Editors' Note: As of an August 2, 2011 firmware update, the WD TV Live Plus reviewed here can now also access Hulu Plus (subscription required) and Shoutcast Internet radio (free).
Editors' note (July 22, 2010): The rating of this product has been changed slightly since its initial publication to reflect changes in the marketplace. See the review of the Seagate FreeAgent GoFlex TV for comparison.
The first few rounds of network media streamers we tested weren't necessarily recommendable. Sure, this was partially because most of these devices depend on Windows Media Center for connectivity and content, but we also had issues with their sluggish interfaces and shoddy performance.
Fast forward a few years later and it's safe to say that network media streamers have officially hit their stride. We recently took a look at Netgear's Digital Entertainer Live and really enjoyed its additional functionality beyond playing network-connected media. We then checked out the WD TV Live, which added a slightly better interface, improved file compatibly, and access to online services like YouTube and Live365.
Western Digital has upped the ante once more with the WD TV Live Plus--the "Plus" adding even more Internet-based functionality headlined by built-in Netflix on-demand. Other than the addition of these features, the Live Plus is nearly identical to the WD TV Live HD Media Player, which we reviewed in late 2009. Functionality aside, we did notice a slight improvement in overall smoothness and fluidity of the navigational menus. It looks like Western Digital was able to improve the software the WD TV Live Plus runs on, and it shows.
The unit itself is small and can either be positioned horizontally or vertically; regardless, it won't take up a lot of room in your entertainment center. You will need to provide the device with power and a wired internet connection, so plan accordingly. If you want wireless Internet connectivity, you'll have to pay for a separate accessory.
On the rear of the WD TV Live Plus is an HDMI and optical audio out, along with a composite and component out. Western Digital also includes most of the wires you'll need to hook the device up to a television except an HDMI cable. Also around back is an Ethernet port and one of the system's two USB ports. The other USB is on the side of the box.
Both USB ports read every storage device we threw at it, including portable hard drives, USB thumb drives, card readers, a digital camera, and our Kodak Zi8 camcorder.
We really liked the slick onscreen interface that the WD TV Live Plus provides. It's very intuitive and logically laid out. It slightly resembles the PlayStation 3's cross-media bar in which you shuffle through the types of media that you want to play. From within each category (music, video, or photos), you can then navigate from what source you'd like to play media.
Though this setup is great, we do wish you had the choice to first pop into your USB device then pick out a file among various media types. That said, being forced to choose the type of media first, then the source isn't a huge hindrance. Each media category lets you choose other sources such as a network drive or media server, but we'll outline these features a little later on.
In terms of file compatibility, the WD TV Live Plus should have you covered for most of your playback needs as it remains the same compared with what the WD TV Live could play. The list of file types is lengthy; note the impressive number of photo file formats, as usually these devices only offer JPEG.
We played several video file formats on both a 17-inch TV and a 50-inch TV. If you're dealing with a small TV, the picture looks pretty good whether you're connected via the standard composite (yellow) cable or HDMI, though HDMI will always look slightly sharper. When you start to step up to bigger TVs and try to blow the picture up, you're limited by the quality of the file you are playing. Less compressed, high-resolution files will obviously look better.
In terms of compatibility, the WD TV Live Plus was able to play back the vast majority of the video files we threw at it, including some 1080p film trailers. Of course, compatibility can always be upgraded if Western Digital releases new firmware that can be loaded automatically via the unit's Internet connection.
Overall, compatibility was still noticeably more reliable than with the Netgear Digital Entertainer Live.
The included remote control is small, but we really liked how it's laid out. It fits nicely in your hand and gives you total control over the system's every feature.
As we mentioned earlier, the WD TV Live and Plus both separate themselves from the WD TV HD Media Player by offering networked and Internet capabilities. You can stream compatible file types to the unit by setting up a shared network on a computer or utilizing a virtual media server. New in the Live Plus model is also compatibility with Windows 7 machines that will allow you to play files off a PC without setting up a virtual media server. You also can use a NAS (network-attached storage device), which works great with products like these. Though the Netgear Digital Entertainer Live had the PlayOn service built-in, you can still use that service off a networked PC streaming to the Live Plus.
You'll have better success with source material that's hardwired to your router, but we were mostly happy with the streaming quality of the content we transmitted.
We were pleased with the quality of the YouTube channel, and Pandora Internet Radio worked just as we imagined. The preinstalled Live365 application also works well, though your experience may vary with the type of stream you choose to hook into. There is also a Flickr service that lets you browse images off the photo-sharing site, but we did notice a considerable lag when doing so.
The WD TV Live Plus adds upon some of the built-in services we really liked in the previous model. Netflix on-demand performed very well and reminded us of the Netflix interface seen on the PlayStation 3. The streaming-video quality was excellent and remained consistent throughout. We also gave the MediaFly app a whirl, and we were really impressed with its ease-of-use. It gives access to various media outlets and allows the user to pick and choose which channels to install. We were able to pull in CNET podcasts and videos in a snap; they streamed quickly with impressively solid quality.
Overall, we were impressed with the performance of the WD TV Live Plus. It's ease of use, huge list of compatible file types, and network and Internet functionality really extend its value.
If you don't already own an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 and are serious about networked streaming, the WD TV Live Plus is probably one of your best choices. We'd have to recommend it over the Netgear Digital Entertainer Live because of its superior compatibility list, quicker interface, and optical audio offering. It's priced comparably at around $150.