- Review Price: £150.00
With digital multimedia content becoming more and more prolific, the task of managing the storage and playing of that content increases greatly. Devices like the Sony Giga Juke multi-room wireless audio system do a decent job for music, but video is trickier. What’s wanted, ideally, is a gizmo of some kind that enables you to store, record, and play your music, video and digital picture library on any television or monitor, as well as the option to stream media files from any networked location.
One such device is – deep breath – A.C.Ryan’s Playon! ACR-PV72100 HDMI Network Digital Video Recorder, which at first glance looks to be another multimedia enclosure, like the Traxdata MultiMedia Drive, except without its own internal storage. However, its many other features and NAS capabilities, together with a theoretically upgradeable custom Linux OS, make it somewhat more sophisticated and similar to the Neuros OSD Video Station and Media Centre.
But before we get into the nitty-gritty, let’s take a look at the Playon! DVR’s design. It has a solid, brushed metal case with a shiny piano-black plastic fascia that is flawlessly integrated with the rest of the unit. Even the A.C.Ryan logo is rather fancy, with its holographic-type finish that changes colour depending on the angle you view it at.
At 203 x 164 x 53mm, it’s slightly bigger than some other media drives, and the mostly metal construction gives the unit a reassuring weight of 1.5kg without a hard-drive installed. The matte finish on the top, bottom and sides is also very difficult to scratch, and finger-prints are barely noticeable.
On the front is a slightly concave power button that glows blue when the device is turned on (red in standby). There are also LED indicators for when the device is recording or playing music. Below these are six square buttons with rounded corners that sit almost flush to the fascia. They look plain and nondescript until you turn the device on, when they gain blue-backlit icons. All this might lead you to believe they’re touch-sensitive, but these are physical buttons that can be used for basic operation of the device without the remote.
Also worth mentioning, is an indent on the bottom of the unit that, according to A.C.Ryan, is for an optional stand that it ”might” bring out in the future. Personally, I wouldn’t say it’s necessary as the Playon! DVR is perfectly solid when standing up, but it might be a bonus for those with easily scratched surfaces, as there are no pads on the unit’s bottom.
Overall, in terms of looks and design, the Playon! DVR is pretty much in a league of its own for a product for around £150. Thankfully, its rear-mounted connections are no less impressive. At the top is a mini-USB port for hooking it up to your PC. Below this are proper, separated component inputs (not like the cheap and nasty component-from-a-single-socket cables many rival products sport), and two sets of composite connections (in and out). Then there’s HDMI for the highest possible quality link between the unit and your PC monitor or television. For audio, there are no less than two high quality digital outputs, namely optical and coaxial.
What sets the Playon! DVR apart from others of that ilk is its added flexibility and upgradeability, provided by the network jack and two USB 2.0 ports. Admittedly, one of the latter is taken up by an included gadget: a 54Mbps wireless adapter, but the other could quite easily be used for adding a memory card reader or external hard drive. It’s a rare feature to get wireless at all for this kind of money, and the other advantage to having an external wireless adapter is that you can use it with other devices, or not use it all, thereby freeing up the USB port.
Speaking of the two USB ports, it’s also worth noting that the wireless dongle is rather chunky and, if plugged in directly, leaves little room to add another USB device or cable in the other port. It’s therefore a little disappointing that a third USB port or even an extension cable is not included to solve this.
So mostly great news up to here, and it isn’t finished yet. Apart from the two usual composite cables, there is the rarity of a component cable. In addition, you get a separately boxed, full retail version of A.C.Ryan’s premium HiFX Evolution one-metre HDMI cable, with triple shielded, braided cabling and a 24K gold-plated connector, plus a lifetime warranty. The cheapest I was able to find this cable online was £28, so kudos to A.C.Ryan for the nice addition.
To round things off, we’ve got a decent remote, rather than a reject from the land of cheap. It might not be an all-in-one like the Neuros’ model, but it’s so much easier on the eyes and fingers. The only niggle is that the layout is not the most logical – the volume and playback controls, for instance, aren’t exactly where you’d expect them to be – so you might have some trouble using it in the dark.
When it comes to using the unit, the first order of business will probably be to install a SATA hard drive. Though A.C.Ryan will allow retailers to pre-install drives if they wish, the standard unit will not come with one, meaning you either have to install one yourself or just leave the case empty and use an external disk. Even if you opt for the latter option, you’ll probably still want to open the case to disconnect the audible little fan (the unit is actually noisier than my SFF PC, though at a distance of a metre or two it’s unlikely to be bothersome). Personally, I think getting to install your own drive is an advantage, since it lets you choose the make, type and size of HDD you want to install – and it’s hardly a surprising move, considering A.C.Ryan has always catered to the enthusiast and modding community.
The Playon! DVR is not exactly the simplest case to open up. It’s not difficult, just fiddly, as there are a total of eight screws to remove before taking it apart. There’s quite a bit of room on the inside, to help with cooling and to accommodate the fan and the ports at the back. Four screws to mount the HDD are provided, but it’s a pity there is no vibration dampening whatsoever. However, this is no different from what you’re likely to find in most other media drive cases.
