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Review: WD TV Play, a Compact Budget Set-Top Box

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With the compact and affordable ($69.99) WD TV Play, WD seems to have invented the Roku box. That would be more impressive if Roku hadn't already done it. Released today, the TV Play is the new low-end set-top box in the WD lineup. It offers all the basics that most users want -- easy set-up, 1080p streaming, access to most popular pay services -- and none of the extras that inflate a price tag. At the moment, it's only available through WD's website.

Installing the TV Play took only a few minutes. The set-top box can connect to the net over a Wi-Fi or Ethernet connection, and includes both an HDMI port and a composite AV port for the TV (the package includes a composite cord, but not an HDMI). The interface didn't impress at first, but we soon figured out some of the quirks. For example, the UI was clipped on the left and right sides, but that's because widescreen is on by default. Once we changed that and also changed the percentage that the UI is displayed (reducing it from 100 percent to 90 percent), all was well.

The TV Play features a new interface inspired by the popularity of apps. WD calls it an app interface, but it's not really. Channels are displayed in square buttons that WD calls apps. Users can customize the position of these buttons by selecting a button and pressing Option on the remote. They can also add other selections from an on-screen menu.

The box comes with a compact remote that includes one-touch buttons for Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Vudu. Don't look too hard for the Amazon button: there's no Amazon access. The on-screen interface offers Pandora, YouTube, Vimeo, Spotify, and other less well-known options. In a nod to social networking, the TV Play includes Facebook and Twitter connectivity. Entering status updates or tweets, or even looking up an account without a keyboard, though, would be too much of a chore.

Compared to a Roku box, the TV Play interface lacks polish, a consistent WD problem. Also, it feels sluggish. After the user makes a selection, the interface pauses a few seconds more than it should. It makes using the box a chore.

The TV Play supports DLNA networked devices, whether physically connected or located on a home network. We didn't have a compatible device to test. It also includes a USB port, although it doesn't support as many formats as other WD boxes. Supported formats include AVI, MKV, MP4/MOV, WMV9, and FLV. Anyone needing MPEG2 video or DTS audio should look to the WD TV Live set-top box.

WD offers a free WD TV Remote app for iOS and Android devices. It offers full control, and its on-screen keyboard is a must for Facebook or Twitter use. This set-top box can also function as a Slingbox receiver, for people who have a Slingbox connected to another TV.

The device worked well in playing movies, although the sluggishness of the interface made browsing menus slow work.

The TV Play's competition, the Roku 2 XD, normally sells for $79.99, although it's now $10 off. Shoppers will need to decide if they want the WD's Slingbox connectivity and if they can live with the sluggish interface. Once again, WD feels like it's almost there but not quite. If it could create a slick and attractive interface, it might give Roku a real challenge. 

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