WD TV Play review

Western Digital's latest low-cost media hub, the WD TV Play, dabbles in many cord-cutting areas, but doesn't lead in any of them.
Photo of WD TV Play

Western Digital’s latest media hub, the WD TV Play, tries to strike a balance for cord-cutters, offering some streaming services along with local file playback for a lower price ($69.99 list) than its Roku 2 XD (and $100 soon-to-be-reviewed Roku 3) and Apple TV competitors. But as a cord-cutter myself, I found that the WD TV Play doesn’t offer quite enough of anything, so I’d suggest that you pay a little more for your set-top box.

Three Different Approaches to Cord-Cutting
While many of today’s smart HDTVs and Blu-ray players come with Netflix and the ability to play local files from USB sticks, serious cord-cutters often still turn to dedicated streaming boxes like the Play. The streaming apps tossed onto Blu-Ray players can feel like buggy afterthoughts, and these players rarely offer the range of local file format support you see in media hubs.

Roku, Apple, and WD TV come from three different set-top box lineages. Apple’s box is all about extending the company’s smooth, seamless, and closed ecosystem to TVs. It’s a great ride as long as you’re comfortable with doing everything Apple’s way and buying only from iTunes. Roku, on the other hand, is a streaming native. It aims to deliver as many streaming services as it can, without fear or favor, so you get a half-dozen big-name movie services, for instance. But it’s always had an uneasy, clunky relationship with any media you actually possess at home.

Born from a hard-drive purveyor, the WD TV line has always been the choice for people like myself who have large personal media libraries. While they also stream from a range of services, the current WD TV Live and WD TV Live Hub products really shine when they’re playing media from local or network drives, and their ability to crunch almost any file format is legendary.

The Play is WD’s attempt to eat Roku’s lunch. By stripping out some codec support and a USB port and focusing on streaming, WD is appealing to the plug-and-play cord-cutter who doesn’t have a big library of ripped DVDs. But it can’t quite measure up to the competition.

Physical Features and Performance
The WD TV Play is a petite plastic box measuring 1 by 4.1 by 4.1 inches (HWD) and weighing just 4.9 ounces, making it only slightly bigger than the tiny Roku 3 and Apple TV. Around back, there’s a USB port for local storage, along with an Ethernet port and composite video, HDMI, and digital audio outputs. The only indicator on the front is a dim, blue power light, and there are no controls on the box itself other than a reset hole on the bottom. I hooked the box to an HDTV up in less than a minute by plugging in power, Ethernet, and HDMI.

The black plastic IR remote is simple to use, with big dedicated rubber buttons for Netflix, Hulu, and Vudu video services. Unfortunately, our test unit often responded sluggishly to the remote, and the directional keypad is a drag when you’re typing searches into on-screen keyboards. I had better luck with WD’s free smartphone remote app, which works with Android and iOS phones. The Play responded very quickly to the app, which has multiple screens, a pop-up QWERTY keyboard, and quick access buttons for all of the Play’s services. You can also plug a USB keyboard into the single USB port, although you then lose the ability to access local storage.

I had no trouble connecting the Play to both wired Ethernet and wireless 802.11n networks, and connecting via HDMI to both 720p and 1080p TVs. It auto-detected each TV’s maximum resolution and set itself up appropriately. You need a good 10Mbps Internet connection to stream 1080p video, but I had no problem doing so from several different services.

I ran into some bugs and instability while testing the Play. Some of the channels didn’t support the remote’s Back button, only Home, and at one point I needed to pull the plug to kill a misbehaving CinemaNow screen. WD has assured me that a bug-fixing firmware update in the works.

33 Channels and…What’s On?
The best thing about the new WD TV Play is its configurable home screen. Like an Android phone, it’s a set of user-configurable, resizable widgets. You can stick with the default collection or paste your favorite services onto the main home screen. That means you’ll never have to page through channels you don’t use. You can also install live widgets which show updates right on the home screenthe weather one is bestor shortcuts to folders deep within a big local hard drive.

