Switch the unit on and the first chink in the armour is exposed. The 40mm fan and very nature of a mechanical drive combine to produce a noise level that's clear and obvious when sitting five feet away. It's no first-generation Xbox, sure, but the noise can grate when watching videos or listening to music at low levels. There's also some level of vibration from the unit once the internal drive is accessed, which leads to an amplification of the noise level. We reckon that a better implementation of how the drive is attached - some form of suspension? - to the unit would help.
Moving on, our favourable impression of the Playon!HD's hardware capabilities has been tempered by a tired-looking GUI that's rather basic, to put it bluntly. Awkward navigation and non-intuitive controls have left us wanting more.
The introduction of the Essential also heralds the arrival of a new GUI - v2.0 - that promises a slicker interface more akin to a PlayStation 3.
The visual differences between the two iterations of GUI are immediately obvious when scrolling through the Essential's pages. It's as if genuine thought has been given to both form and function, giving the feel of a modern front-end rather than the 10-year-old-looking GUI present on v1.0. Making it more intuitive, the Essential automatically indexes any movies or music from available drives, bringing content to the fore, though this can be switched off through the options.
Switching between screens is snappier and accessing options is plain nicer than before. Users of other Playon!HD devices needn't despair, however, because they will also be receiving this GUI in due course, according to A.C. Ryan.
Importantly, the video and audio quality remains excellent. High-definition video is pin-sharp and the Essential makes light work of anything you throw at it. Power usage is frugal, too, as the unit chews through just 9W when playing an HD movie from a USB stick.