Asus is well known for making computer components that are popular with enthusiasts, but aren't especially user-friendly. The company seems to focus on making things do awesome stuff, at the cost of exterior styling.
The Asus O!Play HD2 costs around £110, which is a very low price for a media player with such advanced features. So, what's the catch?
Looks and feels quite cheap
When it comes to styling, we don't quite know how to react to the Asus. It feels like quite a cheap device, made out of some fairly uninspiring plastic. On the front, there are several sockets for various types of memory card, as well as an eSATA socket for connecting high-speed drives. All of that provides a good deal of useful functionality, but it's also bloody ugly.
The box feels alarmingly light, and the snob in us yearns for the Apple attitude of making stuff out of the heaviest materials known to man, just to make it feel like a premium product. But then we slap ourselves, and remember that there's more to life than looks.
One reason for the lack of weight is that the box is much larger than it needs to be. This leaves room for a user-fitted 3.5-inch hard drive unit. Unscrew the bottom of the HD2, and you'll see a large bay with power and data connectors. There's also a drive-mounting kit included in the box, which allows you to safely screw the drive into your HD2.
Why USB 3?
At the rear of the machine, you'll find USB connections -- including USB 3. Asus claims this is the first such device to hit the media-player market. There's also HDMI, which can pass lossless audio out to an AV receiver and 1080p video to your TV.
At first glance, USB 3 doesn't make a huge amount of sense. USB 2 is more than fast enough to handle any 1080p video you throw at it, even with uncompressed audio. Once you fit an internal hard drive, however, you might want to copy files to the device from your laptop, or from an external hard drive. Doing this can be tedious, as USB 2 can max out. So for file copying, this is the media streamer to buy. As we've mentioned, though, these are enthusiast features, and won't appeal to everyone.
Menus and user interface
The Asus has a pretty reasonable user interface. It's nothing mind-blowing, but it's functional. The front page is nicely laid out, and finding what you want is perfectly easy. It's further down the track that things start to go awry.
Let's assume that, from the front page, you select 'video'. You'll be presented with a second page, which is much more confusing. There are options to search and select files on the left, and any files appear on the right. You can also choose the device you browse here. None of this is user-friendly, though. It's confusing, and if you mount more than one device, you'll quickly get confused about which one is which. USB and memory cards are assigned drive letters, which serve no purpose and should be referred to as 'SD card' instead of 'G'. Everyone knows what files are on what card, but a drive letter doesn't tell you which card or USB device you're accessing. We're confused just writing it, and you're probably confused reading it. So, it's clearly confusing, and that's a shame.
Codec and file-type support
The playback options for the Asus are nothing short of epic. There is almost nothing this device can't play. The most common codecs found online are all supported with no drama -- even codecs like RMVB. This puts the Asus above Western Digital and Popcorn Hour players, both of which have shunned this popular method of encoding Asian animated content, which is enormously popular in the far east and used by anime fans the world over.
On the audio side, OGG, AIFF and FLAC are all supported for lossless audio. For most people, MP3, WAV and AAC support will be sufficient, but once again, the HD2 proves it has the most comprehensive file support of any player.
If you're a lossless-audio lover, rejoice, because the HD2 can pass out untouched DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD via its HDMI socket. The player can also decode Dolby TrueHD on board, which is good news for people without expensive audio receivers, as it opens up even more media-playback doors.
May contain traces of NAS
One of the really cool features of the O!Play is that, if you install an internal hard disk drive, you can run it as a pretty well-specified network-attached storage (NAS) device.
It can act as an FTP server, a BitTorrent download client and will also be accessible on your network as a Samba server. There's also an iTunes server option, should you wish to keep your music on a reasonably low-powered device, rather than leaving your computer on all the time.
Again, these features are in the realm of the enthusiast, but we like the fact Asus has thrown these extras in with the media-playback abilities.
Video from the Asus was decent enough. Our usual test-file rotation looked good to us, and we didn't detect any significant problems with the quality from the player. Of course, the old adage of 'garbage in, garbage out' holds here. If you put low-quality video in, you'll get rubbish out.
Playing 1080p was a smooth process, and even some of our higher bit rate files played back without problem -- something not all media players can claim to achieve. The fact that Dolby TrueHD can be decoded on board also means that copies of Blu-ray discs will play, including sound, which can present other players with problems.
The Asus O!Play HD2 is technically excellent. The main problems with it are the cheap styling and over-complicated menu system. Both the WD TV Live and Popcorn Hour C-200 are more user-friendly, and have much simpler user interfaces.
But, from a sheer technical perspective, the HD2 does so much we can't help but like it. We'd have to hide it away, for fear someone might see its ugly face and be traumatised for life, but the on-screen video performance is more than enough to make up for its ghastly exterior. This is one for the geeks who have LEDs in their PC, and are undoubtedly Asus' core target market.
Edited by Emma Bayly