The era of the media PC is surely shuffling away, as more and more capable media player devices come to market. And in the past year especially they seem to have become suitably refined, reading media from an assortment of sources and integrating seamlessly with home networks.
That’s very much the case with the Asus O! Play Air HDP-R3, a unit that evolves the O! Play line primarily by putting a wireless network receiver inside the box. That immediately gives it an edge over the Western Digital WDTV Live, which requires a compatible USB adapter to be plugged into the side.
The offshoot of this is that it’s a slightly bigger box than Western Digital’s product, and it does cost a little more too. Yet it has an impressive specification. The unit supports a broad spectrum of file formats, can output content in high definition, has ports for USB 2.0, eSATA, RJ-45, memory cards, composite and optical output, and HDMI 1.3 support (although you’ll have to pay for a cable yourself; you only get composite in the box, sadly).
We had the unit set up and going in a matter of minutes, which is unsurprising given the minimal amount of cabling required. We hooked it up by HDMI to a 52-inch 1080p display, and soon arrived at the menu system.
This is very visual and a breeze to use, and it took us little time to pick up our wireless network. The Asus device did occasionally lose the network – not a problem we’ve had with the WDTV Live – but it didn’t have a problem streaming 720p material into onto our screen with minimal delay (1080p content, inevitably, got stuttery in more action-heavy sequences). Response times to the remote were occasionally a little sluggish, although the remote is surprisingly good in most respects.
The O! Play is capable of dealing with a wide range of media, and can also stream Internet television and radio stations (although you won’t find YouTube supported). And its file support is impressive, with .iso files the only obvious omission to our eyes.
However, you do pay a premium for it, and it’s one that the strength of the competition makes difficult to justify. You can, for instance, pick up Western Digital’s device, even with a USB network adapter, for a good £15-20 less, and there’s just not enough difference in the two devices to warrant the premium.
As it stands, Asus has a fine product here, but it’s going to need a little more than that to wrestle the advantage from its competitors.