PlayLater Pulls Streaming Video Off the Web So You Can Watch It Later

Streaming video is great -- except when it starts pausing and sputtering because you're stuck with a lousy Internet connection. Then you end up wishing you just had that episode of Friday Night Lights on your hard drive. With PlayLater, a subscription service that's currently in beta, you can.

PlayLater Pulls Streaming Video Off the Web So You Can Watch It Later
You start by downloading the PlayLater desktop software (compatible with Windows XP, Vista and 7 systems). It gives you a selection of 30 different sources of both video and audio, including Hulu, Netflix, CBS, Syfy, ESPN, PBS, Pandora and YouTube. If you dig into each of the services, you'll see something like the channel guide on your DVR. The guide for Spike, for instance, shows that network's programming crown jewels, like Half Pint Brawlers and MANswers.

PlayLater Pulls Streaming Video Off the Web So You Can Watch It Later
PlayLater's channel guide interface.

You choose the episode of MANswers on bullet-stopping breast implants (of course!), and PlayLater will start pulling the file off the web and storing it on your hard drive. You can play the file later in Windows Media Player. (The files were in a proprietary format and I wasn't able to move the file to another system and play it, presumably a way to discourage copyright infringement).

PlayLater Pulls Streaming Video Off the Web So You Can Watch It Later
Choose a network and you can dig down to see specific episodes of available shows.

In my testing, the quality of PlayLater videos was equivalent to simply streaming the videos live. Recording episodes sometimes took longer than I expected. For instance, an 80-second news report took 10 minutes to record. But when I played the video, I realized that PlayLater suffered from mission creep: it had recorded not just that clip, but two or three other clips from the same network.

PlayLater Pulls Streaming Video Off the Web So You Can Watch It Later
The My Recordings view shows everything you've already recorded or are in the process of recording.

At other times, recording was about the same as real time. I was able to record a 20-minute show in about 22 minutes.

Such a deal?

A subscription to PlayLater costs $5 per month or $50 for a year (though it's now available for a free 30-day trial). Is that a good deal? Let's look at the alternatives.

You could get software like Debut Video Capture, that has both a free and paid version and records whatever video plays through your video card. That would likely be cheaper, but a lot more hassle since you'd have to find and then play each of the videos you wanted to record manually. With PlayLater, you can queue up a few videos to record, then let it do its thing in the background.

You could also likely find most of the videos available on PlayLater through BitTorrent. But you'd have to worry about getting malware files masquerading as video. And you'd have to accept the fact that you were likely violating copyright laws.

But what about PlayLater? Doesn't it violate copyright laws? Here's what a spokesperson wrote to me: "Just like the broadcast DVR and the VCR before it, PlayLater is designed for personal use and convenience. The Supreme Court declared the VCR to be legal, because it is considered "Fair Use" for consumers to make their own copies of content for the purposes of time-shifting. The same Fair-Use doctrine also applies to the DVR, as well as to PlayLater." I'm no lawyer, but that seems like a reasonable argument to me (though just having a reasonable argument seldom prevents anyone from being sued).

PlayLater is definitely still a beta. In addition to the glitch of recording more video than I requested, I also experienced problems playing files on a Windows 7 machine. But the service is a great idea with a lot of potential for anyone who's frequently out of reach of a fast Internet connection.

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