“Smart TV”, or in its popular spelling, SmartTV, is something that the leading LCD and plasma manufacturers seem to be emphasising pretty heavily lately, in parallel with the omnipresent 3D technology. Depending on the particular manufacturer, SmartTV entails (wireless) internet and LAN capabilities, playback of a large number of video and audio formats, as well as images, the presence of at least one USB port, and the capability of installing applications from the manufacturer’s online store/database.
All this is more than attractive if you’re buying a new TV at present time, but if you already have an old one (which might not be that old at all), the choice of options can get rather confusing. SmartTV devices (“boxes”) are available as standalone versions too, offering much of the feature spectrum found in the latest TV sets.
We presented you the first such device to come to our office, LG’s ST600 SmartTV Upgrader, not long ago; as it turned out, the device in question set the bar pretty high as far as this device type is concerned. ASUS has joined the race too, presenting very competitive digital media players from its O!Play family for a while now. The smallest representative of this family is the Mini model, recently “upgraded” to Mini Plus in its latest rendition.
Although it may appear that Mini Plus is a direct heir to the Mini model, this isn’t quite accurate. ASUS has decided to keep both devices entirely present on the market, with regard to their difference in both hardware and price. Mini Plus shares the casing with its older brother, but it now has a different glossy relief design on top, similar to that seen on ASUS’ high-end N-series routers. The front of the device contains a USB port and a 4-in-1 card reader, which is an excellent solution, as the user doesn’t need to move the device to reach the ports.
The back has power, LAN, eSATA/USB, HDMI connectors and analogue + digital audio outputs. The presence of a gigabit LAN port, as well as the wireless N stardard, is the main hardware difference compared to Mini. We installed the latest firmware, v2, prior to testing the device, and it really brings a tangible difference to the user experience, offering content from services such as Facebook, YouTube Leanback and Dailymotion. Furthermore, the new firmware also rectifies some issues identified in the behaviour of the gigabit LAN port.
What everyone is likely to ask first is – is this wireless N device capable of displaying full HD with no cables involved? Most definitely so. As long as Wi-Fi is working correctly and you’re getting a signal four bars strong, not even 20 Mbps HD content can’t pose a serious threat to video quality, with stuttering happening on extremely rare occasions. However, we’ve established that Mini Plus’ Wi-Fi module simply doesn’t work very well if any agility at all is required. The list of issues is long: from connections with ridiculously low speeds (1 Mbps), over extremely irritating loss of connection, to self-imposed module shutdown. We’ve tracked the problem down to the device itself, rather than our own N router, as we changed both router models and device-to-device distances, but to no availability.
Things aren’t ideal even with the gigabit wired network. It happens every so often that the device simply registers a connection of 10-15 Mbps when playing a video, which means that you can forget about fluent 10+ Mbps HD content in that situation. This brings us to the main flaw of this device according to us – the impossibility to monitor network connections. At no time will the device notify you of the speed it’s using to access your home network (except when playing a video over it directly), not even whether it’s still connected or with a dropped connection. The only way to establish whether O!Play Mini Plus is actively connected to a network is to go to device settings (network menu).
The user interface is rather poor and quite confusing. For instance, the video/music/photo section will only allow you to view this media from a card or USB device. On the other hand, there’s a file manager which shows both the card/USB content and the home network/UPnP content. The latter two need to be manually refreshed every time (!) you want to access them, which can take up to ten seconds, turning the process into a bothersome one very quickly.
The remote you get with the device is ergonomically excellent, with sufficiently large buttons. Their layout is less phenomenal, though. Certain buttons that are bound to be used very frequently are awkwardly placed between two similarly big, but much less relevant buttons (as is the case with the Back button, for instance).
You might also regret the omission of numerical buttons every now and then, but still insufficiently often to actually count this as a drawback.
All about the capabilities
What’s definitely this model’s strongest point is the sheer number of video and audio formats it supports. It’s very difficult to feed it with a format it can’t chew on. MKV files are no problem in any container, and Mini Plus is also proficient in recognising subtitles, both packed inside the file, as well as external ones. All that it takes is for the subtitle to be located in the same folder as the source video, and you’ll be able to select it. It might be problematic that the external subtitle doesn’t have its actual name displayed, only the file’s ordinal number, so if you have several subtitles for a particular video, you’ll have to wander around a bit.
The subtitles can be set any way you want – from the on-screen position, over size and letter colouring, to various codes (for instance, Cyrillic letters are fully supported). What may pose a problem to a certain extent is the fact that, if a remote device is accessed via DLNA, it’s impossible to display a subtitle for a particular video file, but this is more due to DLNA’s nature than ASUS’ device itself. Furthermore, you can’t just skip to the section of the video you want to resume watching – you have to fast forward.
Internet services are all gathered around a single menu option, called IMS. The recently added Facebook service enables you to view photos and videos, as well as share them with a single click. Two YouTube services, DailyMotion and Mediafly offer standard capabilities, as do Picasa, flickr, RSS, internet radio and podcast services.
Support is missing for some fairly standard things nowadays, such as a web browser or Skype support. One of the chief advantages of O!Play Mini Plus is the presence of Acetrax services, which is allegedly the leading European online VoD service. It’s only available in a handful of EU countries, offering you the ability to purchase or rent 576p films.
So, are all the novelties in O!Play Mini Plus worth the doubled price compared to “regular” Mini? It’s hard to say, as it comes down to your personal needs. If accessing your home network is very important to you, then yes, although the image is ruined a bit by the problematic Wi-Fi module, as well as the ill-thought out user interface which gives little useful info to the end user.
Hopefully, all these problems have to do with software and drivers, which a single firmware update should be able to iron out. Until then, if you really need a reliable device with SmartTV capabilities now, our recommendation would be to look elsewhere.