Cancel Your Cable, Watch TV on an Xbox

Forget all the yammering about the forced digital upgrade on June 12: After years of gripping a wretched remote and looking at lousy menus, I'm Comcastrating my cable service. Or, at least, I'm seriously considering doing so. After test-driving one $40 app for a couple of weeks, I'm ready to chuck that crummy cable box into the trash and forget about the digital-upgrade scheme. This is the story of PlayOn, the software that could ruin everything for cable providers--if the bugs are ever ironed out.

Imagine a software package that can stream just about any show to your Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, or, soon, Wii. Netflix? No problem. Major-network TV shows? Yep. Obscure stuff from Adult Swim? You name it, you can watch it. All you need is a PC and an Internet connection in the same house.

A little explanation: For years I had a pretty sweet setup. I crafted a media center PC, loaded with digital tuners, that serves as the hub in my house. It records all my shows, and it spits out whatever I want to watch over my home network to my Xboxes. Simple, clean, effective.

But over the past few months, I've found myself watching more of my shows online--be it on Hulu.com or countless other online sites (the legit ones, of course). I've already been weaning myself off of conventional TV viewing. But how do I clear the last hurdle--getting shows from that wacky Internet to a TV in my house--without piling on additional costs or ludicrous cable service charges?

That's when I decided to give PlayOn a try. This software was in beta until late 2008, but it's now live--and with enough kinks worked out, it's at least worth the free 14-day trial download. First, the hardware check. Do you have:

  • Windows XP or Vista?
  • A 3.2GHz or better Pentium 4, a 2.0GHz or better Pentium M, or any multicore x86 processor?
  • 512MB RAM?
  • 4GB to 5GB of space on the same hard drive where Windows is installed?

Hey, I think that describes a spare laptop I bought two years ago!

Streaming video with PlayOn
After installing the software, you can enter your user information for sites such as Amazon Video On Demand, Hulu, YouTube, and Netflix (yes, yes, everyone knows that Xbox 360 users can view their Instant Access queue without PlayOn's software). The game consoles already in your home are a bunch of client devices, ready to accept streaming video--and not just from the sources I mentioned above. ESPN clips are available, too, as are a number of classic shows. And on top of that, a growing community is creating video-streaming add-ons for the software. Already on the site, people are creating all sorts of PlayOn plug-ins so that you can watch content from Adult Swim, Food Network, and Revision 3, to name a few. (And if anyone over on the forums is taking requests: How about plug-ins for CurrentTV, Comedy Central, and SouthParkStudios.com?)

How's the video quality? Well, your mileage will vary depending on your Internet connection, but don't expect to hit glorious 1080p on this. The video looks good enough, though, and considering the price, I can deal. Some shows on Hulu had better video quality than others, but my eyes didn't hemorrhage from watching any of it. I would love nothing more than to see this thing shoot out pristine footage--we just aren't there quite yet.

The interface itself is nothing fancy; in fact, you're just browsing through folders in each console's native user interface. (So if you ever complained about how completely awful a cable box is to use, you'll probably eat those words.) PlayOn is a cool technology, but if you don't know what you want to see, you might wind up clicking through folders for a minute or two.

And the software is far from bulletproof. The bugs are the only thing that has me hesitating at the moment. Media Mall Technologies (the folks behind the software) perpetually pushes out new software updates, but it happens so much that PlayOn feels like an ongoing beta that users are paying to test. The other day, the feed to Hulu.com wasn't working; a day later, it was. Just following the software release notes can be an adventure. Enjoy!

As for the software's performance, well, let's just say that it might not be the smoothest experience. I noticed a huge spike in RAM usage with the PlayOn Server active over a two-day period. If you want to give it a shot, make certain in the settings that the server doesn't automatically start with Windows. When you're done watching, click the button in the software to turn off PlayOn--and even then, consider rebooting your computer.

Is PlayOn the most elegant solution? No. Is it perfect? Not unless your definition of "perfect" includes you wondering if your Internet connection is down, if the firewall is set too high, or if your computer has a virus dragging down its performance. But for geeks like me who are really getting tired of being told how we should watch TV, it's a good option.

And it gets me one step closer to actually leaving the house.

Need even more nerdity? Follow Casual Friday columnist and PC World Senior Writer Darren Gladstone on Twitter (gizmogladstone) for game-swag giveaways, odd links, and time-wasting tips.

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