I was very excited to hear that WD was releasing a new set top streamer with the announcement of the WD Play last week. WD was among the first to release small set top streaming boxes back in 2008, and since then, have released several very strong, if tragically overlooked, streaming devices that cover a wide variety of home theater implementations. Being a proud and very satisfied owner of multiple WDTV Live Streaming devices, I ordered this as soon it became available to see what new things- if any- WD was bringing to the table in terms of streaming.
The WD Play is positioned as an entry level streaming product, costing less than the WDTV Live Streaming (whose listed price for all of 2012 averaged $90 new, but is now hiked to near MSRP of $120, right after the WD Play's release), and significantly less than the WDTV Live Hub. The WD Play is NOT positioned to replace either of those fantastic devices, nor would I recommend anyone doing so.
Unfortunately, I cannot recommend this device to many home theater users. I can ONLY recommmend it for people who solely want it to access apps such as Pandora, Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, and others like it. While WDTV Play retains a lot of media format compatibility as other WDTV devices, WD has inexplicably cut out support for mpeg and DTS audio. The former is forgivable, as it's an outdated and relatively underused format, but the latter absolutely is not. The interface for accessing networked media, or simply changing audio or subtitle tracks is crippled and very counter-intuitive. Perhaps most telling about this device is the physical remote. Gone are many of useful interface buttons found in other WDTV device remotes, and in their stead, are big prominent buttons for Netflix, Hulu, and Vudu. This is a product that I feel was needlessly dumbed down. Non-technical users that I've introduced to the WDTV Live Streaming haven't had any problems using that significantly more robust product. Oddly enough, WD continues to offer a good, technical smartphone remote app to offset the very limited physical remote, but I question the logic of this: Why have a technical smartphone remote for this device, when what you are accessing on the WDTV Play has been over simplified and targeted towards a supposed highly nontechnical user? Wouldn't a user that is technical enough to use a smartphone remote app be technical enough to use the interface options found in the Live Streaming/Hub, that were stripped out in the Play?
There are a lot of inconsistencies and shortcomings in this device. These inconsistencies are too glaring to ignore for the technical user, and are even questionable when it comes to the non technical user.
OUT OF THE BOX:
The WDTV Play is slightly smaller than the WDTV Live Streaming. It offers HDMI out, SPDIF/Optical audio out, 10/100 Ethernet, as well as fairly a fairly good 802.11n WiFi adapter. There is also a USB 2.0 port for uploading firmware updates, or for connecting a USB device to play media locally, albeit USB 2.0 has very slow transfer speeds for any serious media outside of small MP3s or standard definition video. They also include a composite A/V cable, but that is likely to be unused for the majority of people with modern TV's under 10 years old. Setting this up is a no brainer. This is a good thing. While there was an immediate firmware update which took 10 minutes, everything works right out of the box with no absolutely technical setup- beyond selecting a language- required.
This is the strongest feature of the WDTV Play. Most of the most widely used apps are all immediately accessible from the "Home" page of the WD Play and more can be added or removed, similar to a Windows Live Tile interface. There are a good number of apps available, but the lack of access to Amazon Prime Video is a void that may lead others to other set top devices that support it. For what it's worth, I do have confidence that WD will eventually add Amazon Prime in the future. Set top boxes are a competitive market and WD will need Amazon onboard if they want to remain competitive. Apps run better on the Play than in other WDTV devices, and gone seems to be some of the more egregious lag and crashing that seemed to happen on the other WDTV devices when certain apps were left to continuously run. So there were some improvements on how apps were handled. I do also like the addition of a meter to show how much of the onboard storage has been used for apps (up to 256MB of apps can be installed). There is Facebook integration with this device, but I don't see any applicable purpose to that, other than providing companies a way of collecting your usage data.
INTERFACE & MEDIA SERVER STREAMING, ADVANCED USERS:
The WDTV Play has an very simplified interface. In the older WDTV Live Streaming and Hub devices, media was compartmentalized and organized in logical sections for Music, Video, Services (Apps), Weather, etc. It was simple, elegant, and easy for anyone to follow. The WDTV Play on the other hand, has everything presented on a single screen, as a jumble of different icons, presented in a way that's similar to a Windows 8 Live Tile interface. While pressing the Settings/Tools button on the remote allows arranging of the icons, I feel that the look is very cluttered. What may work for smartphones and laptops, isn't necessarily optimal for a TV interface. People will have some very mixed feelings about this interface. The naming of the button to access networked media and USB connected media "My Storage" is also a bit nebulous and there doesn't seem to be a way to manually input locations to search. "My Storage" seems to just automatically pick up DLNA servers, public network shares, and connected USBs and present them all on the same panel, which is very good for ease of access, but if you utilize specific usernames and passwords to access shared folders on your network (as a good, secure network policy should be set up), because WD Play is stripped of manual input options and only detects "Public" shares, you will have no way accessing it. (In Windows, these would be shared drives and folders shared with "Everyone"). A solution to this would be to set the publicly shared folders to share with "Everyone", but set to read only permissions. This of course isn't ideal there are situations where you don't want something shared broadcast over your entire network. IThis calls to attention the immediate deficiencies in the WD Play's ability to be a front end for networked media.
