Jonathan Takiff: New media player offers more options for streaming video

Posted: February 15, 2013

NOT A week passes when we don't hear buzz about some new "over the top" Internet TV device, channel or show aiming to claim your viewing hours.

The big pitch? Content is customized to your special pleasures and lots cheaper than cable and satellite TV services.

A new entry popped onto our viewing screen this week. From WD, a/k/a Western Digital Technologies, comes a new, trimmed-down, $69.95 WD TV Play media player with some special features.

And, speaking at a media conference, Intel exec Erik Huggers sprang the news that his megachip company would soon launch a new TV box and streaming video service.

Not much bigger than a deck of playing cards, the WD TV Play connects to your home Internet service via Wi-Fi or Ethernet cable. An HDMI cable connects it to your TV. Hit the power button on the remote and up on the screen pops a menu with (currently) 33 essential apps.

There are also dedicated buttons on the remote for jumping to the popular Netflix, Hulu Plus and Vudu movie/TV services, although not Amazon's Instant Video.

Also prominently featured are a useful AccuWeather display, the popular streaming-music services Spotify (for premium subscribers only) and Pandora, social-networking feeds Facebook and Twitter, and Internet-radio aggregators TuneIn Radio and SHOUTcast boasting thousands of free, often advertiser-free music channels from around the world.

A few other things set the WD TV Play apart from its competition (Roku, Apple TV, Boxee). It's the cheapest little box I've seen with a USB port for connecting an external drive, allowing you to play any and all video and audio content stored on the drive. You can't record from the WD box to the drive, however.

Rarer still, this device has an app to accept content from a Slingbox player attached to a cable or satellite box elsewhere in the house. That could save you a monthly leasing fee on a second cable box, although picture quality is softened some.

I am not fond of the WD's remote, which must be pointed directly at the WD box, unlike the super slick radio-controlled remotes for Roku boxes.

But I'm lovin' the free WD TV Remote app. It turns your iPhone, iPod touch, iPad or Android-compatible mobile device into a more advanced, Wi-Fi linked remote control with some "swipe" features, volume control, pause and forward/reverse skip where the content supplier allow.

The app triggers on-screen action at a superfast pace, especially with the fine-tuned, high-resolution Netflix service, which had me flipping quickly through episodes of "House of Cards," the service's first and deliciously cynical homegrown series.

INTEL SPEAKS: Like Apple, Intel has been trying unsuccessfully to convince cable-channel owners to allow consumers to buy individual channels, rather than a bundle encompassing everything the company owns.

But Intel exec Eric Huggers hinted at the All Things Digital "D: Dive Into Media" conference this week that "curated" channels - offering, say, the best of ESPN - might be an acceptable offering for the OTT box Intel plans to sell later this year.

The neatest/creepiest innovation being promised is user recognition, relying on a built-in camera. With this feature, if the Intel device sees you plopped in front of the screen, it will summon up a custom home screen of your favorite stuff. For those with viewing habits to hide, the feature can be disabled.


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