WD TV Live Streaming Media Player

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WD TV Live

Nov 20, 2011 by Mike Chin

Product WD TV Live
Streaming Media Player
Manufacturer Western Digital
MSP $129; $99 street price

Television has changed so dramatically in the 21st century that the notion of gathering at some prescribed time to view a particular program seems quaint. Time shifting made possible by auto-scheduled recordings on PVRs, high definition web downloads of shows with all the commercials neatly excised, online media service providers like Netflix and the near-universal rise of home computer networks has taken a huge bite out of the old paradigm of a 100 million people huddled around their TV sets for a synchronized mind-feed of the nation's most popular show. Except in the case of mega sports events like the Super Bowl or the NBA final, of course. (Or, if mainstream media is to be believed, the spring 2011 wedding extravaganza and whirlwind Canadian tour of British royals.)

Among the modern media devices competing for consumer dollars are not only HD personal video recorders (PVRs) from subscription TV companies (both cable and DSL-based), but a huge range of multi-media devices — smart phones, video/MP3 players, computer tablets, laptop and desktop PCs, and streaming media players like the WD TV Live in this review.

Digital media receiver or player is another term used to describe devices like the WD TV Live. The first ones were audio only, but quickly expanded to video as well. A fairly early, highly quality, audio-only streaming media player was the Squeezebox, version 3 of which was reviewed here some years ago. The more video-oriented media players are offered by a large range and number of brands — Asus, Apple, D-link, Vewsonic, Sony, Logitech, and Denon, to name just a few. Many of these brands have never ventured into consumer home entertainment before, but as we race headlong to an all-digital world, computers and entertainment technologies are rapidly merging. Western Digital, a name long associated with hard disk drives, is a case in point.

Third variant of the WD TV Live comes in a small retail box.

WD TV Live is a typical consumer electronic gadget package: The unit itself, a small remote control with batteries included, analog composite output cables, and a wall-wart AC/DC adapter. In case you haven't noticed, the gadget is tiny, just marginally bigger than portable USB drives that employ 2.5" HDDs.

The window on the left is for the IR sensor to get signals from the remote control. It needs to be line of sight. The USB port in front can be handy for a keyboard (if desired) or more typically, storage devices like flash or external drives.

A close look shows that the unit is just big enough to house the connecting ports on the back panel: from left to right, power, optical SPDIF, ethernet, HDMI, a second USB and analog composite output.

The WD TV Live is actually a slight revision of the WD TV Live Hub, introduced in Q3 2010. The new product eliminates the built-in hard drive storage of the TV Live Hub, but is otherwise very similar, and uses the same interface and remote control. Aside from the HDD difference, the most important changes are the addition of wireless networking, and some firmware changes, including more online service providers.


This review asks two main questions. The answers are summarized below.

1. What does the WD TV Live do? It functions as a controller to deliver all kinds of content to your HDTV from many sources — computers on your network, a digital storage device connected directly to the unit via USB, or web services. It accesses your existing network via wired or built-in wireless ethernet. Video, music, and photo files of virtually all types are supported. A couple dozen web sources of content — both free like youtube and pay like netflix — are preprogrammed into the WD TV. Presumably, as web services are expanded, firmware upgrades to the WD TV Live will make new services available.

WD TV Live provides the media streaming functionality of a HTPC without the bother of setting up and maintaining another computer. As long as you have one or more computers and high speed access to the web, WD TV Live is as good as a full-fledge HTPC in most practical ways. Of course, one limitation is tuning directly to a TV station; WD TV Live does not have or support a tuner. It also has no way to download and save files directly from the web, either, but presumably, that functionality already exists in your computers.

2. How well does it do all the above? The complete answer is the whole review, but the short answer is, "Very well". Most notable is the user interface, one of the cleanest, quickest, and most transparent I've encountered in any electronic/digital device in quite some time. Most people exposed often and long to complex machines come to realize that the user interface is critical. A product like TV Live is by its very nature, a complex one, and WD has succeeded in creating a menu and command system that feels straightforward and intuitive for a casual user, yet with quick access to fine details to satisfy an Alpha geek. User friendly, simple setup, and consistent are apt descriptions. On top of this, the quality of the video and audio output on HDMI is excellent.

Now for the details.

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