How To

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Ryan Michael Downey

The PlayCast App is available in the Channel Store
The PlayCast App is available in the Channel Store

On November 18, Roku and PlayOn announced a new capability for Roku called PlayCast that allows those with a PlayOn server on a Windows computer to play web based videos on their TV’s. The Streaming Advisor recently took a look at the new app.

How Can I access PlayCast on My Roku?
First add the PlayCast channel to your Roku. It is available under the Internet TV heading in the channel store. In order to use PlayCast you must have the PlayOn server installed on a Windows PC. Once installed, the PlayOn server (which also has a private app for the Roku) provides access to numerous TV channels and third party apps.  Next you must add the PlayOn extension to your browser of choice. Detailed instructions as to how to integrate the PlayOn extension in to four major browsers; Microsoft Explorer, Firefox, Opera and Google Chrome are provided in PlayOn’s user guide. In our test the only browser that was able to easily integrate the extension was Google Chrome. This should be no surprise considering the investment the company has already made in second screen technology. While the PlayOn server is free, the actual PlayOn service is not. There are numerous pricing options including a special $29.00 onetime fee offered to Roku users. PlayOn’s pricing guide can be found here.

How It Works

The new feature builds off of PlayOn’s  PlayMark service, which allows users to save videos from anywhere on the web and watch them via the PlayOn. First navigate to the website where the video you wish to view is. Queue the video by or clicking the PlayOn Icon in the tool bar. Initially you will see a mini screen where the video will be displayed without sound. Click the green next button to continue. This brings you to a screen where the video is saved in an automatically created PlayMark folder for later viewing.

How I Evaluated The Service
For my test I took a look at three popular video sites that are not currently offered as Roku Channels. Those three sites were Yahoo more specifically “Yahoo Screen” CBS.com and YouTube. I accessed the sites from In the Chrome browser, which as mentioned earlier was the only browser to smoothly integrate the PlayOn extension on the first try.

Performance
The videos from all three sites loaded relatively quickly considering that they have to be transcoded and sent from the computer to the Roku. Once the videos loaded there was no buffering or audio problems.

The video played in standard definition sticking with PlayOn’s normal playback quality. As I viewed each video it became part of a library automatically organized by folders indicating the source of the material, CBS shows were put in a CBS folder, Yahoo Videos in a Yahoo folder etc. Afterwards I was able to access the videos is the PlayMark plugin channel.

PlayOn saves videos for later viewing on your computer.
This screenshot is the last step before videos will play on the Roku. Click image for a larger view.

When using Yahoo Screen the site automatically played other videos in the order that they appeared in a given category without having to be launched individually. YouTube videos loaded and played very well. Unlike Yahoo screen videos do not automatically load so each video must be loaded individually.  On CBS.com I chose to watch a full episode of Elementary. The video loaded cleanly and displayed through the CBS video player that can be accessed from its website. When viewed as it was playing there were no problems but there is no way to skip ahead to another point in a show. This is because the content has to download in real time. For those with a slow internet connection or a poorly performing computer this might cause some video playback issues. The video feed closed at the conclusion of the show.

Only Launches From A PC
An important note about PlayCast. The only piece of hardware capable of launching the service is a Windows based PC. Users can not send videos to their TVs from a smart phone, tablet or any Apple computer to the television. PlayCast is likely Roku’s first step in its push to offer a Roku based option to compete with Apple TV’s AirPlay and the Chrome Cast ‘s casting capabilities.

Play cast requires a subscription to the PlayOn service.
The PlayCast app may be the first step in a new direction.

Ryan Michael Downey

Roku is taking a step towards full mirroring from computers and other devices on its products via its new integration with PlayOn and its new PlayCast app.  The extension allows users to send videos that can be viewed on a windows computer to a Roku in order to view them on their TVs. In order to use the application a PlayOn media server must be installed and running on a windows based computer and the PlayCast app and the PlayOn app must be installed on the Roku. Once PlayOn is fully installed a PlayOn icon can be added to the users preferred browser. Feature Not Free PlayOn is not a free service but it has many pricing options from a onetime fee to monthly charge.  As a special bonus to Roku users, owners of the set top device can sign up for PlayOn’s lifelong membership for only $29.00 Upon loading the PlayCast app to the Roku and opening it users are provided with a special code that can be redeemed at PlayOn’s site. A full review of the new service’s capabilities will be coming soon. More To Come This development is likely far from the last we will hear concerning Roku and mirroring as there has been persistent reporting concerning Roku and DIAL (Discovery and Launch) the protocol that enables the Google Chromecast as well as Miracast a separate second screen protocol developed to provide a service counter to Apple’s Air Play, primarily working with Android devices and laptop computers. There has even been reporting that indicates development of an extension to allow full mirroring from Mozilla Firefox.  Both Miracast and DIAL are expected to be widely adopted as more people understand and embrace the wireless transfer of video and audio content. Roku stands to be at the forefront of these developments going forward and may well be making more related announcements going forward.

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Ryan M Downey

If you are looking into streaming content from the Internet to your TV as a way to move on from high cable bills but not interested in purchasing one of the well known steaming boxes like a Roku or Apple TV there is an incredibly inexpensive solution.  By attaching a laptop or desktop computer to an HDTV via an HDMI connection the device can be transformed into a powerhouse streamer. An HDMI cord can be purchased at Amazon.com for less than $5.00. HDMI cords can also be purchased via many other online stores or at a local retail or electronics stores but in some cases big box stores sell them at substantially higher prices.

The great thing about this set up is that HDMI transfers both video and audio from the computer directly to the TV. Once the computer is connected to the television select the HDMI setting that corresponds to the port you have chosen and you will see the computers display rendered brilliantly on your television.

