I have had a personal fondness for WD TV boxes since the release of the original streamer in late 2008. Each model has improved markedly on the last, and the newest WD TV Play is the best of the bunch.
With its $69 price tag, the WD TV Play is priced competitively, falling directly between the two big dogs of the sub-$100 media streamer space: the Roku ($50 to $100) and the Apple TV ($100). Its interface is clean, setup is a breeze, and playback during our testing was glitch-free. And it's got many of the "must-have" streaming apps, including Netflix, Vudu, Hulu Plus, and Spotify -- plus YouTube and SlingPlayer, two apps that aren't currently available on Roku.
Current weak spots are the lack of Amazon Instant and the dearth of live sports, such as MLB baseball, NBA, and NHL -- all of which, along with hundreds of other channels, are available on a Roku. And, of course, the WD TV Play won't do the Apple- and iTunes-based media that the Apple TV does so well. But the WD TV will do a great job of pulling PC-based media -- especially audio -- that you already have on your network.
In other words, stick with the Roku if you want the largest number of Internet-based media services, and the Apple TV if you're already invested in the Apple content ecosystem. But opt for the WD TV Play if you're looking for a streamer that offers the best mix of cloud streaming and DLNA/home network playback. Especially if you're interested in the latter, the WD TV Play is the best player for the money.
There are two constants when it comes to selling streaming boxes: 1) it should cost $100 or less and 2) it should look like a pillbox. While previous Western Digital boxes adhered to the first maxim, they were always a little flatter and boxier than other designs. The new Play follows the template set by the new Apple TV and Roku, with a square housing and a blue bottom.
Connections include HDMI, a composite AV breakout (for connecting to older, non-HD TVs), USB ports (for connecting external storage drives), optical digital output, Gigabit Ethernet, and Wireless-N.
The device features an onscreen keyboard that's alphabetical and not QWERTY, but unlike the WD TV Live it's actually easy to type on using the new remote.
I described the clicker that came with 2011's WD TV Live as a "wonderful, hateful remote" that despite its reasonable size and feel had tall, rubbery buttons. This year's version is much improved with buttons that are much easier to press and a simplified layout -- the colored buttons are gone, for example.
What you can watch
While the WD TV Live had only 19 streaming services at launch, the WD TV family now boasts over 30. To my mind the most important are Netflix and Spotify, and they are joined by Vudu, Hulu Plus, YouTube, Blockbuster, CinemaNow, DailyMotion, Pandora, TuneIn Internet radio, and Shoutcast. The WD's apps include Facebook, Twitter(!), Picasa, Flickr, and AccuWeather. While there is a games app on the WD -- which perhaps gives the device its "Play" name -- the games are less diverting than most smartphone apps.
While the competing Netgear NeoTV NTV300 doesn't seem to have learned anything in its nine years in the streaming set-top box market, the WD TV Play has. It boasts a "tabletlike user interface" that actually is both configurable and easy to use. Apps such as Spotify and Weather still use the old Mochi interface with its large tabs, while the Netflix interface is the same as used by most other set-top boxes.
The interface is very configurable, with a My Favorites page that lets you choose which of the 30 apps you want shortcuts to. Even the three remote shortcut buttons -- Netflix, Vudu, and Hulu Plus -- can be easily changed to whichever app you please.
Like the NeoTV NTV300, the WD features a Slingbox app that can be used to connect to a remote Slingbox for cord-cutting when traveling during holidays or just in the next room.
The reason you'd buy this over the Roku, though, would be if you have a large library of digital files. Though some things are missing -- iTunes video and ISO playback, for example -- it still includes FLAC, AAC, MKV, DIVX, and Windows media.
Unlike the occasionally problematic NeoTV, the WD TV proved to be a fairly solid performer. If you have a collection of downloaded media it will play most videos, with some exceptions, and proves an excellent audio player.
Where the NeoTV suffered intermittent stuttering during Netflix playback, the WD TV remained solid and without "buffering" interruptions. Video quality, while at the mercy of its respective sources, was every bit as good as I could expect. You may find, as I did, that format playback involves a little trial and error; while the specs list included MKV support, this didn't always translate to anything but an error message.
Playback of music from a NAS (network-attached storage) drive was excellent with a clean playback screen, though the cover art would sometimes get mixed up.
We had some difficulties with the Slingbox app on the Netgear NeoTV NTV300, and after using the same app on the WD TV it seems the issue is with the software. While the connection was much stabler on the WD TV than the Netgear, it still took up to 15 seconds for commands to be recognized by the Slingbox. Compare this with a 2-second lag for the desktop app.
The best WD TV yet, the Play adds a better interface while keeping the mix of streaming and DLNA playback that made the WD TV Live a worthwhile Roku competitor. The WD TV remains the enthusiast's budget choice for media playback on any TV.
Editors' note: The earlier version of this review incorrectly stated that the WD TV does not support Pandora. It does, and the review has been corrected accordingly.