There’s something of a glut in the media streamer space, with most new entrants falling into the “unmemorable” category – and we regularly pass on covering the parade of derivative boxes. However, Western Digital’s no stranger to this market and we’ve often recommended their solutions over the years. And, with WDTV Play, they bring a compelling new approach… along with competitive pricing ($70).
Whereas prior WD TV revs seem to emphasize personal media, the new WD TV Play prioritizes streaming media services. And, with the notable exceptions of Amazon Instant, Western Digital pretty much has most of the tent pole apps covered: Netflix, YouTube, Pandora, Vudu. While no one can really touch Roku in “channel” count, there’s a lot of
crap niche programming. WDTV Play may have fewer channels, but the signal to noise ratio is much more favorable.
What really sets this device apart and where the Play gets interesting is in how it presents content. The Apple TVs and Rokus of the world essentially present a single screen of accessible apps, represented by uniformly sized rectangular icons. Yeah, the WDTV Play does that too. However, beyond the default customizable Favorites screen, apps can also be organized by category like Video and Music. So the UI’s a bit more like a smartphone, with a number of screens to flip between. Also Android-esque are the widgets (!) — instead of loading up a fullscreen weather app, for example, that sort of glanceable info is available right in the UI. Other examples of “live” apps that can be pinned to your screen of choice include Facebook, Twitter, and Picasa. And if you’re streaming music via an app like Spotify, it’ll continue to play while browsing the device with current track info displayed up top. Lastly, although not new to WDTV boxes, being able to swap the background image provides even further customization.
One more nifty trick - the WD TV Play provides the ability to launch into a specific app, similar to how the Xbox 360 can be configured to run Media Center, a game disc, or the Metro console at boot. So, for example, say 80% of your viewing is Hulu Plus – why not power up directly into that channel to save a few clicks and seconds.
The primary difference between the new Play and the slightly more expensive WDTV Live and Play is in how the boxes handle local USB and DLNA media. And we assume the decision was partially driven by usage patterns and to reduce licensing expenses … as MPEG2 and DTS support have been dropped. Further, corresponding media meta data, like album art, is no longer pulled. Having said that, the WD TV Play supports a wide array of file formats and codecs, significantly outperforming native Roku and Apple TV capabilities in this area. (To answer a frequent incoming query on YouTube: Yes, I can successfully play Blu-ray MKV rips. However, DVDs will have to be transcoded.)
On the hardware front, there’s not a whole lot to say. Like many competitors in this space, the Play is capable of 1080p video, surround sound, and integrates 802.11n wireless capabilities. However, unlike the equivalently priced Roku 2 XD, the WDTV also provides Ethernet and optical connectivity options. The box itself is compact and mostly nondescript other than a bit of blue flare on the base, and I actually prefer the the WDTV Live design aesthetics a bit more. Not that it really matters, as set-tops generally end up buried within a TV stand. The hardware remote is a definite step up from Western Digital’s prior attempts, both in function and appearance – also sporting a bit of blue, along with a palatable number of presumably sponsored channel buttons. It’s worth noting the battery cover on my particular model seems slightly loose on one side. But, again, I’m not sure it matters as the WDTV smartphone remote is more functional, incorporating QWERTY text entry capabilities.
Overall, we came away impressed with this versatile little guy and find the WDTV Play quite compelling. And it’s nice to finally see some 10′ interface innovation in this sector. Of course, neither Apple nor Roku are sitting still… And we expect to enhancements from both this year. 2013′s gonna be fun.