Western Digital's recent forays into boxes that plug into TVs have tended towards the network-centric, with both the tiny WD TV Live and WD TV Live Hub both working on the premise of streaming at least some of your content to the TV from other sources.
The Elements play doesn't think like that, and is, in essence, the original WD TV with a one or two-terabyte hard drive in it. The remote's the same, the menus are similar, and the only thing that marks the Elements Play out is that it's much larger than the Live or original WD TV. In other words, if you want a big black box to throw under your TV, the WD Elements Play is it. There's only so much excitment you can get about a big black featureless box, after all.
The Elements Play is an odd kind of transitional AV box. It's not a streamer, the way the WD TV Live or Live Hub are, but it's also not just a conversion and playback box in the style of the original WD TV. This means that the connections on offer are a little different. On the AV side, it supports HDMI and component out, as well as optical audio and USB out for connecting the system up to a PC for file transfers. A single USB A type socket on the side allows for connection of standard USB mass storage devices.
From Western Digital's website, it's suggested that the Elements Play supports "popular" media formats. Digging a little deeper into the product manual, it's stated that on the video side, AVI (XviD, AVC, MPEG-1/2/4), MPG/MPEG, VOB/ISO, MP4/MOV (MPEG-4, H.264), MKV (H.264, x.264, AVC, MPEG-1/2/4), TS/TP/M2TS (MPEG-1/2/4, AVC), FLV (D1 resolution only) and RM or RMVB 8/9/10 are the specific formats it'll play back. On the audio side, MP3, WAV/PCM/LPCM, WMA, AAC, FLAC, MKA, OGG, APE and Dolby Digital (inside video files only) are supported.
The Elements Play will mount as a simple hard drive via USB 2.0 cable, although you can't run it as a drive and player simultaneously. It's also possible to copy files to or from a connected drive from the Elements Play interface directly.
The playback portion of the WD Elements Play experience is deliberately simple, with five basic icons covering Videos, Music, Photos, File Management and Settings tasks. If you've got external USB devices connected when you opt to browse videos, music or photos it'll ask you to select which device you want to browse, but beyond that it's a straight alphabetical list of your content which automatically previews in a small window beside the list itself. 1080p video output was smooth in our tests, but you'd expect that for a system with no network streaming ability at all.
The lack of a network port also means that firmware upgrades must be performed over USB flash drives. We tested this with our review unit, which was running an older firmware initially. It's a very simple process of copying the firmware over to a flash drive and plugging it in. Within a second, the Elements Play had picked up that a new firmware had been inserted and allowed us to upgrade. The entire process, including download time, took less than two minutes.
The WD Elements Play is a decent but not great player that now sits rather poorly in the shadow of the promise of the WD TV Live Hub. We're still testing that unit, and something could go horribly wrong there, but for the minimal price difference, you're almost certainly going to be better off with a system that features the same storage ideas as the Elements Play and network streaming to boot. Equally, it strikes us that you could hook up a portable USB drive to a WD TV Live and get almost exactly the same functionality, leaving the WD Elements Play looking a bit forlorn in the process.