Weekend Tech Scan: PlayOn and PlayLater offer TV and films, no TV set needed

With PlayOn and PlayLater installed on your computer, you can watch and record scads of TV shows and movies, then watch them on your smartphone or tablet anywhere.  And yes, it's legal.

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Online TV services, which exist in great variety, are becoming more accessible.

With PlayOn and PlayLater installed on your computer, you can watch and record scads of TV shows and movies, then watch them on your smartphone or tablet anywhere.  And yes, it's legal.

We’ve reported ad nauseum on the “TV Everywhere” initiative, which lets you view some of your subscription-based cable programming such as HBO on computers tablets and smartphones.  More channels are coming soon, including Showtime. Cinemax recently went live with MaxGo.

There is, however, another source: a computer software program called PlayOn and its companion, PlayLater. PlayOn, which is part of MediaMall with corporate headquarters and administrative offices in New York and Seattle (software development is headquartered in Copenhagen), gives you access to full episodes of TV shows and movies available from a number of Internet sites including Hulu/Hulu Plus, Netflix, and Amazon Instant Video. That means if your CBS/NBC/ABC/Fox shows are available from any of those sites, you can watch them on your mobile device even if the device itself doesn’t formally allow them. (For example, Hulu is still banned from being used on most Android mobile devices.)  

The company is also adding a channel plug-in store that lets developers and the public create their own channels and channel lineups. How about watching Keith Olbermann’s “Countdown” or “Beavis and Butthead”? C-SPAN or Bravo? Here’s the link.

It gets better. PlayLater, announced this fall, lets you record any of those shows or movies and watch them whenever and wherever you want.

And in breaking news, PlayLater will soon let you transfer those recorded shows to your mobile device so you can watch them even with no Internet connection.

With PlayOn installed on a newer powerful computer (with a dual-core processor), an Internet service providing greater than 1.5 megabits per second download, and a PlayOn app on your Apple or Android device, you can now watch a relatively large selection of current TV programming on demand without turning on your TV set.

Want to watch Fox Network’s “Glee” or ABC’s “Revenge”? Your subscription to Hulu Plus or Amazon will get you there through PlayOn even though both services are hard to get on some Android devices.  Don’t have subscriptions to Netflix, etc.? PlayOn has a variety of free sites with a goodly amount of programming. For example, on TV.com, watch current episodes of CBS’ NCIS franchise or “The Good Wife.”

If you’re cutting costs, or into the “cutting the cord” movement (i.e., severing your cable connection), this is a reasonable alternative especially with an $8 monthly subscription to Hulu Plus, or another $8 for Netflix.

The PlayOn service currently has 35 free channels including PBS, National Geographic, Comedy Central and the free Sony-sponsored Crackle movie channel.  There are several live news channels including Bloomberg, Fox, WSJ (Wall Street Journal), Al Jazeera (English). C-SPAN and an audio version of BBC News. For sports fans, ESPN subscriber-based baseball, football, hockey and soccer lovers.

Things start to get interesting when you access PlayOn’s movie channels, which include Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Video on Demand—all three are subscription services — and the lesser known free Crackle, and then use PlayLater, which turns your computer into a digital video recorder. Recording shows with the PlayLater app is as simple as opening the application on your computer, locating the program you want, and pressing the record button.

PlayOn players are available for virtually any mobile device, and work on any WiFi or fast cell phone data connection (3G or 4G).  I tested PlayOn on both an Apple 3GS phone with AT&T, and a Motorola Droid Bionic on the Verizon 4G network; both worked well. 

Now more on the big news: According to Jeff Lawrence, president and CEO of PlayOn, PlayLater will enable people to transfer their recorded programs and movies onto any mobile device that currently supports the PlayOn app.  “We’ll be bringing out that portability within the next two months,” he said in a phone interview, adding that the transfer from your computer to your mobile device will be made either by WiFi or through a direct computer-to-device USB wire connection.

For those of you who have purchased Kindle Fire tablets, this PlayOn feature will emulate one of that tablet’s key features: the ability to download programs from Amazon’s Instant Video marketplace and watch them without an Internet connection. The difference, however, is that Kindle users can transfer their programs to their devices in a single step and at warp speed; PlayOn/PlayLater users must first transfer their programs to their in real time (e.g., a 60-minute program takes 60 minutes to transfer), and then needs to be loaded onto your device.

With this coming PlayOn feature, however, you can record from any of the film services currently available via PlayOn.  That means that the films and shows you want on Netflix, Hulu, Crackle, and Amazon can be downloaded and watched whenever you want and with no network connection. The Kindle Fire cannot do that.

I somewhat shaded the truth, but not intentionally, about not being able to watch PlayOn on a TV set. If you have a Roku set-top box, Xbox or similar device that can “talk” to the computer on which PlayOn is running (UPnP/DLNA, for you tech-heads), you can indeed watch programming carried by PlayOn on your boob tube.

Ummm ... is this all legal? According to Lawrence, it’s perfectly legal, falling under the same “public performance” exceptions to this country’s stringent copyright laws that protect time-shifting and place-shifting: the same exceptions that allow recording of program or cable content on a home recording device, and watching it whenever you like. “The major difference is that we’re not doing any rebroadcasting [of content].  Content is only flowing from the content owner over the Internet to the consumer.  It’s Hulu directly to Joe Smith; we’re only providing the time shifting and place-shifting.”

Here’s a link to the legal agreement you agree to when you install PlayOn to your computer, which explains the company’s interpretation of “public performance.” PlayOn has been in business for three years, Lawrence said, and is not involved in any legal rows over its service.

There’s also good news for people looking to install PlayOn services at a decent price. This weekend allegedly marks the expiration of a sales offer to install both PlayOn and PlayLater services for $49.95 — roughly half the cost of buying each program separately or setting up a monthly subscription. Lawrence said the offer will be extended beyond this weekend’s scheduled ending and be good to go as a winter sale.

A cautionary note for wireless phone users: using PlayOn, or any other video streaming program such as You Tube or Sling Media can be ruinous on your monthly cell phone data plan. Each phone network has a downloadable app or a dial-in number for you to check your data. If you watch video, be sure you check your balance often. Viewing video on a WiFi network, however, incurs no extra cost and the signal strength is usually much better.  PS: Make sure your kids understand this!


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