Review: Western Digital TV Play

Accomplished couch potatoes have long abandoned cable for streaming services like Netflix, or bulging media collections strewn across hard drives and home networks. But how do we funnel all that into one place? A media streamer, of course. There are plenty available than can ease the transition from web or PC to TV — Western Digital’s latest entry into the fray is the WD TV Play, a very capable set-top box priced at a wallet-friendly $70.

But the competition is stiff. The Apple TV ($100), D-Link MovieNite Plus ($80) and Roku 2 ($80) have been on the market for months, offering simple setup, 1080p playback and a slew of streaming services. The Play will need to work pretty hard to stand out.

It does have one thing going for it, besides saving you 10 bucks: support for a generous number of file formats, which will go a long way for those of us with massive collections of movies and shows (all legally acquired, of course). And things turn out favorably for Western Digital’s little tyke. Mostly.

The 4-inch WD TV Play sports HDMI, optical audio and component cable outputs on the back, alongside a gigabit Ethernet port. The device also has an 802.11n Wi-Fi radio, if you’d prefer to keep yet another cable out of the mix. Initial setup took seconds — just plug it in, connect it to your TV via HDMI (cable not included, unfortunately) and select your language.

The bundled remote control is tiny and includes three dedicated buttons for Netflix, Vudu, and Hulu Plus. The Vudu and Hulu buttons can be reprogrammed; I’m among the unwashed masses who haven’t tried either, so I set those buttons to call up my personal media and Spotify, respectively.

While the remote does an adequate job of getting you around menus and the like, you’ll need to spend quite a bit of time entering account details and arcane (read: secure) passwords, which is onerous to say the least. But it’s par for the course when setting one of these up. To ease the pain, the USB port sitting on the Play’s side will let you connect a keyboard in addition to the more obvious USB thumb drives and external storage devices.

There’s more. AccuWeather serves up weather reports, including with forecast video clips. An RSS reader offers up episodes from audio and video podcasts, and you can add your own feeds if you’re inclined to manually hammer in URLs. You’ll also find a few games — Bejeweled clones and the like — but they’re all, in a word, horrid.

The Play lacks an app store, but does support firmware and app updates. There’s also the potential for new apps to make their way to the device later on, as only 15MB of the Play’s 220MB of available storage space are used. That’s promising, as an app for Amazon’s Instant Video service is notably absent.

If you’re looking for a fast, simple way to get videos anywhere in your home onto your television, the WDTV Play’s simplicity makes it a decent option. The competition has it beat on looks and available streaming services, but if you’re just interested in watching files you’ve downloaded or settling down for an extended Netflix session, $70 gets you in the door.

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