There are two good options for streaming media from your computer to your Wii U; PlayOn and Plex Media Server. Here’s a look at the strengths and weaknesses of each. Note that if you’re using Linux or a Mac you can skip the rest of this article and just install Plex; PlayOn is PC only.
Plex Media Server is free. PlayOn has a Lite version that is also free and is all you need to stream video from your PC. If you want other features like access to television channels and subscription services you’ll have to pay something.
Ease of Setup
Plex’s setup is a little more complicated than PlayOn’s. That’s why I wrote a step-by-step guide on setting up Plex, but didn’t do the same for PlayOn, which only requires that you install it then open settings and add your media folders via the My Media tab. Then just go to wii.playon.tv in your Wii U browser. Plex is pretty straightforward to install, but not quite as simple.
Plex has a much more elaborate interface than PlayOn, which is a mixed blessing. Playon is a simple menu system; the “My Media” section is a straight-ahead list of the media on your computer. Plex, on the other hand, downloads detailed information on your movies, categorizes TV shows into a library system, and offers various sorting capabilities.
The Plex interface is not customized for the Wii U, causing some difficulties; for example, scroll bars are so thin you need a stylus and careful placement to use them. Plex also doesn’t retain your last sort; I want TV shows listed by episode in chronological order in list view, but Plex always resets to alphabetical by series in icon view. PlayOn’s interface is less flexible and detailed, but it’s also less cumbersome.
In terms of the steadiness of the stream PlayOn is more consistent. Plex struggles more with some video formats than others, and is more prone to pauses and stuttering, although these effects usually lessen after a couple of minutes. PlayOn will play videos that Plex chokes on.
On the other hand, I can’t fast forward at all with PlayOn. If I try to jump to a different place on the progress bar I get a message, “This portion of the video is not yet available.” This is a big issue if you watch part of a show, stop, and then want to start again from where you left off. Plex will actually keep track of where you stopped and ask if you want to start from there; PlayOn makes me watch everything from the beginning. While I'm not the only one to experience this, other PlayOn users tell me they can fast forward and that PlayOn will start videos where you left off, so you should probably try it out for yourself and see what happens.
In terms of streaming music from my PC, I could not get Plex to play it at all. I got a progress bar, but nothing would play. PlayOn was better on that score, although as an audio player it’s fairly primitive, allowing you to choose a single song and play it, with no ability to have it play an entire playlist or album.
Other Streaming Entertainment
Both Plex and PlayOn support a variety of additional channels; subscription services like Netflix and Hulu Plus, conventional TV channels like ABC and PBS, music channels like Soundcloud and VH1. In the case of PlayOn, most of these channels are only availabe if you pay for the premium service, although they do include Youtube and Pandora radio for free. In the case of Plex, all channels are free, although of course you’ll need to be subscribed to services like Netflix. While Pandora is free for PlayOn, Plex only supports the subscription-based Pandora One.
The big problem with Plex is I couldn’t get a lot of channels to work. Some, like CBS, didn’t list any programming on the Wii U interface, although they do on the PC. And I could no more get sound from music services like SoundCloud or Live Music Archive on the Wii U than I could get sound from my own MP3s.
Plex is a complex, feature-laden application that suffers from various technical issues and interface quirks. But for the most part it does what I want it to, and includes some features like support for subtitles and dual audio that are essential when playing some videos. PlayOn, on the other hand, is simple and clean, and I might prefer it if I could fast forward with it, but without that feature it's virtually useless to me. So overall, I consider Plex the better choice for streaming media to a Wii U. But it’s worth having both installed.