to 1080i/p then move to another output with a lower resolution, it won’t auto-detect the incompatibility so you’re left with finding another 1080 device to turn it down again. With the latest firmware it fixes the auto-detection on HDMI, but not on composite or component unfortunately. We came across this rather frustrating quirk when switching from a 1080p HDMI output to 720p component.

A.C. Ryan PlayON! HD Media Player Review Play On.. and on and on? A.C. Ryan PlayON! HD Media Player Review Play On.. and on and on?

Getting to the interface, and things are simple, but depending on your perspective, possibly even a little dull with monotonous blue and grey squares. The linear left to right arrangement drops off menu options at either end, and with the latest firmware the settings menu is finally accessible via the menu in addition to a button on the remote as well.

The options are pretty numerous – there’s the usual file browser and library – that now includes YAMJ, a Jukebox, internet radio and other picture/video feeds, and even a simple BitTorrent client too.

A.C. Ryan PlayON! HD Media Player Review Play On.. and on and on? A.C. Ryan PlayON! HD Media Player Review Play On.. and on and on?

The PlayON! HD includes support for an auto-discovery of other networked devices, but our box just couldn’t find any. In the end we had to manually add the IPs of other PCs and NAS boxes. Thankfully it only needs the single entry to remember them.

What we particularly liked, in addition to the very responsive remote, was the fact that as you browse the audio or video, it plays automatically and immediately by the side of the file list. It’s really handy if you’re reading VOBs, incrementally named recorded media, or, simply your labelling method could use a re-work.

A.C. Ryan PlayON! HD Media Player Review Play On.. and on and on? A.C. Ryan PlayON! HD Media Player Review Play On.. and on and on?

We didn’t really dive much into the feeds tab, but there is the facility to add your own. Compared to the more widely available Boxee media player software with its dozens of native feeds, the few included do show up a little short. Unlike Boxee though, it’s all extremely obvious to use and very intuitive to learn. Obviously everyone has their own needs, and the specific requirements of media players/HTPCs divide our readers more than anything, but we’re really struggling to find anything critical to add. It just works.

One thing we did inquire about was BBC iPlayer support – the one sole thing that is keeping our HTPC in its place right now – and A.C. Ryan told us they were looking at providing streaming content this year in its free software updates, with iPlayer being high on the list; however it gave no timescale just yet.

Conclusion

In a market filled with standalone media players, A.C.Ryan has a quality product that should make your shortlist. With many devices eschewing the hard drive in favour of streaming directly (WD TV Live) or using eSATA as an optional, fast and direct storage (Asus O!Play HDP-R1) or do include the hard drive but are much more flashy and expensive (Popcorn Hour C-200 HDMI), the A.C.Ryan Play!ON HD seems to have found a pretty good niche for itself. In fact, compared to these products from more popular international brands, we suspect that A.C. Ryan’s mostly unknown brand is holding it back the most.

Even adding the hard disk – where many companies make their money – doesn’t cost that much more than the drive itself: the 500GB model costs £38 more than the no-disk variant, and the 1TB costs £68 more. If you were being picky, you could claim disappointment at the fact the mini version costs under £90, and has the same basic outputs and playback support.

Other issues include the question of whether you need local storage in your media player box – as getting data onto it can still be a little slow (since there’s no recording option), plus, of course, the presence of the drive does result in some vibration that makes it noisier than straightforward streaming boxes such as the WD TV Live. That said, it would still make our shortlist for media playback, and with this product, A.C. Ryan has improved its media player offerings massively to become a serious contender for someone who wants this kind of tech in their lounge.

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