We slotted in an 80GB SATA drive (though up to 1TB is supported), and the unit immediately asked to format it. This process is simple, though there’s a slight annoyance in that some of the instructions disappeared off the edge of the screen. First you have to set aside a section of the drive as ‘time shift buffer’ (up to 16GB for 4hours’ worth), then you create separate partitions for recording and multimedia storage, and finally choose how much of the drive you want to format in FAT32 and NTFS. Yes, though it can’t write to it, thankfully the Playon! DVR has no trouble reading NTFS, a function omitted by many competitors.
It’s worth noting that files recorded digitally from a source through composite are stored on a UDF partition that’s not readable by PCs, so if you want access to these on a computer you’ll have to move them onto the FAT32 partition using the Playon! DVR. Speaking of recording, unfortunately our sample seemed to have a faulty composite video input, meaning our Xbox 360 footage appeared only in purple and green. Aside from the colour issue, quality is pretty much what you would expect using the lowest quality analogue connection around, but we won’t fault A.C.Ryan too much for this since – as far as I know – there are no other multimedia boxes that offer more – at least, not yet.
Upon powering up the device for the first time, it will activate at full spin before shutting down into standby mode, which is indicated by the status light turning from blue to red. Turning it back on, the A.C.Ryan multimedia box takes about 30 seconds to become fully operational. Once you get onto the ‘home’ menu, unsurprisingly accessed by pressing the ‘home’ button on the remote, you’re greeted with a clean and rather attractive menu consisting of icons representing Video In (switches to the source being fed in through composite), Playback, Browser, Setup and Playlist. The icons are large enough to view from a considerable distance, and are actually representative of what they stand for.
All the options are neatly and sensibly arranged, with no evidence of the spelling or category mistakes that plague some competing devices. Much like on the Neuros, you can see the content you’re watching/recording through the semi-transparent blue background, which is a visually pleasant effect as well as being practical. There is also a basic screensaver.
Output can be switched between 576P, 720P or 1080i resolutions, and 4:3 or 16:9 aspect ratios – so if you’re using the Playon! DVR with a 16:10 monitor you’ll probably want to run it in 1:1 pixel mapping mode. Of course, output quality is near flawless over HDMI. And that’s more important than usual, since here we actually have a multimedia box that supports high definition media. Yes, finally a company has addressed my main gripe with these devices, and though support is limited to Xvid/DivX, it’s still a great feature to have.
The A.C.Ryan unit also scaled video very well, though it was no surprise that noise and artefacts were visible in an SD trailer. The 720p trailer for ”King Kong”, on the other hand, looked impeccable, as was a 1080P trailer for ”Final Fantasy XIII”. Video format support includes VOB and IFO (DVD), MPEG-2, AVI (MPEG-4-XviD), DAT (VCD), and MPEG-2 TS, at anything up to 1080i.
Recording and playback are very versatile: apart from the usual functions, pressing the record button repeatedly varies recording length between 30 – 240mins, in 30 minute intervals; there is an instant replay button that lets you go back by 10 seconds during playback; and ‘CM skip’ jumps ahead 30 seconds while playing or recording. You can delete specific sections of recordings, or split them into separate tracks and vice versa, as well as combine several titles into one.
You can also create and edit detailed recording schedules, and add chapter marks at user-selected intervals to any new recording. You can even select what frame from a recorded clip you want to use as a thumbnail. The only major annoyance is that while the unit lets you choose between HQ, SLP, EP, LP and SP recording qualities, it doesn’t inform you what these stand for, or what resolutions/bitrates these represent.
Like the Neuros OSD, the Playon! DVR has upgradeable firmware, but it’s not open source, so while updates are not ruled out, they are unlikely. On the other hand, present functionality is already impressive, and unlike the Neuros OSD, the A.C.Ryan unit can already act as a NAS box. This in itself will be a handy feature for many.
You can also stream media from any other device hooked up to your network or sharing the same wireless network – again, the inclusion of wireless functionality out of the box is an added bonus.
Music can be organised into five local playlists, with – as far as I could tell – unlimited entries. Format support is reasonable, including OGG, non-DRM WMA, and of course MP3. Photos, meanwhile, can be in JPEG or BMP, feature large previews along the side and can be set up as a slideshow.
So overall we have a well specified multimedia box with HD support and a large range of options – which makes the low quality recording input, the audible noise level and a few niggles with the initial physical setup even more of a shame. That said, with a reasonable MSRP of around £150 – and with actual retail prices likely to be even lower – the A.C.Ryan ACR-PV72100 Playon! Network Digital Video Recorder is probably one of the best devices of its type.
A.C.Ryan has created a multimedia station that looks good, has the highest quality outputs you could wish for – including HDMI and digital audio – and an excellent array of options. Combined with wireless LAN and NAS functionality, the Playon! DVR’s support for High Definition Xvid/DivX up to 1080i makes it an intriguing option.
Score in detail
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