Orb BR is the latest products coming from ORB, a California based company specialized in digital media streaming solution for your home. Initially announced during CES 2011, the Blu-ray disk that will sell for around $20 is designed to transform any Blu-ray player equipped with a network connection into an ORB machine, just better. Among the most important features you’ll get local content (video, audio and photo streaming) plus a variety of online services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Video on Demand up to 1080p.
I got Orb BR quite a while ago and followed its progress through a series of beta versions. I was (nicely) asked to postpone my review until the release day, which is today, so here it is!
The ORB BR disk is only one part of the eco-system which consists of a PC / MAC server software, an iOS – iPhone / iPad / iPod, Android and PC / MAC remote control app (the Controller) and the actual ORB BR disk.
The first component to be installed in the server. Fortunately, I do have a central server that feeds my other gadgets via several transcoding apps including TVersity, PlayOn, Playstation Media Server and Plex. I was able to run everything side by side for some quick comparisons.
The server installation only takes several minutes and is a very easy process. At some point, it will detect the codecs installed on the server (the ORB server DOES transcoding) and the system performance. I did not expect any performance issues from my quad core / 8GB RAM setup and I was right.
At the end of the installation step, ORB wizard will pop-up and prompt you to add the folders containing the media you want to share/access. I added my media folders (including the one I store my photos) without realizing I have well over 100,000 photos stored in more than 10 years of digital photography. As you can expect, the indexing took more than an hour but amazingly, didn’t crash during the long indexing as I experienced with other software packages. Kudos to ORB for a job well done.
1.2 Mobile client (Orb controller)
I installed the client called ORB controller (a free application available in Apple’s App Store) on both iPhone 4 and iPad 2 (didn’t have the time to install it on my Nook Color running Android 2.3 but I’ll update the review soon) and in seconds, both clients detected my ORB server. Really nothing more to say here, as long as you are on the same network, and don’t have any firewall / router issues, the ORB controller will immediately detect your ORB server (you can also have more than one server installed).
By default, the premium services are not added to the media providers list so you’ll have to add them manually. The video services include DailyMotion, ESPN 3 and YouTube and you can also add Amazon Video on Demand, Netflix and Hulu Plus. It is a good thing ORB added the essential services to its list and I imagine they’ll add more clients in the future.
1.3 ORB BR disk
I tried the ORB BR disk with a couple Blu-ray players I have at home including with Sony PS3. There is no setup to perform but you’ll need a USB drive for the Blu-ray players without internal memory (PS3 doesn’t need it). After the ORB BR disk was inserted, the Blu-ray players performed a small update and several seconds later the big round and green ORB logo was displayed. The system will also ask you which controller you plan to use, the iOS / Android or PC one.
2.1 ORB BR Disc
Let’s be clear with something first. The ORB BR disc itself doesn’t offer any interaction by itself. All the interaction including choosing what media to play, start / stop / pause and listing of your Netflix / Hulu queue and local content folders are performed via the controller. It is obvious that the capability offered by the BR standard is just not enough for such a complex product. Instead, the Blu-ray Player with the ORB BR disk performs just like their ORB set top box, with a nice difference: It plays 720p and 1080p content.
Immediately after the server finished indexing my library I put everything to the test. At this point I am happy to report the following:
- Music (mp3) works without any issues
- Photos are working without any issues including picture by picture or slideshow. You’ll also see the photo selected or the slideshow on your ORB controller (in my case iPhone 4)
- I tested several movie formats. Again, it is obvious that the ORB server transcodes. I was able to play 1080p MKV files, DIVX / XVID files of various resolutions and DVD folders. You can also select “Play All” once in a folder, which is a neat feature and it should be used if you DVD folder contains multiple VOB files. Subtitles are not supported for obvious reasons (that have to do with transcoding).
- For PS3, the video files are transcoded to AVC and bit rate at least up to 10.1Mbps
Local streaming works well, but only stereo sound is available at this point. ORB informed me that 5.1 sound support is in the works and will be available in the next couple of months. I also have the Shark007 Windows 7 codecs installed for reference.
2.3 ORB Controller
The ORB Controller will duplicate the functionality on your iPhone / Android device so you’ll be able to also play local content, Netflix / Hulu / Amazon VoD queues on your mobile device as well. This is a nice feature to have and more important, is free. (It only requires the server and the Controller app from the App Store and both of them are free). I successfully used ORB controller on my Android Nook Color, iPhone 4 and regular PCs around the house.
Another neat capability is media aggregation. You can use the ORB controller to search for a title and ORB will find it regardless of the original source. This way you won’t have to buy it in iTunes if it is already available on Netflix for example.
2.4 Orb Caster and DLNA
In its latest version which at the time of testing is 3.07.0070 (update: 3.07.0081 is now out), Orb Caster also acts as a DLNA server recognized by my Sony PS3 / XBOX 360. I didn’t test it with other devices, but it is nice to know that you have additional means to access your media and accessing Netflix / Hulu Plus and other streaming services PLUS local files through a free DLNA server is a really cool feature and I can see it being a strong PlayOn competitor in itself if marketed right and if it will get support for more TV content.
Beside streaming local content / Netflix / Hulu, ORB Caster will also integrate with iTunes and stream your iTunes collection as well. Your media can be password protected and everything can even be streamed from outside your home network so you’ll be able to watch everything while on the go. You will to set up an Orb Remote Access Account for this feature to work but its usefulness is undeniable.
2.5 Tuners and Webcam
The ORB Caster supports TV tuners and Webcams. Currently it doesn’t support QAM tuners (a known issue for quite a while) so you’ll still need a set top box, but imagine the possibilities if you’ll be able to use PS3 to watch live TV. I am currently using my Windows Media Center based server as a DVR and several XBOX 360 units around the house as extenders to access the recorded content or live TV, but ORB could bring all this to PS3 and other DLNA based devices.
For the projected price of $20, the ORB BR is a very good investment that will add very powerful functionality to your Blu-ray player. ORB was smart in securing support for all three big streaming services of 2011 (Netflix, Hulu Plus and Amazon Video on Demand) together with YouTube. Local support is a killer feature, works well and helps ORB to differentiate their product. Also, only Windows Phone 7 is missing in terms of mobile controllers but that shouldn’t be a big issue to add in time. Looks like we have a winner!
- the ability to access Hulu (free and Plus editions) including those WEB-only episodes
- local file support via transcoding, up to 1080p, DVD folders supported (no menus )
- mobile support for both smartphones and tablets, both iPhone / iPad and Android devices
- support for all Netflix / Hulu (Plus) / Amazon VoD
- high bit rate video supported
- DLNA server support
- remote access for streaming outside your home
- No surround sound(currently under development and scheduled to arrive in the upcoming months)
- No standalone mode (not ORB’s fault, limited by what Blu-ray standard can do, but we can dream…)