Western Digital has been making streaming set-top boxes for several years now. Their WD TV line has consistently packed a lot of value into their little black boxes. The latest, called WD TV Play, continues in that tradition, offering a plethora of content options at a lower price-point than some of their competitors.
At 4.2 x 4.1 x 1.1 inches, the blocky, rounded corner shape of the WD TV Play immediately brings Apple TV to mind. The two devices share a lot of similarities, beyond their names and physical appearance. Both also bring streaming internet content to your television. Like Apple TV, WD TV Play features apps for Netflix and Hulu, and can stream local files. Where WD TV sets itself apart, however, is in the services it offers beyond the iTunes Store.
Since WD isn't married to Apple's content universe, it offers users a wider range of services. While Amazon's Instant Video is noticeably absent, WD could add the service with an update (and frankly, we'd be surprised if they didn't). The WD TV also offers content from Cinema Now, Flixter, Vudu, and several others. Sure, these are smaller players in the online video marketplace, but we certainly can't fault WD for casting as wide a net as possible.
Slingbox owners will be pleased to know that the box also works with those devices, making it a simple solution for streaming content from your Slingbox in another room, or another state for that matter. When it comes to music, WD TV Play supports Spotify and Pandora out of the box, in addition to a few smaller services.
Like Apple TV, the WD TV Play doesn't have any local storage, although the WD offers a USB port, so you can easily plug in a drive full of content and use WD's interface to playback your entire music library. With support for DLNA devices, you could do the same thing wirelessly from your Mac, with the addition of some DLNA server software.
The interface on WD TV Play sticks with the "Mochi" tiled interface of its predecessor. You can move individual apps around, and some can be widgetized to display information. The remote is simple to use, but the mostly same-sized buttons are laid out in a grid pattern that doesn't offer much to help you navigate without looking. There are dedicated buttons for Netflix, Vudu, and Hulu Plus, although two of them can be reconfigured to launch different services.
While WD TV Play offers some additional options beyond the Apple TV, navigating the device can be frustrating. The Hulu app in particular had an annoying habit of registering two clicks on the remote, when we'd only pressed once. Luckily, there's an app that turns your iOS device into a much more reliable Wi-Fi remote. The added ability to type on your device, rather than use the WD TV's oddly-designed onscreen keyboard is another major bonus.
Western Digital tries to set its box apart by incorporating additional services. There are channels for Twitter and Facebook, but they're the runts of the litter. For example, the Twitter interface isn't even large enough to show an entire tweet, forcing you to select an individual tweet in order to read the whole thing. We don't know anyone who would want to read Twitter four truncated tweets at a time. Facebook is worse, taking up most of the screen with chrome and buttons, while your newsfeed is presented two statuses per screen.
The bottom line. For owners of Apple TV or earlier WD TV models, there's not a lot to convince you to switch or upgrade. But if you're looking for a do-almost-everything streaming box, WD TV Play offers a lot of bang for just a few bucks, even if the "extras" don't amount to much.
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