Kevin Hunt: WD TV Play a Roku rival for HD streaming?


Western Digital's WD TV Play has your number. You're 18 to 55 years old, technologically savvy, a Windows user with movies and music in assorted formats and assorted resolutions on a PC or external hard drive.

You're a stream-your-own-content kind of creature. And you watch back episodes of "Keeping Up With the Kardashians" on Hulu. (Or perhaps not.)

A streaming media player, better known as "a box," is a favorite for watching Internet video on an HDTV using services like Netflix, Vudu and Hulu Plus or listening to Internet audio services like Pandora and Spotify. The boxes connect to an HDTV using an HDMI cable and access the Internet with either a direct connection to a router or by joining a home network.

The WD TV Play is Western Digital's newest, smallest and least expensive streamer, shaped like the sub-$100 competition — a Roku box or Apple TV — but costing less ($70, often discounted to $60). The WD TV Play, indeed, is among the least expensive ways to stream high-definition (1080p) video. Though it stocks the usual Internet audio and video streaming services, the WD TV Play is better suited to playing music and movies already in your home's media library.

The WD TV Play accepts most video files except MPEG2 and some open-source MKV files. It could not play, for instance, a high-bit-rate sampler track. It doesn't play DTS soundtracks and, unlike Western Digital's WD TV Live, can't access SMB shares over a network drive.

Streaming media from any DLNA device like a laptop or Android phone should prove effortless. Mac users must first download DLNA software like Plex or Playback, though even that will not guarantee smooth streaming. As a Mac owner, I'd pass on the WD TV Play. A Mac, iPad or iPhone will be much happier with an Apple TV. Among the benefits is beaming movies or television shows from an iPad (or iPhone) onto an HDTV.

For bipartisan households, Mac and Windows, Western Digital recommends a compatible network drive like its own My Book Live paired with a WD TV Play. Mac users can load files to the drive, then stream them from there instead of from a MacBook or iMac.

Besides high-def video, the WD TV Play plays everyday formats (MP3, Windows Media and AAC), but also high-resolution FLAC and AIFF (Apple's version of uncompressed WAV files). It will play high-resolution Dolby TrueHD soundtracks too. Like virtually every streamer I've tried, however, it could not play Apple Lossless files from a connected portable USB drive.

The WD TV Play's prime deficiency next to a Roku box is apparent as soon the on-screen menu appears: It has fewer than three dozen apps, while the new Roku 3 has close to 800 "channels." Of course, you'll get by without Roku's "Asian Crush" and "Cowboy Classics," but anyone ready for streaming Internet video should start with a Roku. (The new version lacks YouTube, surprisingly, but has a great feature built into its remote: a headphone jack for private listening.)

The WD TV Play displays apps in a no-frills menu under a master list, categories or favorites screen. There's no app store, though at least one app is updatable — the local weather.

Entering passwords using the remote and on-screen keyboard is painful. I finally switched to a wireless keyboard using the WD TV Play's USB port. But, surprise, I actually prefer the remote with its dedicated Netflix-Vudu-Hulu Plus buttons to the app available for both Apple and Android devices.

Boxee TV, yet another streaming media player, recently announced a firmware update that gives this $100 box DLNA streaming like the WD TV Play and beaming music and video direct from a mobile device like the Apple TV-Airplay combination. It's also rolling out a cloud DVR function.

The WD TV Play still has an advantage in compatible file formats. Is it obvious yet that buying a streaming media player isn't like picking out a Blu-ray player? Choose blindly, and you might find yourself lost somewhere in "Cowboy Classics."

khunt@tribune.com

What: WD TV Play media streaming player

Price: $70, wdc.com

Hot: Excellent for streaming your own movies and music.

Not: Only 33 Internet channels. No app store. Sluggish navigation.

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