The AC Ryan Playon HD2 is more than just a high definition media streamer: it can act as an external USB drive, a network attached storage (NAS) device, a UPnP media server, an FTP server, a BitTorrent downloader and it will even let you use Twitter and Facebook through your TV.
Indeed, it's a feature-packed and versatile device, and it's not too difficult to use. However, it could use more processing power and a faster interface, and also much better functionality.
Physical features and media streaming capability
As a media streamer, the Playon HD2 is great. It can play a large range of files (including MKV) and can decode plenty of different video formats (including H.264). We had no problems getting it to play our range of test files and its performance and image quality were very good. Files can be played either though attached USB drives, through your network, or off an internal hard drive.
The AC Ryan has a slot on its left side through which you can attach a 3.5in, SATA-based drive up to 2TB in capacity. It can be purchased in various bundles, but the £239 package here comes with 2TB of storage.
The right side has an SDHC card slot, two host USB ports (type A) that allow external hard drives to be attached (one of the ports is USB 3.0). There is also a USB 3.0-based (type B) port, which allows the AC Ryan to be attached to a computer as if it were an external hard drive (which it pretty much is in that situation).
The rear of the AC Ryan contains the Gigabit ethernet port and its video and audio output connections. You can use HDMI, Component, Composite, analogue audio or digital audio (coaxial and optical). We connected it to our Samsung Series 6 LCD TV using HDMI. The resolution was not auto-detected by the player, so we had to go in to the set-up menu to choose 1080p.
Menu interface and functionality
The menu interface of the AC Ryan is decent, and we found it easy to use for the most part. We like the main page of the menu, which along with listing the main menu items also lists recently added music and video files, although it is a short list. It can separate files according to whether they are video or audio, and you can quickly access these by going directly to the Movies or Music options in the main menu. It has the ability to combine listings from the internal drive and any attached USB drives, which can be convenient, but it also means that file listings can be very long and slow to get through. You can browse files stored on network locations by going through the File Manager.
However, the menu interface isn't all that quick and it can take up to a second before an option is changed after you've pressed the button on the remote, it also seemed to get slower the longer the streamer had been running.
If you enable the AC Ryan's UPnP feature (which can be done through the Setup>Network menu), it will show up as a device in your local area network. The internal hard drive and any USB drives that are attached to the AC Ryan will show up as shared drives and you will be able to drag and drop files onto those drives. This makes the AC Ryan function like a makeshift NAS (network attached storage) device.
It's very convenient to add files to the internal hard drive over the network, rather than having to attach the streamer to a computer via USB. However, sometimes the internal drive wasn't listed alongside shared USB drives on the network and we had to restart the streamer in order for it to show up. In fact, the first draft of this review criticised the device for not allowing network access to the internal hard drive.
Web features and BitTorrent
If you access the AC Ryan's web management interface (by typing the player's IP address in the URL bar of your browser with the port 1024 at the end. For example, 192.168.1.3:1024 - we had to Google this) it gives you the option to upload files to the internal hard drive and also to download files from it to your computer. This didn't work well in our tests and managed to crash Firefox a few times.
The most important part of the web interface is that it allows you to use the player's BitTorrent function. If you open torrent files through its interface (after you've saved them to your computer's hard drive), you can then download files directly on to the media streamer's internal hard drive. In our tests, files downloaded with the same speed they would have had we used a PC-based torrent program such as uTorrent. Our quibble with this feature is that finished torrents don't show up in the recently added file list nor in the Movie or Music folders (depending on the file type). You have to navigate to the BT folder in order to access the downloaded files.
In addition to streaming local media, the AC Ryan has a lot of internet-based features and some of it works very well. In particular, we love the unit's ability to stream music from SHOUTcast and to play videos from TED Talks (which is part of the streamer's Video Podcasts feature). Its YouTube, Picasa and Flickr functionality is basic but usable, and it can also display the weather (via Yahoo!). It can also take you to the Twitter and Facebook websites, and warns you that for the best experience you should attach a USB-based keyboard. We definitely won't argue with that. You'll get nowhere trying to type with the on-screen keyboard and the remote's arrow keys.
The remote itself could be better. Its buttons feel too squishy, it's too slim, and its navigation buttons are poorly laid out. For example, the skip buttons are not located near the play and forward and rewind buttons, but instead opposite the volume buttons. It's definitely not as good as the remote that ships with the Netgear NeoTV NTV550.
With so many features, it's hard not to like the AC Ryan Playon HD2, but we can't help think that it could be so much better. A few interface tweaks, some added functionality and a little more speed could make it one of the best media streamers on the market. Nevertheless, it's still worth checking out if you want something that's more than a basic media streamer.
For a less feature packed, but more diminutive option, check out our review of the AC Ryan PlayOn HD Mini 2.