Google's Chromecast seemed like an entirely new type of product when it was released, but it was predated by a few months by the Plair, a strikingly similar streaming stick that offered much of the same functionality. While the Plair concept was undeniably neat, the actual product experience was pretty lousy, with too little content and a lot of stability problems.
Now Plair is back with the Plair 2 and a new approach. Instead of beaming video to the stick from smartphones and laptops, the Plair 2 actually run Android apps itself, theoretically giving you access to every app in the Google Play Store. That's the kind of flexibility many have desired from the Chromecast, and the Plair 2 is doing its best to compete on price too, coming in at a competitive $49. Even better, the company is doing right by its early adopters, offering to update first-gen Plairs for free, as long as you pay to ship the device to them.
Those changes had me optimistic heading into the review, but the experience ended up feeling a whole lot like using the first-generation model. Yes, there are more apps, but many of them don't work well and there are all sorts of bugs and glitches that detract from the experience. The apps and device itself still crash too frequently, plus the Plair 2 often becomes sluggish after a while. And the smartphone control scheme always feels more difficult than it should, especially compared with just using a standard remote.
As with the original Plair, there's some merit to the Plair 2's approach, but it's too unreliable to recommend in its current state. With the Roku LT ($50) and Google Chromecast ($35) available in the same price range, there's little reason to opt for the Plair 2 until the experience is a lot more refined.
Design: The other streaming stick
The hardware of the Plair 2 is identical to that of the original Plair. It's a sleek, teardrop-shaped stick that you plug into one of your TV's HDMI inputs. To power the unit, you can connect the Plair 2 to your TV's USB port (if it has one); otherwise there's an included power adapter. It's a lot like a Chromecast, except Plair was first.
When I reviewed the original Plair, I had some serious complaints about the design of the hardware, which started with the device splitting apart when I pulled it out of the box. I had a better experience with the Plair 2; for one, it stayed in one piece. Apparently the hardware is unchanged from the first-gen model, so it's possible I just got a better review unit this time around. Overall, the stick still doesn't feel as solid as the Chromecast, but the build quality bothered me less this time around, especially for a device that will live behind your TV.
Setup: Cross your fingers
Once you have the Plair 2 installed in the back of your TV, the stick creates a local Wi-Fi hot spot. Load up the app on your tablet or smartphone and it guides you through the process.
My first attempt at setup using an iPhone 5S failed, as the app kept crashing before the final setup. Plair says it's an issue with the recent iOS 7 update and a fix is on the way. I switched over to a Nexus 7 for setup and got it working, although not without having the Android app crash once before finishing. Once I finally got the Plair 2 set up, I was able to control it via the iPhone 5S or the Nexus 7.
However, at some point during my testing, the Plair 2 lost the connection to my router and I wasn't able to successfully set it up again. While I'd be willing to chalk that up to the crowded wireless spectrum in the office, I've had no problems streaming from four different Roku boxes, the Google Chromecast, and the Apple TV in the same room and with the same router. And I had similar issues with the original Plair in a different wireless environment. The actual steps involved in setting up the Plair are simple, but pulling it off always seems like you're rolling the dice.
The app and the interface
When I first saw the Plair 2, I was skeptical about the app-based control scheme, but it seemed to work surprisingly well during the product demo. However, those original doubts crept back once I started testing it myself.
The app is broken into a few sections. At the top is a large space for controlling the onscreen cursor. Below that is a section for swiping left and right, which is the easiest way to zip through the main interface. At the bottom are a few direct buttons to adjust the volume or just to the home screen.
The app gets some things right. It's nice to be able to pop up the keyboard at any moment to type in search terms, and it's designed so you rarely have to split your attention between the touch screen and your TV.
But mostly, controlling the Plair 2 felt harder than it should be. The control scheme just didn't seem responsive and intuitive enough, as I often overshot the app I wanted when swiping or the screen wouldn't scroll down when I wanted it to. There's also typically no quick way to pause video content once it's playing. For example, using Netflix you need to navigate the onscreen cursor to an onscreen pause button, but it can take a few seconds, depending on your skill with the cursor.