Look out, Google: Chromecast has a renewed competitor in the Plair 2.0. Like the original, the second version of the Plair device plugs directly into your TV, and lets you stream content from the Internet -- Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube, Pandora, etc. -- as well as from your smartphone or notebook. Plus, unlike the Chromecast, you can download and run virtually any app from the Google Play store. Now just $49 -- half the price of the original -- do the Plair 2's new features one-up Google's device?
Click to EnlargeThe Plair device has the same design as the original. Vaguely seed-shaped, it measures 4 x 1.4 x 0.5 inches, is rounded at one end and comes to a gentle point at the other. The majority of the device is covered in a glossy plastic (available in red, black and blue), while a removable cap at one end has a black soft-touch rubber finish. The whole device fits snugly in your hand and disappears in your pocket.
Pull the cap off to reveal a male HDMI plug; farther down along one of the sides is a covered microUSB port that's used to power the device. The Plair 2 comes with a long USB cord and plug.
Setting up the Plair is as simple as setting up the Chromecast. Plug the Plair into an HDMI port on your TV, then plug the included microUSB cable into the Plair, and the other end into an outlet.
After downloading the Plair app to your phone (Android or iOS), connect your phone to the Plair via Wi-Fi. Then, within the Plair app, you can connect the device directly to your Wi-Fi network. In all, setup took less than five minutes.
How It Works
Click to EnlargeThe Plair 2 device is essentially an Android stick with an interface and an app suited for TVs. Unlike Chromecast, which has you launch, say, Netflix on your phone or tablet, and then beams the show to your TV using the Chromecast as an intermediary, Plair loads those apps on the device itself. The Plair app for your phone then acts as a remote control, letting you switch between apps on your TV, and changing the content.
On both Android and iOS devices, the Plair app turns your phone into a remote control. The upper half of the screen becomes a touchpad, which lets you move the cursor around the TV screen. If you hold your thumb on the touchpad for a second, then drag it, you can scroll up and down on-screen lists, but it's not exactly fluid.
Below the touchpad area are two blue bars, which you use to swipe to the left and right. This is a little nonintuitive, as you have to look down to navigate on screen; it would also be better if there were just a single bar. Below this area are buttons for volume, the keyboard, Home, and, on iOS devices, Back (on Android, you simply use the built-in Back button).
At the very bottom are the words "Exit Remote Control." Press this, and the app's screen changes to the original Plair interface, where you can play videos from Plair's curated channels, which pull content from sources such as CollegeHumor, FunnyOrDie, NASCAR, Comedy Central and others.
Here, you can also beam photos and videos stored on your phone or tablet, but it's not quite as seamless as AirPlay. After selecting either the "My Videos" or My Photos" icon, you then have to select what photos you want to beam, either individually or as a slideshow. It would be much easier if you could just fire up the photos app on your phone or tablet and start scrolling. In addition, we noticed lag when moving from one image to the next.
Videos taken by our iPhone 4S were too large to beam; Plair has to first convert them to a smaller format. A 50-second video took about 49 seconds to convert, after which it started playing almost immediately on our TV. We like that beneath each thumbnail is a shaded area that says "Ready to Beam."
Click to EnlargeThe TV interface fairly straightforward to navigate. The main area of the screen presents apps in a Cover Flow-like menu, with three icons in the upper left: All Apps, the name of the Plair you're connected to and the name of the Wi-Fi network the Plair is connected to.
When an app icon is centered on the display, its name appears at the bottom of the screen, underneath which is a line that shows whether or not the app is compatible with Plair. A green line means it's fully compatible, while a yellow line indicates that the app is an unknown. Oddly, Google Play went from having a green line to a yellow one.
The Plair also supports multitasking, so you can have Pandora playing in the background while browsing for apps on Google Play, for instance. In order to quit an app, though, you have to back out of it by hitting the Back button repeatedly. Also, there's no Settings menu as on a standard Android device, so if you need to change the Google account associated with the Plair 2, you'll have to reset the device.
One of the smartest features of the Plair app comes when you have to type something in a window. Instead of using the cursor and the keyboard on the TV to laboriously select individual letters, you can use the keyboard on your smartphone. It speeds up typing by a hundredfold. Even better, it also supports voice typing.
