|Introduction and Specifications|
One day while sitting in an office going over TPS reports, someone over at Western Digital heard a voice. It whispered, "If you stream it, they will come." After hearing this, he marched into the board room and pitched his idea for a streaming media player, and thus the WD TV series was born. Now whether or not it actually played out like this is irrelevant (it didn't); what matters is that Western Digital did build a line of streaming set-top boxes, and the customers have certainly shown up.
Western Digital's WD TV Live Hub, which is what we're looking at today, is the company's fourth generation media streamer, and it's the most fully functional to date. Unlike the previous generation WD TV Live Plus, as well those that came out before it, this latest iteration adds several welcome additions, including a built-in 1TB hard drive, a built-in media server to stream content to multiple rooms, and more apps than before, including the ability to download movies and TV shows from Blockbuster On Demand.
The idea here is simple. Just plop the WD TV Live Hub into your home theater, connect it to your home network, and proceed shuttling movies, photos, and music back and forth from any of your network-connected PCs to the set-top box, and/or from the set-top box to any of your network-connected PCs. And while you're at it, you can tap into your Pandora account, Facebook news feed, watch Netflix videos, and a whole bunch more all without the complication or cost of integrating a true home theater PC into your living room.
Perhaps most impressive right off the bat is the number of video, photo, and audio formats the WD TV Live Hub supports. Western Digital warns that you won't be able to play "protected premium content such as movies or music from the iTunes Store, Cinema Now, Movielink, Amazon Unbox, and Vongo," but pretty much everything else is fair game.
We also like that Dolby Digital DTS is thrown in the mix, and the various connectivity options are a definite plus. It's clear that Western Digital put a lot of effort into making sure its latest media set-top box would integrate seamlessly into just about any home theater/network setup (sans Linux).
|Hardware and Connectivity|
Before we dive in to the WD TV Live Hub, it's worth mentioning that the streaming media box market is rapidly expanding. Apple just recently released its revamped Apple TV unit for a Benjamin, Boxee just came out with a new player, and of course Google is making a push into the living room with the so-far uninspiring Google TV platform. At $200, the WD TV Live Hub isn't the cheapest set-top box on the market, but as you'll find out in a moment, it's one of the more versatile options out there.
One of the few things that didn't impress us about the WD TV Live Hub is the bundle. It's not that we were expecting a multitude of goodies, but an HDMI cable would have been a welcome addition. Bad for us, good for Monoprice.com, our go-to source for cables on the cheap.
We do, however, really like the remote. It's not too big, the buttons are sized just right, the layout is ultra intuitive, and it comes with a pair of AAA batteries.
It's hard to tell from the picture, but the WD TV Live Hub is one svelte media box. You'll have no trouble squeezing it into your home theater rack, even if you're already cramped for space, and the brushed aluminum finish won't draw unnecessary attention to the box. Be warned, however, that this thing picks up fingerprints, especially the glossy front panel.
There's a power switch on the front left of the box and a USB 2.0 port on the right. The neat thing about the USB port is you can plug in a thumb drive -- or any external drive -- and gain near-instant access to all the files it contains. What's more, a menu pops up asking if you want to sync the files to the internal 1TB hard drive. This is an awesome feature, although we wish it weren't an all or nothing affair -- if you choose to sync your files, Western Digital will pull everything from your external drive, when maybe all you wanted to shuttle was your photos folder.
On the rear of the unit are a bunch of connectivity options. From left to right you'll find a power adapter input, optical SPDIF, HDMI port, another USB 2.0 port, Gigabit Ethernet port, composite A/V output, and component video output.
Let's talk a moment about that second USB port. Not only can you plug another external drive in the rear, but you can also use it to hook up a USB keyboard or an optional USB wireless adapter. And while we didn't test this, we imagine the WD TV Live Hub would also work with a wireless keyboard via a USB dongle.
Beautiful on the outside, and just as sexy on the inside. Stealing the show, of course, is the 1TB WD Scorpio Blue hard drive. For some, this alone might justify the cost upgrade over the Apple TV, especially when you consider this model hard drive (WD10TPVT) runs about $120 online.
Driving the entire system is a Sigma Designs processor clocked at 500MHz specifically designed to provide a "highly-integrated, high-performance, cost-effective solution for IPTV set-top boxes, hybrid set-top boxes, media players, wireless display receivers, and IPTV/cable/satellite thin clients." You can read more about this chip here, but the bottom line this System-on-a-Chip (SoC) is capable of processing high-bitrate files up to 1080p.
|Software and Setup|
The first time we fired up the WD TV Live Hub, we were prompted to download and install the latest firmware, upgrading from version 2.02.16 to 2.02.19. You're not forced to upgrade if you want to roll with an older software release for whatever reason, but all of our testing was performed with 2.02.19.
What should be apparent from the get-go is that this isn't the WD TV Live platform as you know it, and that's not a bad thing. Gone is the rather drab background of previous model, and in its place is a vibrant UI Western Digital calls "Mochi." Shown above is the default wallpaper, which you can change using one of WD's pre-loaded images.
Navigation is a breeze, both in usability and in performance. Your options are laid out in a scrollable, horizontal bar at the bottom giving you access to Services, Videos, Music, Photos, Files, and Setup.
Western Digital pre-loaded the 1TB hard drive with a handful of photos and videos, but you'll quickly want to jump in and start adding your content or streaming media to and fro. One way to do this is to dig into a menu head -- Photos, for example -- and hit the red context menu on the remote control. This brings up the Select Content Source menu, of which you can choose from Local Storage, Network Share, or Media Server. If you're sharing files and folders on your home network, the WD TV Live Hub can tap into them and play them back on your swank HDTV.
Alternately, you can load up content stored on the Hub's 1TB hard drive and view it on any PC in your home network, and using the Web-based Twonky front-end, you can manage files on your media box and perform a handful of other tasks.
The Hub doesn't come with a robust app infrastructure like you'd find on the Android or iOS platforms, but it does come with a handful of networked services to keep you connected while kicking back with a cold one on the couch. Pandora? Check. Blockbuster On Demand? Check that too. Other goodies include Accuweather, Facebook, Flickr, Live395, Mediafly, Netflix and YouTube.
One thing we have to point out here is the po-dunk version of Netflix. As implemented, this would have been awesome a year ago, but the inability to search for titles is inexcusable.