I have had a personal fondness for WD TV boxes since the release of the original streamer in late 2008. Each model has improved markedly on the last, and the newest WD TV Play is the best of the bunch.
With its $69 price tag, the WD TV Play is priced competitively, falling directly between the two big dogs of the sub-$100 media streamer space: the Roku ($50 to $100) and the Apple TV ($100). Its interface is clean, setup is a breeze, and playback during our testing was glitch-free. And it's got many of the "must-have" streaming apps, including Netflix, Vudu, Hulu Plus, and Spotify -- plus YouTube and SlingPlayer, two apps that aren't currently available on Roku.
Current weak spots are the lack of Amazon Instant and the dearth of live sports, such as MLB baseball, NBA, and NHL -- all of which, along with hundreds of other channels, are available on a Roku. And, of course, the WD TV Play won't do the Apple- and iTunes-based media that the Apple TV does so well. But the WD TV will do a great job of pulling PC-based media -- especially audio -- that you already have on your network.
In other words, stick with the Roku if you want the largest number of Internet-based media services, and the Apple TV if you're already invested in the Apple content ecosystem. But opt for the WD TV Play if you're looking for a streamer that offers the best mix of cloud streaming and DLNA/home network playback. Especially if you're interested in the latter, the WD TV Play is the best player for the money.
There are two constants when it comes to selling streaming boxes: 1) it should cost $100 or less and 2) it should look like a pillbox. While previous Western Digital boxes adhered to the first maxim, they were always a little flatter and boxier than other designs. The new Play follows the template set by the new Apple TV and Roku, with a square housing and a blue bottom.
Connections include HDMI, a composite AV breakout (for connecting to older, non-HD TVs), USB ports (for connecting external storage drives), optical digital output, Gigabit Ethernet, and Wireless-N.
The device features an onscreen keyboard that's alphabetical and not QWERTY, but unlike the WD TV Live it's actually easy to type on using the new remote.
I described the clicker that came with 2011's WD TV Live as a "wonderful, hateful remote" that despite its reasonable size and feel had tall, rubbery buttons. This year's version is much improved with buttons that are much easier to press and a simplified layout -- the colored buttons are gone, for example.
What you can watch
While the WD TV Live had only 19 streaming services at launch, the WD TV family now boasts over 30. To my mind the most important are Netflix and Spotify, and they are joined by Vudu, Hulu Plus, YouTube, Blockbuster, CinemaNow, DailyMotion, Pandora, TuneIn Internet radio, and Shoutcast. The WD's apps include Facebook, Twitter(!), Picasa, Flickr, and AccuWeather. While there is a games app on the WD -- which perhaps gives the device its "Play" name -- the games are less diverting than most smartphone apps.