After installing the Plair plugin to your browser (it's compatible with Chrome), a small Plair logo appears to the right of the URL bar. Press it, and a window pops up; here, you can drag and drop content from your notebook, such as videos and photos, and beam them to the Plair.
In certain Web pages, such as YouTube, a Plair icon will appear in the upper right-hand corner of the main video window. Press the icon, and within a few seconds, the video will start streaming to your TV. On your notebook, controls to start, stop and change the volume of the video appear in the YouTube window.
As with the first version, you can beam videos from a number of websites (Plair lists 37 on its page), including the BBC, Fox, CNN, Bravo, NBC, CBS and ABC. Unlike the Chromecast, though, Plair doesn't support Tab casting -- that is, you can't beam an entire Web page to your TV (or your desktop, for that matter).
Click to EnlargeBy default, Plair comes preloaded with Netflix, the Amazon App Store, "Angry Birds Star Wars II," Pandora, Flickr, Spotify, CNN, Crackle, Hulu Plus, NHL Gamecenter, Xfinity, Vevo and YouTube. You also have access to the Google Play Store .
Videos from YouTube were quick to load, and streamed smoothly. However, using the on-screen controls to start, stop, and maximize videos required moving the cursor around the TV screen, which took some finesse. By contrast, when using the Chromecast, all of these controls are on your phone, which makes things much easier.
Pandora was also easy to use, as its on-screen controls were easy to target with the cursor. We liked that we could use the controls on our iPhone to change the volume of songs, too. We're also glad to see the company finally updated its Android app to better take advantage of larger displays. However, there are plenty of other Android apps that have yet to be optimized for tablets.
Click to EnlargeRunning Android 4.0.4, the Plair 2 has a single-core 800-MHz ARM tcc8920st processor with 874MB of RAM, which is no speed demon. On Geekbench 3, it scored just 191. The average smartphone scores 1,552 and the average tablet registers 1,593. Another Android stick, the Measy U2C, notched a score of 726.
On AN3DBench, its score of 6,090 is less than Timing Power's dual-core Android Mini PC RK3066 (7,631), the CX-919 (8,018; 1.6-GHz quad-core RK3188 CPU with 2GB of RAM) and the MK808B Android Mini PC Smart TV Stick (8,274). When we tried to run 3DMark Ice Storm, the Plair device crashed.
The Plair 2's single-core processor also showed its limitations during real-world use. When playing "Angry Birds: Star Wars II," animations were a bit choppy. Also, after selecting All Apps from the home screen, it would take several seconds for all of the icons to show up. Finally, launching apps, such as CNN, took a few seconds.
Playing games too, was hit or miss, depending on the controls. In "Angry Birds," it took a little practice -- you have to press and hold on the bird in the slingshot, and then drag your finger up and down to aim him -- but we quickly got the hang of it.
"Fruit Ninja" was much more difficult. In order to slice fruit, we had to press and hold for a split second before swiping, which made it next to impossible to dice up pineapples and the like. "Riptide GP 2" proved even more challenging. With no way to control our racer, we quickly became stuck, and had to quit the game.
When opening the Netflix app while downloading a number of things through Google Play, we received a warning that the streaming quality may be adversely affected. Nevertheless, we started streaming "Jarhead," and the movie started playing almost instantly. While the resolution was a bit choppy at first, it soon resolved into a high-def stream. Occasionally, though, the screen would flash green .
Watching the HD trailer for "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" and "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" in HD was crisp and bright -- we could see the finer details, such as the flames licking Katniss' dress and the exploding helicarrier, vividly.
In an act of generosity, consumers who purchased the original Plair can return it to the company, who will then send them an updated unit for free; all you have to do is pay for shipping costs.
The Plair 2 is a much better realization of the company's goal of letting you stream content from the Internet and your phone to your TV, but there's still room for improvement. At $49, the Plair 2 is $9 more than the Chromecast, but offers a much wider range of streaming content and apps. (You can play games on it, but the performance and wonky controls aren't worth the trouble.) We wish the Plair 2 had a beefier CPU, which would most likely eliminate the lag issues we saw.