While those enveloped in the Apple ecosystem have an obvious living room solution in the form of the Apple TV, we're not so lucky on the Windows side. Here, the situation is lot like the PC industry: A wealth of choices, sure, but only some of them are any good, and an even smaller percentage truly embraces the Windows way of doing things. But one line of devices does stand out, and that's Western Digital's WD TV series. Now unnecessarily encompassing three separate products, the WD TV line is to Windows as Apple TV is to iTunes.
Sadly, this isn't a slam dunk. Indeed, the WD TV Live is hardly ideal, and for many reasons. Don't get me wrong, it's not horrible, and it offers a number of features that aren't found on other devices. It's just not very refined. Again, like the PC.
It starts with the fact that Western Digital, like Roku, feels the need to pad out its set top box with multiple product versions. This is a mistake, in my opinion and will only cause confusion with consumers.
The choices break down as follows. At the low-end, WD offers the WD TV media player, which offers the following basics: 1080p with HDMI 1.3, composite video for standard definition (SD) output, dual USB connections for add-on storage, Ethernet connectivity, and support for a wide range of media formats. Step up to the WD TV Live and you get access to the You Tube, Flickr and Pandora services, home networking, home networking media sharing, and Windows 7 Play To support for streaming media, DTS, and a set of component video (rather than composite) connections. At the upper end is the device I purchased, the WD TV Live Plus. This provides a superset of the features of the other devices, plus Netflix support.
The problems with the WD TV, any WD TV, are immediately obvious. None of the devices offers any form of Wi-Fi connectivity, making the WD TV a non-starter in many households. (WD recommends a few USB-based Wi-Fi adapters, but really, that's too complex and expensive for most.) This is, I think, a byproduct of WD's emphasis on hard drive-based storage--it is a storage company, after all--but it makes the WD TV a lot less interesting for many.
The software interface is horrible, both ugly and utilitarian, and exactly the kind of thing that must keep Steve Jobs awake at night. It's awash in ugly blues and greens, and sure, it will get you where you're going, but come on. This is just an embarrassment.
This is what WD calls its "beautiful and intuitive HD menu navigation." Yikes.
On the WD TV Live Plus, the menu structure unfolds simply, with Internet media, Video, Photo, Music, and Settings top level choices. While most of these are obvious enough, Internet media provides access to just one service ... MediaFly. (Which actually looks interesting, but come on.) Netflix can be found in Videos, as can You Tube, and of course the more local options around attached hard drives, network shares, and (Windows Media oriented) media servers.
Standard definition (SD) video playback quality is decent but not great, even on a 1080p display. I can't really do side-by-side comparisons, but convinced I was getting a better picture out of the Apple TV than the WD TV, I did try to watch the same (standard definition) DVD rips on each, and the results were mixed. I'd say that overall Apple TV appears to have a slight edge over the WD TV.
On a more positive note, the WD TV (Live and Live Plus) do play nicely in Windows-centric homes, far more than any other device, including Microsoft's own Xbox 360. You have a number of Windows connectivity options, assuming the wired networking requirement isn't a non-starter. You can access media shares, much like the Xbox 360, but also SMB-based network locations, which could be useful when media sharing isn't available.
And, the WD TV (Live and Live Plus) supports Play To, a Windows 7-only feature that flips media streaming on its head: Instead of requesting remote content for local playback as you do traditionally (such as when playing a movie from another PC on your own PC), Play To lets you "push" content from the current PC to a compatible device. Thus far, few such devices have emerged. The Xbox 360 is one, for example, but only via its Media Center Extender interface. The WD TV Live (and Live Plus) are also Play To compatible.
In Windows Media Player for Windows 7, Play To is just a right-click away.
The Play To interface.
Sadly, this functionality is more promise than reality. In my testing of Play To, everything works as advertised: The WD TV Live Plus immediately shows up as a Play To target in Windows Media Player, content you throw over to the device from the PC plays immediately, and it all works pretty well. There's just one (major) problem: When playing video this way, the WD TV's screensaver actually kicks in on schedule, instead of staying off as you'd expect. Wa-waa-waaaah.
Overall, the WD TV Live Plus is a competent, but not spectacular set-top box. Whether you'll want or need such a thing depends on your needs. For those very firmly in the Microsoft camp, this device is actually the most Windows-compliant box there is, better even than the Xbox 360 because it's compatible with NTFS external hard drives (which the 360, conspicuously and egregiously is not), and works with media on standard Windows-based network shares. (Also, while the 360 supports Play To, that only works in the inconvenient Media Center Extender mode.)
For others, the WD TV Live Plus is just another box, one without wireless and without access to a wide range of services. It hits the high points, but not much else, and it does so using the ugliest UI on any of these devices. It's fine for what it is, but not outstanding in any meaningful way.