Using a traditional computer for streaming has advantages and challenges.

Advantages

Hardware compatibility.
Using a computer as a streaming device is a natural from a hardware sense.  The streaming boxes are really just computers with almost everything stripped out of them besides a few video connectors and a network card. A standard computer even a model from 5-6 years ago for that matter has more actual computing power then a dedicated streaming box. Modern laptops and desktops have far more overall functionality than any streaming device on the market.

Easily surf the Internet
Top of the line browsers are already included. If you want to enjoy the entire Internet on your TV, computers already have suitable and customizable browsers that will outperform any of the clunky mobile based browsers found in some of the Google TV offerings.

More power
A standard computer has far more processing power than the typical streaming device so video and music should flow crisply. The duel core processors that star in the streaming box market have been long since surpassed by the CPUs of the PC.

All formats included
Whether utilizing a desktop or laptop neither system will have a problem utilizing video formats such as Flash or Silverlight aside from being prompted to download the needed addition. This is not the case when it comes to streaming boxes. For instance Apple mobile products are famous for their lack of flash integration.

Challenges

Navigating the System
In order to control the computer without hovering over a keyboard a wireless keyboard and mouse may be needed. There are many options including full sized and palm sized substitutes. Another option would be utilizing mobile keyboard apps that allow a smart phone or tablet to connect to a computer and essentially become wireless mouse and keyboard combos. My favorite of these apps is called Air Keyboard. It is available for both Android and IOS. There are also remote controls available to control a computer TV combo.

Space Issues
The great thing about set top boxes is that they are so small, no bigger than a coaster. In some cases they can be mounted behind your TV to give the illusion that the added functionality is native. This is not the case with an actual full computer. You will either need to have a shelf to store a small computer tower or a safe out of the way place to set your laptop when being used in that fashion.

Choosing the best Front End Operating System
How will you access content? The need for customization may vary from user to user depending on what it is that you would like to stream with your computer and how much you would like to download. There are options from front end programs such as Plex and XBMC as well as options utilizing the standard desktop.

Front End Options

Windows 8
Windows 8 users may choose to utilize its mobile tile format and utilize its App Store to access popular streaming options like Netflix, Hulu Plus and Crackle. Once installed a simple click will open the chosen app. This is a very simple option for those in a position to utilize it. It may even provide you with all of the content you would like.

XBMC
A great way to utilize a computer for streaming is XBMC. XBMC is a media center program that was originally developed as the Xbox Media Center in order to play content stored on a computer’s hard drive. Ironically the program is no longer available for Xbox but it is available for multiple other formats including Windows and Mac OS. The program is still used to play local files but it has expanded in scope to include hundreds of media apps including Amazon Instant Video, Free Hulu and Hulu Plus along with countless other news and entertainment apps. XBMC can also be utilized to access Playon which is the easiest way to enjoy playon content via a computer. There is not another front end platform with more bells and whistles or dedicated fans and developers. For more on XBMC check out www.xbmc.org and www.xbmchub.com.

Plex
Plex is very easy to use media center front end. Like XBMC it can be installed on both a windows or Apple computer. The program has numerous extensions/apps available from its channel directory and is as stable as they come. It is a clean, simple server that can be utilized on a computer and synced with a tablet. This will allow you to access your content on the go as well as at home.

Windows Media Center
Windows Media Center is a program developed by Microsoft that was intended to be utilized for setting up a Media Center PC. It is included with a majority of older Windows operating systems and has a pretty GUI. Its greatest strength is its ability to organize local content. Stored music and video files can be nicely categorized and cover art can be downloaded for all of the digital files. It’s disadvantage is that it is not a true hub for streaming programs. While there is a native Netflix app for windows media center, because Netflix is everywhere, there is no native Hulu app nor are there dedicated apps for other popular streaming options. There is no app store or app library in order to add content quickly. There are workarounds that integrate Hulu integration but they are not truly part of the system. Windows 8 did not include the program but it can be added by users who interested.

Other ways to access online Media

Hulu Desktop
Hulu Desktop is a helpful application that is available for download for free. Once installed it will create an icon that launches directly into a version of Hulu designed with remote users in mind. This saves the trouble of bookmarking the website or typing in a URL. It has a slick easy to use interface and may be a an easy answer for many users.

Viewing content via Internet Browsers.
With or without a XBMC or Plex computers can utilize browsers in order to view content. A great browser to utilize in such a setup is Google Chrome. This is because the company has an online app store that features endless apps that can be installed in its browser designed for use on a PC. You can spend hours trying out new options and customizing the experience. The apps are easy to find and install and can be accessed by opening a new tab.

Official Network Sites
You can also access the official websites for your favorite networks. In order to optimize this experience I would suggest you create a folder for streaming bookmarks. This will make it quick and easy to find your content.There are many networks including cable and broadcast who maintain websites that provide the option to stream their latest shows via the internet. Despite having the rights to rebroadcast thousands of television shows Hulu the popular viewing option for internet television viewers does not have the digital rights to certain content most notably CBS. Creating folders with links to all of your favorite network sites can help fans keep up with many of their favorite shows including the popular Duck Dynasty. USA Network the home of many popular cable programs provides the latest episodes of many of their current hits online via their website. Many local news stations also simulcast their nightly broadcasts via their websites.

For Computers without HDMI Ports

If your computer does not have an HDMI port another option would be to connect your computer to an HDTV via a VGA port. There are cords that have both VGA connectors and audio connectors that make this simple. There are also adapters that allow an USB connection in the same fashion. Finally there is always the option to connect external computer speakers. They are inexpensive and simple to plug in and enjoy. While this is not as quick and easy an option it can be perfectly acceptable if a computer will be permanently used in this fashion.

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