For years, the message from TV networks has been clear: They're willing to put a lot of free content online, but they don't want you to watch it on your TV. There have been numerous workarounds over the years, and the latest is PLAiR ($99, available at plair.com) -- a stick-like device designed to stream free Web video wirelessly, straight from smartphones, tablets, and Chrome browsers to your TV. It also cleverly doesn't rely on your computer to do any video processing, so as soon as you start playing the clip, you're free to shut down your laptop.
It's a neat-looking device and an intriguing concept, but it just doesn't work very well in practice. Many Web videos don't work at all, others work with distracting menu overlays, and even those that work the best often run into frustrating playback glitches. Web content on tablets and smartphones is limited to sources that PLAiR curates, which often ends up being clips rather than full episodes. PLAiR also doesn't work with high-quality subscription services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, and HBO Go, all of which work on the competing $99 Roku Streaming Stick and Roku 3.
PLAiR as a concept has some merit, and its form factor is interesting, but it needs a lot more work to earn a space on your TV's back panel.
Design: Quirky, but cheap feeling
PLAiR is a quirky-looking device. It has a familiar "USB drive"-like design, reminiscent of the Roku Streaming Stick, but its sleek teardrop shape and colorful cases gives it a neat visual flair. My review sample came in magenta, but PLAiR is also available in teal and black.
The visual appeal wanes once you get the device in your hands, though. The build quality veers toward feeling cheap, with the plastic casing giving the impression of being less than solid. In fact, when I initially pulled PLAiR out of its casing, the device's case split apart and that wasn't the last time that the plastic case didn't feel secure.
The shoddy casing isn't much of a problem if you permanently park PLAiR behind your TV, but it does put a slight damper on the device's portability. PLAiR's ultracompact design makes it easy to throw in a bag, but I'm not confident it would hold up well in long-term use for travelers.
Setup: A streaming box without a box
Popping off the black cover reveals PLAiR's HDMI plug, designed to slide right into a spare port on your TV. The only issue is that, unlike USB or MHL, HDMI ports don't provide much power, so PLAiR requires a separate power source.
The tiny micro-USB port on the side of PLAiR is what powers the device and it draws power either directly from a power outlet using the included adapter or from your TV's USB port, if it has one. The extra cable certainly spoils quite a bit of the sleekness that the "just a stick" design implies and that PLAiR tacitly encourages with its marketing materials, which rarely show the power cable. (PLAiR says it's working on an MHL-compatible model that wouldn't need a separate power cable.)
More frustrating was that PLAiR's careless construction made it tough to actually get it powered on. The problem is the micro-USB port just didn't quite align with the opening in casing, making it difficult to get the USB plug in there. It's possible that I got a bad unit and that others work fine, but again, the overall build quality isn't reassuring.
Once I got the device physically installed, setup went a lot better. The onscreen instructions are simple, and after only a little fussing it connected to both my laptop and iPad.
The only glitch I ran into was using my dual-band router, which is configured with separately-named 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks. PLAiR doesn't support 5GHz networks and requires the device to be on the same wireless network, so I had to reconfigure all my devices to use the more crowded 2.4GHz network. Dual-band support would have been a nice for a device that relies so much on wireless streaming; Roku supports dual-band in both of its $99 streamers, including the Streaming Stick.