Getting digital content from the computer to the TV has long been a challenge. The fairly recent arrival of the Xbox 360 and Sony’s PS3 have brought a solution to the mainstream that put the capability in the hands of the technically sophisticated. They both offer internal media players that will stream video, music, and photos across the network to the HD screen now found in the average living room. But such multi-media integration should be in the hands of the average computer users, regardless of their technical awareness or skill. The first product to do this, and do it well has arrived: Western Digital’s WD TV Live HD.
Its a name that won’t roll off the tongue, no matter how you practice. But the device works, and it works well. Where game consoles suck as the 360 and the PS3 make the computer based media available, accessing that content is still more difficult than it should be and still requires customers to shell out some big bucks to get the game console in the first place. The WD TV Live is a box that is currently listing for about $119 on Amazon.com and BestBuy.com. It is a small unit with its own remote control. It plugs into a HD TV and connects to movies music and photos by either linking to a networked computer in the house, or an external hard drive connected to the box via USB.
Just plug a USB hard drive into either one of the WD TV Live’s USB ports and the content on that drive can be displayed on the HD TV via wither HDMI or Component video. Even a portable thumb drive will do the job. But in order to make the content even more accessible, its best to plug the box into a wired ethernet connection giving it free access to all shared content on the home network. I’m told that wireless support can be added by attaching a wireless access point or wireless extender to the devices second USB port. Since I have a solid wired network already in place, I had no need to try this.
The box will find computer file shares anywhere on the network. And if the share is password protected, its not a problem. The box lets you specify a username and password allowing secure access to the shared content. Then just use the remote to browse the filesystem of the share and play the just about any fileformat you can think of.
One of the problems with the multi-media support of the Xbox 360 or the PS3 is the limited file support. For example, the 360 will play MP4 files and Divx files, but not the HD MKV files that are becoming very popular these days. The codec support for audio and video are both quite limited on the console systems. No true with the WD TV Live HD. Video formats supported include AVI (Xvid, AVC, MPEG1/2/4), MPG/MPEG, VOB, MKV (h.264, x.264, AVC, MPEG1/2/4, VC-1), TS/TP/M2T (MPEG1/2/4, AVC, VC-1), MP4/MOV (MPEG4, h.264), M2TS, and WMV9. Audio: MP3, WAV/PCM/LPCM, WMA, AAC, FLAC, MKA, AIF/AIFF, OGG, Dolby Digital, DTS. Photos: JPEG, GIF, TIFF, BMP, PNG.
The WD TV Live HD can also access online services directly. Support is included for YouTube, Pandora, Flicr, and Live365. As long as the box is on a network that has broadband internet access, these web based services are made available right on the wide screen.
The box also includes support all of the latest TV connectors. As mentions earlier, support is provided for both HDMI (version 1.3) as well as Component and Composite. There is also a SPIDIF digital output port and the previously mentioned 2 USB 2.0 ports.
All of this adds up to one clear conclusion. Be it SD or HD, stereo or 5.1 surround sound, this box does it all. And it does it better than the Xbox 360 and the PS3. All for a fraction of the price. Its very easy to set up, and just as easy to operate.
To say I have been very impressed with the device is an understatement. That said, there was a single issue I had that disappointed me. All of the files listed when navigating content directories were shown in icon view. The files name would display under the icon, but only after the file was highlighted. This was a painful way to move through media when looking for a specific file or photo. SInce most video container formats don’t incorporate their own icon preview of the file, all of my media files display with a generic and completely useless file icon. They all look the same! But after digging through the devices menus and I did find some preferences that did the trick for me. I was able to switch to a list view that made it very easy to browse media files.
No, to be honest, I didn’t find these preferences the first time I looked for them. And there are two possible reasons for that. The first is that I just missed it. The device is simple, but it is also very powerful. Its equally well suited for the technology junkie and the less sophisticated couch potato as well. The second possible cause is another great feature of the box. Since its a network device that is designed to access the internet, it also checks for updates automatically. In my case, when I went to look through the settings again this morning, I was instantly greeted with a note that a firmware update was available. I authorized the update and the device connected to Western Digital, grabbed the update, and installed it all for me. This is a great feature that makes it easy to update the box in order to fix bugs or add new features. For example, it might one day be possible for WD to release an update that would add Netflix streaming to this box.
All in all, this box is nothing short of impressive. Wide codec support makes the device idea to play just about any file you run across. Stereo or surround sound, its all supported. 1080p crystal clear output and support for network access as well a local storage makes this device very easy to recommend. Access to online content is a big plus as well. And the possibility of additional content being added in the future is even more exciting.
The WD TV Live HD is currently available online. Here’s a link to Amazon.com, and BestBuy.com. For the past month, both sites have been flipping between in stock and back order listings proving that this device is becoming very popular. At this point, in my opinion, there is no better way to get content from the computer to the widescreen.