The hallmarks of a good networked home theater setup are as follows: Compatibility, Quality/Output, and Interface. The WDTV Play is severely lacking in all of these areas. Like the older WDTV Live Hub & Streaming devices, the WDTV Play supports DLNA. DLNA is the backbone of any good networked home entertainment system. Put simply, it allows someone to host a bunch of files on a computer/file/media server, and the DLNA compatible device, like the WDTV, accesses and plays files from it. The most popular setups rely on media server software like PS3 Media Server, Universal Media Server, Plex, etc to be installed on the computer hosting the music and videos, and "serves" it up to the frontend interface device, like the WDTV Play. Another popular setup is to use file sharing within the Operating System of anything you want to access. Unfortunately, while WDTV Play can easily access public network shares and DLNA media servers, compatibility is a bit crippled on this device. Despite the Play supporting a lot of video containers (ie: MKV, AVI, WMV, etc), WD decided to strip out mpeg video support and DTS audio (format of audio/video within the video containers themselves). While mpeg is outdated and has largely been superceded by the highly popular h264 compression format, DTS is VERY widely used. DTS is a high bitrate, very high quality audio format found in countless movies. The WDTV Play oddly recognizes and plays videos that use DTS, but audio output is silent. If you have a lot of videos that use DTS, you'd have to take a lot of time just to convert all of your videos just so you could hear them with this device. This is a dealbreaker for any serious networked home theater setups, considering most set top boxes support DTS, and most high end video uses DTS audio.
The WDTV Play can ouput 1080p video @ 60Mhz and surround sound audio, but because it lacks DTS audio support, the full home theater experience with this device is pretty limited. Compounding this is a very poor interface when accessing your media via "My Storage". In the WDTV Live Streaming & Hub devices, users could change the appearance of how files were displayed, with one of the best views being a vertically scrolling list of files on the left, with a preview window and media details on the right. The WDTV Play limits users to only ONE VIEW for interacting with networked media: a side scrolling list of files (like "List View" in Windows), with no front page details and no separate, dedicated preview window. There is an odd preview window, but it isn't in a fixed position (see picture) and overlays the file list right underneath whatever is selected. It actually changes position every time you scroll through your list of files. It's very unprofessional looking and I honestly thought it was a bug. Once you start playing videos, some other interface issues become very apparent as well. With the WDTV Live Streaming and Hub devices, you could use the dedicated remote buttons for "Subtitle" and "Audio" to cycle through available subtitle and audio tracks in a video, without blocking or interrupting what is being played. Now, because WD removed those buttons, you only have the new "Tools" button, which causes a menu screen to pop up and block the entire screen, in which you must scroll down and go through multiple clicks just to change a subtitle or audio track. This is off putting and tedious, particularly if you like watching foreign videos, or if you have a hearing disability and need subtitles.
If you have a lot of video files with DTS audio: Not for you.
If you want to do DLNA streaming from your media server or file system: Not for you, the limited interface and compatibility issues will drive you nuts.
If you just want to have Netflix on your TV: You may want to consider it, but there are better, more feature rich devices out there, that don't have such a confused, inconsistent interface, including WD's higher end devices. (Smart shoppers can find the WD TV Live Streaming brand new for only a little bit more than the Play, or if they are comfortable with refurbs, for even less!)
The $70.00 MSRP of this device and all of the issues mentioned make this a tough sell. Considering how fantastic the older WDTV Live Streaming device is, and how that it can be had, refurbished, for LESS than this device, and how it has much more refined, unified interface, makes the WDTV Play very hard to recommend.
Until the interface on this device is made consistent and some interaction options restored (file view layout options, manual selection and input of network locations to search for media), there's not a whole lot to like here. For what it's worth, the WD has been very good with firmware improvements on other devices. If the WD Play firmware is improved, updates will be posted to the review as necessary.
OVERVIEW OF WD TV PRODUCT LINE:
WDTV Play -- intended as an entry level device, geared towards accessing Netflix and the like, not optimal for networked home theater setups. It is the least expensive, but limited in many ways.WD TV Live Streaming Media Player Wi-Fi 1080p AVI Xvid MKV MOV FLV MP4 MPEG
-- a jack of all trades that is great for accessing Netflix type apps, and is probably the best networked home theater streaming device available, with compatibility for practically everything. It is the best all around device for technical and non technical users alike and is competitively priced, can actually cost less than the Play if bought refurbished.Western Digital 1 TB WD TV Live Hub Media Center, Full-HD 1080p - AVI, Xvid, MKV, MOV, FLV, VOB, MP3, WAV, MP4, MPEG, WMV9
is nearly identical to the Streaming, but adds large 1TB onboard storage, 10/100/1000 ethernet, and is intended for those who want to setup a no hassle plug and play streaming hub and/or don't have the technical know how to set up a media server or network shares using their computer. It is the most expensive option.