Western Digital WD TV Media Player (2014) review: Media box is like VLC for your TV
Although it looks like the Roku, Apple TV and many other set-top "pucks," the WD TV Media Player is something different.
Instead of focusing on streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Video, the little box prides itself on being able to deliver pretty much any file in your media collection -- video, audio or photo -- to your TV and home audio system. The device has no built-in storage, but interfaces with your existing storage devices, such as external hard drives, a NAS server or a computer, via its USB ports or your home network.
If you're familiar with VLC Media Player, the jack-of-all-trades, open-source video playback software popular among more tech-savvy PC and Mac users, then just think of WD TV as VLC for your TV. If you've never heard of VLC, then you probably don't have a collection of media files you'd like to play on your TV, and the WD TV probably isn't for you. For media hoarders looking for a reliable way to play back video on the big screen, however, the WD TV is tailor-made.
Version information: Western Digital has released numerous similarly named products over the years, most recently the WD TV Play in 2013. This review refers to the 2014 version, called simply "WD TV Media Player." It's available worldwide, and comes in NTSC and PAL versions depending on the video standard of the country in which it's sold. We tested the NTSC version sold in the US (model number WDBYMN0000NBK), but the PAL version sold in the UK and Australia (model number WDBPUF0000NBK) should be otherwise identical.
Design and features
The WD TV resembles a lot of other set-top boxes with a simple rounded rectangle design. It's 4.9 inches in width, 3.9 inches in depth, and 1.2 inches in height.
The back features an optical audio output, Ethernet, HDMI output, a USB port and an AV output for analog connections. An IR receiver and a USB port are on the front. The bottom of the device has slots that allow the box to be wall mounted. The WD TV can be controlled using a free iOS or Android app and can also respond to commands via HDMI control signals from compatible devices, like a TV.
For wireless connectivity, the box supports 802.11 a/b/g/n and Miracast so you can mirror your screen from devices running Android 4.4.2 (and higher) or Windows 8.1.
User interface and remote
When the device starts up, there is a grid of icons pinned to the front page. Plenty of audio services are upfront with Pandora, SiriusXM, and Spotify preloaded as favorites. Video services include CinemaNow, Hulu Plus, Vudu and YouTube. To access your local content, there are icons for Music, Photos and Videos.
Unlike its predecessor, the WD TV Play, the WD TV drops support for Netflix, which is an odd move. It also lacks many other major video streaming services found on other devices, including Amazon Instant Video, HBO Go and Showtime Anytime.
For more apps, a click of the bell icon on the top right of the screen reveals all the services available for the WD TV. Clicking through to services brings you to over 80 apps. Unlike a Roku, the WD TV doesn't require installation of apps. Clicking a particular service like DailyMotion will launch the app. To pin it to the front page, you make it a favorite. The interface isn't pretty or full of unnecessary flourishes, but it gets the job done.
Local content navigation is a highlight. Folders containing large numbers of files loaded somewhat slowly the first time, but the device creates an index file after that initial load, allowing for much quicker access the second and succeeding times. I also appreciated the ability to change folder views from thumbnails to list view.
The included remote is large and complex compared with the tiny clickers of most other set-top boxes. It has the standard four directional buttons that surround a select button, but it also includes a number of dedicated buttons for functions including subtitles, audio, mute, search and eject. The remote is a big clue to WD TV's intended audience: people with their own video libraries who are used to a degree of complexity.
Performance and apps
The main draw of the WD TV is its local and network video playback, and it performed admirably in our tests.
The device played back a massive 1080p HD, 27GB MKV file, over a wired network after just a few seconds of load time. Scrubbing through video playback and chapters was outstanding. Hitting the options button while the video played displayed information like bit rate and file size along with options to change aspect ratio, audio lip sync and even share a screenshot to Facebook or Twitter.
The WD TV can play pretty much any file format and a variety of codecs including MKV, AAC, DIVX, FLV and MOV. Photo slideshows and music files worked just fine as well.
On top of all that, WD included Miracast support in the WD TV. Mirroring a Windows 8.1 device worked very well, with just a tiny bit of lag. The wireless connection between the Windows 8.1 laptop and the WD TV broke down about 15 feet away, but that's plenty of range for most people. Miracast could also be a good way to workaround the lack of certain video streaming apps on the WD TV, but it's less than ideal.
App load times were an issue. They varied from about two seconds for local media apps to over 20 seconds for online video streaming apps like YouTube and Hulu. Load times appeared so sluggish (particularly the YouTube app) at times, I started to question whether the WD TV registered the input.
With its focus on files and seemingly half-hearted support for apps and streaming services, the WD TV is meant clearly for people who have a collection of videos on a hard drive somewhere. Its file support is hard to beat and its handling of enormous video files is fantastic. If you want lots of apps, stick to Roku. For the person who is looking for a front end to a local media library, the WD TV is an excellent choice.