Apple really is making good on its promise to ease the restrictions that previously plagued developers such as PlayOn. The service initially had to rely on Safari power to bring its video-streaming goodness to iPhone and iPod Touch owners, but now there's an official, approved PlayOn Mobile app.
As someone who loves TV, we really wanted to like it. But PlayOn Mobile suffers from the same irksome (and in some cases inexplicable) limitations as its browser-based counterpart.
In case you're not familiar with it, PlayOn is an Internet-TV service that slings shows from your Windows PC to your game console, various media center boxes, and--now--your iPhone or iPod Touch. It's kind of like Roku, with your PC filling the role of "the box."
However, PlayOn offers a more compelling mix of channels than Roku, including Netflix, Hulu (the free, nonpremium version), Amazon VOD, CBS, Comedy Central, ESPN.com and ESPN3, PBS Kids, CNN, and MLB.tv (which requires a subscription).
That's an impressive lineup, though somewhat less so now that Hulu and Netflix have standalone apps (each with dramatically better interfaces). On the other hand, Hulu's app works solely with Hulu Plus, the $9.99 a month subscription service, whereas PlayOn serves up all of Hulu's free content.
Speaking of money, the iOS app is free, but the PlayOn service costs $39.99 for the first year and $19.99 annually after that. You can also buy a lifetime subscription for $79.99--less than you'd pay for a single year of Hulu Plus.
Now for the bad news. The console versions of PlayOn have long been plagued by a poor interface, and we're sad to say the app version is no different. For starters, the only way to access content is to drill down through extensive menus. There's no search option, which we find inexcusable.
Almost as annoying: There's no favorites option. That means that whenever we want to watch, say, "The Daily Show," I have to tap my way through four menus. And the FX series "Justified" lies seven menus deep in Hulu (which, incidentally, sorts TV shows alphabetically and only alphabetically--there's no other way to browse the library).
PlayOn lacks a scrub bar, meaning you can't skip back or ahead (though there is a 30-second rewind button). That's a fairly significant problem because the app has no autoresume function. If you're midway through a movie or TV show and you exit the app, good luck trying to return to where you left off. There's not even a countdown timer so you know how far along you were or how much you have left to watch.
The app runs on iPads, but not in HD. Curiously, the browser-based HTML5 version of PlayOn is actually better, as it shows little thumbnail icons for each channel--something the app doesn't do.
On top of all that, PlayOn requires you to leave your computer running 24-7. That's something of a hassle, and a waste of energy to boot, but it's probably the reason you're paying 20 bucks per year instead of per month.
On our iPhone 3GS, videos looked very sharp overall, though audio volume was sometimes weak. Our only real performance complaint was the often-lengthy delay before a selected video started playing.
Make no mistake: PlayOn Mobile delivers more mobile video than just about any other service out there--including a handful of live streams--for a price that's hard to beat. In that respect, it's awesome. But its interface blows, especially when compared with the likes of Hulu Plus and Netflix. Here's hoping this little-guy upstart gets the makeover it deserves.