That little computer in your pocket can be a bastion of digital entertainment, and video is a big part of that.
Android’s video chops have been decidedly lacking until recently. The addition of Adobe Flash has helped to bridge the gap to some degree, but there are performance and battery life tradeoffs involved.
Now that we have official apps from both PlayOn and Plex, the time has come to take stock of your streaming video options on Android. One of these methods might be just want you need for a certain use.
We appreciate that Android has Adobe Flash enabled. It comes in very handy on sites that are developed using the plug-in, and video can be passable. Sites that embed YouTube clips usually work just fine. Since the Flash video players tend to slow down scrolling a bit, we like to leave Flash set to on-demand mode.
For our testing, we’ll be using TED Talks, Comedy Central, and a few others. All tests are over Wi-Fi, unless otherwise noted, and we’re using a Nexus S. Once the Flash player loads, you can double-tap to fit the video to screen. This works sometimes, and other times not so much. If you long-press on the video, you can press the popup at the top to go to full screen. This is the best way to watch Flash Video on Android. In this mode, you can easily tap and drag the seek bar or volume controls.
When watching a TED video like this, we found the controls reasonably accessible, but this is not so on many players. Video playback was mostly smooth, but there were occasional frame drops. We did notice more graininess on the phone than we see on a computer. That said, the video was definitely watchable.
We had a look at Trailer Addicts Flash video next. Here, the video is of higher quality, and performance was impacted. Smoothness was variable, sometimes it was fine, but a few seconds later some serious frames would drop. It was passable, but not great. The real benefit of Flash is that you can just pop open your browser at any time and stream Flash video. Plex and PlayOn need some setup. Can they compete?
Plex is an all-in-one solution that uses a media server on your computer to route Flash video to your device. It works on Android devices running 1.6 or later. The set up process was a little arduous. The server requires the installation of some Visual Studio redistributables on Windows, and it pops up a lot of UAC warnings, Once we got up and running, we were able to add plug-ins and local content easily. Although, we did have to restart the app to get these to show up though.
When we started our video, the buffering time was a bit longer than the Flash video in the browser. Obviously, this is because the PC is acting as an intermediary. The delay is a bit annoying, but not overly so. When playback starts, the difference is immediately clear. Plex produces very clear video. The frame rate is also very good with virtually no dropped frames.
Since this is a full experience built around touch screens, the player controls are much improved. The play/pause button is large and easy to hit. Likewise, the seek bar is easy to drag around. However, you need to re-buffer each time, and it does take a few seconds longer than we’d like. Volume control is accomplished with the device’s built-in hardware toggle. We gave 3G streaming a shot too. It was passable, but not much better than browser-based Flash video. But the controls were obviously still great. Local content looked good, but we did see some audio sync issues. Luckily, you can tweak the AV Sync in the Advanced Settings.
We checked out Trailer Addicts content as well. It was as smooth as the TED videos we watched. The controls are still great, and buffering was not as bad as before. Plex has a fair number of plug-ins you can use. You have options like Apple Trailers, Revision3, and Vimeo right now. Many Plex plug-ins like Netflix, The Daily Show, and Hulu, aren’t compatible with mobile devices yet. You can force the plug-in to download, but it won’t work right now. Users just get URL errors when trying to stream from these plug-ins. Hopefully they will be functional at a later date. Plex is available for $4.99 in the Android Market.
A more expansive option is the new PlayOn service. The app itself is free, but you will need a yearly subscription to PlayOn to use it after the 14-day trial period. You will have to install a desktop server for this app as well, but the set up was s breeze compared to Plex. There are a smaller number of ‘channels’ in PlayOn, but the assortment is probably more desirable. You can access services like Netflix, Hulu, and MLB.
You will have to go through the media server software and add in your login information for services that require it. Make sure you hit Ok when you’re done, or the channel won’t load on the device. The server pops right up in the app, no tweaking needed. Naturally, we headed right for Netflix to try it out. We were hoping for some good media controls, but they’re actually rather poor. Unlike Plex, PlayOn is actually showing you Flash video on its own special page. It is just using the PC server to scrape the video from the web. It does obfuscate it by loading the player in full-screen mode, but the controls are still hard to use.
Video quality was actually fairly good for being Flash. It seems to be passing some high bitrate stuff over Wi-Fi. On 3G, well, not so much. On some Netflix videos, we are getting audio lag. Most of them were fine, though. TV shows with multiple episodes are also not displayed correctly. You only see the first episode. Seeking through any video is problematic as well. It doesn’t work at all for us. If even this one problem were fixed, we’d be much more enthusiastic about PlayOn. Hulu works about as well as Netflix, but again we cannot skip through the video at all.
We next checked out the Comedy Central feed, and the experience was better. Video quality was still good, and the we didn’t see any audio sync issues at all. We still can’t skip ahead in the video though, which is irritating. PlayOn is asking for $40 for the first year’s subscription, and $20 per year after that. We like the selection of content, and most of it plays well, but the issues with properly displaying Netflix content and the inability to skip around in videos are troubling. $40 feels a little too rich until such time as they fix these issues. Still, if you really want Netflix or Hulu on your Android phone, PlayOn does work.
So what can we take from this? Plex has the best playback control, and lets you stream local content as well as internet video. PlayOn has a good selection of content (much better than Plex), but the poor playback controls and Flash requirement are a drawback. We also don’t like the yearly subscription price. At least Plex is a one-time $5 fee despite the lacking content right now. Good old Adobe Flash works on many sites to varying degrees. Often, it will get the job done no problem, but one of these new streaming apps could be of use occasionally. Neither PlayOn or Plex will solve your streaming woes completely, but they do help as long as you’re willing to pony up some cash.
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