Before Microsoft made individual apps for Hulu, Netflix, YouTube, and more available, you could use a program called PlayOn to stream them all to your Xbox 360 long before they were officially on the system. PlayOn still exists, and still works just like it always did, but you don't really need it anymore. This article was written before the official apps became available, which means it isn't really relevant anymore (unless you just really really hate the official apps and want to use something else), but it is kind of interesting to see how things worked before Microsoft went all entertainment crazy on Xbox 360.
Note: This article was written before individual apps for all of these services were made available. You're better off just using the official apps on Xbox 360 now, but Play On was great when we didn't have any other options.
What Is It?
PlayOn is a media server that you install on your PC. Click here to visit the PlayOn Website and download the client. It lets you watch Hulu, Netflix, YouTube, CBS, ESPN, SpikeTV, Food Network, South Park Studios, NFL, MLB, and much more all on your Xbox 360 or any other compatible device (including PS3 and Wii). It does come with a $39.99 one time fee, but you can test it out for free for 14 days before you decide to buy. If you do buy it, your license is good forever. The best part is that PlayOn is an unofficial service and thus doesn't require Xbox Live Gold. You can stream all of the PlayOn content on your Xbox 360 absolutely free as long as the services themselves are free (streaming Netflix still requires a Netflix subscription and if Hulu goes to a paid model you'll have to have a Hulu subscription, just for a couple of "paid" examples).
How does it work?
First, you install PlayOn on your PC. Some services (like Netflix or Hulu among others) require login information, which you can input in the PlayOn program on your PC. Then, to watch on your Xbox 360 or other device (we're only covering the 360 here) that device simply needs to be on the same network as your PC. All you have to do from there is select the "Video Library" box on the "My Xbox" tab on the Xbox 360 dashboard. This brings up a list of any external drives you might have attached to the 360, your 360 hard drive, your networked PC, and, more importantly, a new option for the PlayOn server.
Now you just have to select the PlayOn server and a new list of your available video sources will come up. Just select whatever you want (Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, etc.) and then you can browse through the selection of available videos from a given provider and watch whatever you want.
How Does It Perform?
Performance is dependent on your PC specs (since everything goes through your PC first and then onto your Xbox 360) as well as your broadband speed. It also has to be noted that some PlayOn services work better than others. Hulu and South Park Studios, for example, are great. YouTube, on the other hand, is greatly held back since you can't search videos and can only select from feeds of the Most Popular or Most Commented or Most Recent videos. You can add specific users to your YouTube feed, however, which is nice if you have certain channels/people you like to watch.
Another slight downer has to do with Netflix on PlayON. I think the NXE Xbox 360 Netflix client is better than what you can do with PlayOn (seems to be better quality, plus you can browse videos to add to your queue) but watching Netflix with PlayOn has the benefit of not requiring an Xbox Live Gold account.
It must also be noted that the PlayOn client only comes pre-installed with a handful of channels. For things like South Park Studios or Food Network or Spike TV, you need to download separate apps. They are easy to install and start functioning immediately. There are new apps coming along every day, so the amount of content you can watch with PlayOn will continue to grow.
PlayOn is pretty much amazing and does exactly what it advertises. You can watch a ton of video content from around the web for free, the quality is great, and the program is super easy to use. I highly recommend it for all Xbox 360 owners.