PlayOn—the best streaming DVR—just got a lot pricier
PlayOn strands lifetime subscribers as it overhauls its desktop DVR software.
By Jared Newman, TechHiveOct 21, 2021 3:00 am PDT
Image: Jared Newman / IDG
For a certain kind of cord-cutter, PlayOn has always been an invaluable tool.
With PlayOn’s desktop software, you can record TV shows from streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+, and HBO Max, allowing you to watch them even after your subscription expires or when they move to a different service. Essentially, it’s a DVR for streaming services that don’t have their own built-in recording features.
But earlier this month, PlayOn developer MediaMall quietly made a major change: The company is discontinuing its current desktop software and replacing it with a subscription-based service called PlayOn Home. While PlayOn Desktop still works as of this writing, its recording capabilities will start to break over time, and the program won’t work at all in Windows 11.
While the change might be necessary for MediaMall’s business, it strands users who paid for lifetime PlayOn licenses, and it further complicates the question of how to record shows to watch on your own terms.
PlayOn DVR explained
Until earlier this month, PlayOn offered two versions of its DVR service:
PlayOn Desktop is a Windows application that loads videos in a hidden web browser, silently recording them to your computer’s hard drive. It was available with a one-time purchase—officially $70, but often discounted—it and allowed for unlimited recordings.
PlayOn Cloud is an online version of the service that doesn’t require a Windows PC. Users queue up recordings from their phone or computer, and PlayOn records them through its own servers before making them available to download. Each recording costs one “credit” for up to 720p resolution—or three credits for 1080p—at a price of around $0.15 per credit.
In both cases, you end up with .MP4 video files that you can treat however you like. This comes in handy in several scenarios:
Continued access to a movie or show after it leaves a streaming service.
Stocking up on movies or shows, then watching them after your subscription lapses.
Saving videos for offline viewing without any time limits.
Downloading videos in advance, to avoid buffering.
Keep in mind that live TV streaming services such as YouTube TV and Hulu + Live TV have their own DVR services built in. And because other services such as Netflix are are on-demand by nature, you might not need DVR features to go with them.
Still, PlayOn does appeal to power users who want more control over their TV experience, and PlayOn Desktop was especially useful because it didn’t incur any ongoing costs beyond its initial price.
The death of PlayOn Desktop
While PlayOn Cloud isn’t going away, PlayOn Desktop received its final software update on October 7 and is no longer available to purchase. In its place is a new Windows program called PlayOn Home, which requires a $5 per month or $40 per year subscription but is functionally similar to the old Desktop software.
The reason for the change is partly technical. Tracy Burman, MediaMall’s COO, said via email that Windows 11 introduces a major change in how it integrates Microsoft’s Edge browser. That in turn forced the company to revamp its entire capturing process.
But the company is also using the revamp to reckon with an unsustainable business model. PlayOn’s recording capabilities can break whenever a streaming service makes changes to their websites, so the software requires constant maintenance just to remain functional. By last year, MediaMall stopped adding new features to its desktop version and was steering users toward PlayOn Cloud; the issues with Windows 11 appear to have been the final straw in keeping the desktop software operational.
Burman alluded to this in an email, saying that “it was not possible to develop and maintain this new and improved version of PlayOn without some continued investment from our customers.”
The upshot is that MediaMall has an incentive to invest in its desktop software again. It just added new content sources—including Discovery+ and Acorn—and its iOS and Android apps will soon support casting video from Windows PCs to streaming players. (Just don’t expect 1080p support on the desktop either way; Burman says that hardly any home PCs have the requisite processing power given how PlayOn’s recording system works.)
None of this comes as much consolation to PlayOn customers who bought “lifetime” licenses. While they can now redeem three-month trials for PlayOn Home—or more, depending on when they bought the software—the old PlayOn desktop software will eventually become worthless as its recording capabilities degrade. The news has not gone over well on PlayOn’s Reddit page, where an announcement post now has hundreds of mostly angry comments.
Without knowing the intricacies of PlayOn’s business, I think MediaMall could have done more to placate those users. It could offer them long-term discounts on PlayOn Home, for instance, or a longer support runway for PlayOn Desktop.
But the company might also recognize that the alternatives are limited. Video download programs such as AnyStream and StreamFab are considerably pricier, with lifetime service at 260 Euros and $240 respectively. They also work in a fundamentally different way, downloading videos directly from their source websites instead of by recording live video streams. I wonder whether those services, which are less than two years old, would withstand media company scrutiny the way PlayOn has over its 13 years of existence.
In lieu of leaving PlayOn, users who want to avoid an ongoing subscription will simply have to make the best of a bad situation. That means recording what they can before PlayOn Desktop breaks, scooping up cheap PlayOn Cloud recording credits when they go on sale (which, based on the promotional emails I get, is pretty often), and dipping into PlayOn Home for a month or two when there’s more to record than usual.
And we should all be a little more wary of “lifetime” subscriptions from companies whose costs are ongoing; sooner or later, the bill always comes due.