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Friday, October 16, 2009

Hands-On with Western Digital's TV Live HD Media Player

Possibly the media pirate's perfect movie and music streamer

Yesterday, Western Digital officially announced the second generation of their WD TV HD media player. In our review of the original device, we loved its ability to play back almost any video we tossed at it, but lamented its inability to handle encrypted media files. Since then, Western Digital has issued a series of firmware updates that improve format compatibility (including DivX), but the new WD TV Live adds new hardware features as well. Most notable is the addition of an Ethernet port to connect the WD TV Live to your home network. That means you can not only stream movies from your desktop PC or NAS boxes to the WD TV Live, but also get video, music, and photo content from the internet. We received a retail sample of the new system, and tested it to see if these new features are worth the $50 price bump.

First, a quick briefing on how the WD TV Live and its previous iteration work. The WD TV system is a media player, but video and music files aren't stored on the device itself. You connect USB hard drives or flash keys to either of the two USB ports on the back and the top of the player, and the WD TV reads files off of those storage drives to play onto a connected television or monitor. The first WD TV launched with support for most standard video formats (MPEG, WMV, H.264), 1080p resolution and high-bitrate playback, and used HDMI or Composite video connections. Its support for community-adopted video containers, like MKV and H.264 AVI files, made it a popular alternative to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 for media playback.

In addition, the firmware for the WD TV has been open source, which has led to 3rd-party firmware updates that have added neat functionality to the player, including USB optical drive and limited network adapter support. The WD TV Live utilizes new internal hardware, so it's unclear that existing 3rd-party firmware will run on it.

The WD TV Live's packaging is very similar to the original's. Included in the box is the player (which is about the size of a portal hard drive, only thicker), an IR remote, AAA batteries, power adapter, and video cables. The box includes both Composite and Component cables, though they're cables with 3.5mm jacks on one end to plug into the WD TV. Neither the first WD TV nor the WD TV Live include an HDMI cable, though everyone knows they're relatively cheap to buy from

Also new is a warning sticker on the back of the WD TV Live, reminding you not to stack USB hard drives on top of the player. In our experience, the player gets pretty hot when playing back 1080p video, though we've never had one of these devices die on us from overheating. Still, it's a good idea to keep the player on its side during use, and avoid placing it on top of or around other hot gadgets.

Physically, the WD TV Live (on the left in the above photo) is exactly the same dimensions as the original. WD opted for a matte grey finish as opposed to the glossy black of the original, which was prone to greasy fingerprints. We still prefer the black finish. The HDMI logo has also been removed from the front face of the device.

On the rear of the player, you can see the new Ethernet port as well as the modified Composite and Component video out ports. If you choose to use the Component connection, you'll have to output audio from the Composite port (for stereo sound) or use the Optical port for 5.1 audio playback. The HDMI connection outputs both audio and video.

Here's a quick glance at the differing format support, as indicated from the packaging (WD TV Live on the right). The original WD TV box is a little out of date, since new firmware has expanded what type of files the WD TV can play, including a wide range of soft subtitles. DRM-protected files are stil not yet supported. But enough about specs -- let's turn this thing on!

System boot up on is a tad faster than the new player, but the thing we noticed most was how responsive the new menu is. Optimizations in hardware and the OS software have paid off, and navigating around the WD TV doesn't feel sluggish at all. This is a necessary improvement, since there are more menu categories to browse around this time around.

The actual menus aren't changed much from the first WD TV. Cosmetic changes like a darker blue background aren't a big deal -- you still navigate around the layered menus using the arrow keys. You can use the included remote to work the menu system, or pair the WD TV with a universal remote like the Logitech Harmony series.

The first thing you'll want to do is set up the Network configuration. The WD TV has an automated setup process that detects your router settings and DLNA network drives, including Home Servers and NAS boxes.

We ran the WDTV through the gamut of numerous video and audio files of varying size, bitrate, and formats, and the WD TV Live handled them all with ease. Everything from MP4s ripped from DVDs using Handbrake, 1080P WMV movies from Microsoft, or even MKV H.264 Blu-Ray rips with embedded subtitles and 5 audio channels played back without problems.

HD video stored on a Windows Home Server was instantly detected and flowed over a wired connection without any loss of quality. When we connected the WD TV Live to a hacked router that acts as a wi-fi bridge to try streaming video over 802.11g, video playback was a little more limited -- very high bitrate files occasionally stuttered. You definitely want to be on a 802.11n network to stream high def content. Western Digital plans on selling its own wireless Ethernet adapter for the WD TV Live, but there's no work on what wi-fi standards it'll support.

On to the new connected features. WD TV can tap into Youtube to play video, but browsing options are pretty limited. You can enter channels showing the newest, most popular, highest rated, or "featured" videos, but searching for specific content is a tedious process. Entering search terms is done with the arrow keys on your remote, and it took us at least 5 minutes to find specific movie and game trailers. However, you can log into your Youtube account to visit favorited channels and user subscriptions.

By default, Youtube will stream the Hi-Quality of HD version of a video if its available. You can turn this off if you're on a slow or shakey internet connection.

Online music streaming is actually a pleasure to use. Menu entries for Pandora and Live365 let you log into an account and access online radio feeds. The player experience replicates the features of those services you'd find on their respective sites, as well. We're not sure how many people actually want to stream online radio to their TV, but the option is there.

Finally, you can browse Flick's photo content with pre-configured feeds, such as the last week's worth of "interesting" photos. Again, this is more of a novelty feature than an actual practical one -- we don't envision many people rummaging through Flickr on their TVs out of boredom.

One disappointment is that most of the pictures we opened from the Flickr feed turned out to be the low-resolution photo, which then isn't stretched out to fill the screen.

From our early tests, the WD TV Live looks to be a worthy successor to the WD TV. It's most attractive features haven't changed -- video aficionados and media pirates alike will still be drawn to it for its wide file format support. The Ethernet connectivity and streaming feature, however, really makes this a true contender as the dominant media player in your home theater setup. The device's small profile, relatively low power usage, and whisper quiet operation makes it more ideal than the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 for in-network media streaming. Whether that's worth $150 or adding another media player to your TV stand is up to you.

Note: As of the time of writing, Best Buy is selling the WD TV Live for $120 (may be backordered)