Joy turns into a bit of frustration when you dip into the full list of WD’s 33 streaming channels. Netflix, Hulu+, and Vudu are the flagship services. In terms of big-name entertainment you can also get CinemaNow, Pandora, Spotify, Vimeo, and YouTube. 

I immediately noticed two huge gaps, which might be deal-breakers: Amazon is missing, and there’s no professional sports content. While WD has two college sports channels, you won’t find NBA, MLB or NHL, unlike on Roku and Apple TV boxes. I also missed Epix, Crackle, VEVO, and HBO GO, all available on Roku’s boxes. WD says more channels are coming, but it won’t say what or when.

The company seems to have burned some energy on writing its own semi-pointless social networking apps. The Twitter and Facebook apps here show simple, low-density news feeds rather than doing smart things like finding a way to integrate Tweets with the particular movie or TV show you’re watching.

Other channels include AOL.TV (video blogs from AOL Web sites), AccuWeather, Comedy Time (stand-up comedy clips), an odd linear feed from DailyMotion, Facebook, Flickr, Flixster (movie trailers), Funspot (casual games), Launchpad (which looks like it has big names like A&E and FunnyOrDie, but very limited content from each one), Live365 radio, an RSS reader, Picasa, Red Bull TV, Shoutcast radio, SlingPlayer, SnagFilms (indie stuff), TuneIn Radio, Viewster (more random indie films), WatchMojo (‘infotainment’) and YuppTV (Indian subcontinent programming).

Options to play your own media are more limited than what you get with WD’s other products. There’s one USB port which accepts flash drives or hard drives, and the box can also detect DLNA servers on your home network. The ability to put arbitrary local folders on the home screen puts the Play way ahead of Roku on that count. The Play also continues WD’s legacy of being able to handle a really wide variety of formats, including H.264, x.264, Xvid, DivX, MOV, WMV, and AVI and MKV containers, along with multiple audio and subtitle tracks.

However, the Play can’t handle some video formats that the higher-end WD TV Live can play, like “raw” ripped DVD folders, MPEG2 video, DTS audio, and 1080p video files at greater than 24 frames per second. More annoyingly, I found that the box had trouble with a few completely arbitrary Xvid and MKV files that an older WD TV could play, while other Xvid and MKV files worked fine on the new box. Maybe this will also get fixed with a firmware upgrade, but it underscores the fact that the WD TV Live Hub is the one to get for people with large locally stored video libraries.

A positive note for a chosen few: Like other WD TVs, this box appears to be hackable and based on a considerable amount of GPLed open-source code. Earlier WD TV boxes have a lively alternative-firmware community, so that could happen for the Play as well.

Conclusions
If you’re looking to stream content off the Internet, the Roku boxes, including the $50 Roku LT), are a better bet than the WD TV Play; they have far more channels available, including professional sports, a better selection of movies, and HBO.

If you have a lot of downloaded or ripped content, you should turn to the $100 WD TV Live or $200 WD TV Live Hub, depending on whether or not you already own a big external hard drive. Those models play an even wider range of video formats than the WD TV Play does, including maintaining the menu layouts of ripped DVDs. They’re the gold standard for local media jukeboxes.

Apple’s Apple TV, meanwhile, has received rave reviews because of its gorgeous interface and extreme ease of use, as long as you’re willing to live within an all-Apple world for your purchased media.

That leaves the WD TV Play in an uncomfortable middle spot. It doesn’t support enough services to be a streaming king, and doesn’t play enough formats to be a local-video hero. While I absolutely love its configurable interface, I’d like to see that interface appear next on a more capable product.

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Specifications
Internal Storage 0 GB
Web Browser No
External Storage USB GB
Online Content Services 33 channels including Netflix, Vudu and Hulu+
Blu-ray No
Wi-Fi Compatibility Yes
Smartphone/Tablet Control Yes
USB Ports 1
DLNA Yes

Verdict
Western Digital's latest low-cost media hub, the WD TV Play, dabbles in many cord-cutting areas, but doesn't lead in any of them.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc