Western Digital’s original WD TV digital media player was notable for the its HDMI output, strong support for just about every popular digital media format, and the fact that WD didn’t force you to pair the product with one of their own portable hard drives. This second-generation device keeps all those features and adds a few more, including network support and the ability to tap online services such as YouTube, Pandora, Flickr, and Live635. But is that enough to justify a 50% price delta compared to its predecessor? Read on to find out.
DLNA-compatible network connectivity is the biggest draw. The original product could access only media stored on a portable USB storage device (either a hard drive or flash memory). The WD TV Live retains that feature, but adds hardwired network support so that you can tap media stored on your network (including password-protected shared folders on PCs, network-attached storage devices, Windows Home Server, and so on). You can also access any media servers running on your network. Don’t have an Ethernet jack next to your TV? Plug a compatible wireless USB Wi-Fi client adapter into the second USB port and establish a link to your wireless router that way (click here for a list of compatible adapters). If you don’t have a Wi-Fi network (or if your TV is in a dead spot), you might consider powerline networking.
In addition to retrieving the digital videos, music, and media stored on your own network or portable drive, you can also access media on the Internet, including videos on YouTube, music on Pandora or Live365, and digital photos on Flickr. Netflix streaming support, however, is conspicuously absent, and it’s our single biggest criticism of the WD TV Live. The device doesn’t support other types of encrypted content, either, including Amazon, Blockbuster, and iTunes online movie rentals; protected iTunes songs; or music streamed from subscription services such as Napster and Rhapsody.
The WD TV Live sports an HDMI 1.3 output with maximum resolution of 1080p (the original supported HDMI 1.2 with a max resolution of 1080i), but you’ll also find cables in the box for component or composite video connections (S-Video is not supported). The box also has an optical S/PDIF jack. The video cables connect to the WD TV Live using non-standard 1/8-inch plugs; there are no HDMI or S/PDIF cables in the box, and S-Video output is not supported.
The WD TV Live supports just about every popular file and container format, including all the ones you’re likely to use or encounter if you rip and re-encode movies from disc (AVI, AVC, h.264, MPEG1/2/4, Matroska, WMV9, VOB, xVID, etc.) or music from CDs (AAC, FLAC, MP3, OGG, PCM, WMA and so forth). The player will pass through a soundtrack encoded in Dolby Digital or DTS so that your A/V receiver can decode it, too. Subtitles are supported, and it recognizes PLS, M3U, and WPL playlists.
The box shows album art while playing songs, and it can display digital photos stored in the BMP, GIF, JPEG, PNG, and TIFF formats. You can also initiate music playback and then navigate to the photo browser to start a slideshow while the music plays in the background (with the track title optionally displayed below the picture). The second-generation box is much faster at building thumbnail indexes than was the original.
The WD TV Live sounds great, looks great, and is an absolute breeze to set up and use. The addition of networking support is well executed and more than justifies the bump in the price tag (even if wireless networking is an extra-cost option). Still, while we dig the comprehensive list of supported media and container file formats, we’d like to see Western Digital extend that agnosticism to online media sources too. Flickr is very popular, for instance, but why not provide the same access to Snapfish and Photobucket customers? And while we happen to be fans of Pandora, LastFM and Slacker have some pretty fabulous Internet radio offerings as well. Not to belabor the point, but similarly, why in the heck is there no love for Netflix? Granted, the gizmo is no real substitute for a genuine home theater PC, especially one that’s equipped with a Blu-ray drive, but it’s a fraction of the price, a whole lot quieter, and it will fit—or go—just about anywhere: The box measures just 1.57 inches high, 3.94 inches deep, and 4.94 inches wide and weighs only 0.67 pounds. And since it’s passively cooled, it does its thing in absolute silence – another big plus that makes it worth adding to your shopping list.
• Network and (limited) Internet support
• Great user interface
• Good remote control
• 1080p video
• No Netflix streaming
• No support for LastFM, Slacker, or Rhapsody
• Wireless networking costs extra