WD TV Live Plus: A Versatile HD Media Streamer with Netflix
At a Glance
Western Digital WD TV Live Plus
The WDTV Live Plus is a good choice for anyone looking for a single device capable of streaming Netflix as well as content on a local network or thumb drive.
The Western Digital WD TV Live Plus HD media player ($150 as of June 9) picks up where its predecessors, the WD TV and the WD TV Live, left off, adding integrated Netflix support to the previous versions' ability to play HD media from USB drives and (in the case of WD TV Live), local network and several popular Web sites including YouTube on your HDTV. But like the earlier versions, it lacks built-in Wi-Fi support so you'll need to either hook it up to your network via an ethernet cable or buy an optional USB Wi-Fi adapter.
In appearance, the WD TV Live Plus looks a lot like its predecessors-it's a small (about 5 by 4 by 1.6 inches) black box with a remote that fits comfortably in the palm of your hand. The WD TV Live Plus has HDMI, digital audio (SPID), and composite video outputs for connecting to your TV; two USB ports for media; and an ethernet port for hooking up to your home network. It comes with only composite and component video cables, however; you're on your own for the HDMI, digital and ethernet hookups. (In my tests, I connected the WD TV to a free LAN port in a HomePlug AV switch.)
Once connected to your home network, WD TV Live can stream media from any other network-connected drive you have permissions to access, as well as any plugged-in USB drives, and supported Web-based media services (Netflix, YouTube, Flickr, Pandora Radio, Live365, and a range of AV content via the MediaFly content distribution network). The user interface is straightforward: You scroll down through a list of media types and settings, then across to access content (or options, in the case of settings) within each.
Netflix support--in 720p high-definition--is the primary "Plus" here, as otherwise the WD TV Live Plus is basically the same as the WD TV Live. The Netflix interface will look familiar to anyone who's used the service on a Roku media streamer (which lacks support for media on a local network): It's exceptionally easy to navigate. I particularly appreciate the use of thumbnails to show where you are in a video when you're fast forwarding or rewinding.
Like the original WD TV Live, the Live Plus also has integrated YouTube support, and here again, the interface is excellent, with support for logging in to your account, accessing and designating favorites, and searching. Of course, YouTube videos vary widely in quality and resolution; low-res videos look pretty bad blown up on an HD screen. Also, YouTube's DRM technology bars playback of a lot of commercial content: You get a message saying that the content owner does not permit playback on TV-connected devices.
Flickr support is less robust: You can search for your own photos (by userID, tag, or keyword), but you can't actually log into your account. Thankfully, you can save yourself as a contact to gain easy access to your photos (you can also save tags).
You can log in to your Pandora account, play your custom stations and rate the songs. Same with Live365 (WDTV offers a trial of that service's premium paid membership, too). In general, music sounded good, but I do have one gripe about CDs streamed from DLNA-compliant network sources: Songs are always played in alphabetical order, unless the file names have numbers to show their order on the CD.
WD TV Live Plus has a few more customization options than the original WDTV: You can, for example, opt for a list view of folder contents instead of simply viewing icons. The icon view displays thumbnails, but can be a little confusing since you don't see a folder's name until you select it, at which point the name appears below all the icons. This can make it difficult to figure out where you are since the highlighting of a selected folder isn't very dramatic. Another little nicety: You can opt for fade-in, fade-out transitions between screens (as opposed to plain vanilla transitions).
A file management feature in the settings allows you to transfer files from a networked device to a thumb drive plugged into the WDTV Live Plus, which can come in handy if you're not happy with the quality of multimedia streamed over the network. For video especially, you get better results with files played locally. Of course, you could copy the files on a PC, but the ability to do so through the media player is convenient.
WD TV Live Plus supports several dozen multimedia file formats, including playlists and subtitles--but only for DRM-free content. There's an interesting media library compilation feature for files on a USB drive: You can run it to get your files sorted by media type. Settings for audio and video include HDMI deep color mode (8 bit or 12 bit), aspect ratio, and digital (vs. analog) audio.
If you've been looking for a way to add Netflix's streaming service to your HD home entertainment system, the WD TV Live Plus shapes up as an affordable and attractive option, especially for those who also want to stream media from networked PCs and storage devices. Lack of Wi-Fi support disappoints, but I didn't find it to be a deal-breaker since Wi-Fi isn't always an optimal technology for media streaming anyway.