With the internet making a large quantity of movies and music readily available to users, it makes sense that people would want to bring these files into the lounge room. Media streaming devices are the latest must-have accessory, and despite some missteps in the form of products like the Apple TV, other units have fulfilled their promise of bringing the web to your TV easily and economically. The original WD TV was one of our favourite products of 2009, so will the addition of internet connectivity in its latest iteration be enough to kept it ahead of the pack?
The WD TV Live carries the distinct industrial design the company has used since it first released its My Book range and features the same "spine" and cooling duct "pages". It's a metallic grey colour, and is about the size of a pack of cards so it's not fussy about where you place it — as long as it's within sight of the remote control.
The remote control itself is unchanged from last year, and it's not bad but the buttons are quite tall and rubbery. It's sensibly laid-out though but be aware that, as before, the WD TV won't work if you lose it.
We asked for it, and Western Digital has provided it. The WD TV Live now includes an Ethernet port that enables you to stream media from other devices in your house — no more copying files onto a USB key and then plugging that into your WD TV. The fact that the new version is the same price as the old means the unit is even better value now.
In addition to media streaming, the Western Digital now provides Flickr and YouTube access as well. Many competitive units also offer these services, but few are able to match the price of this package. The WD also does internet radio courtesy of the Live 365 internet portal, but it only includes a free trial — after which it's up to US$8 a month. While the Live can also handle the Pandora music streaming service, unfortunately, it isn't available in Australia and so won't work — though the option is still in the menu.
In addition, the WD TV Live sets up its own iTunes server which is visible on other machines on your network, but we found that even with a USB disk connected to it it didn't serve out any content.
You can check the specs page for all of the file formats the Live supports, but the standouts are DivX, VOB, MOV and MKV, and for audio MP3, WAV, FLAC, OGG and AAC.
The back panel is much improved on last year's model as it not only looks more professional but now includes a component output as well. This brings the inputs and outputs list to two USB slots (including one on the side), HDMI, optical audio, Ethernet and A/V . There is only one missing — wireless — though this is not surprising at this price.
While not as pretty to look at as the new Apple TV front end, the user interface is nevertheless still functional. As a user you get a choice of Audio Video and Pictures, and each option breaks down into the various internet sources and/or local and network devices. Navigating around is easy if you use the default "fade out" screen, but the transition effect can become quite tiresome going back and forth — thankfully you can turn this off.
The first thing you may want to change is the ponderous thumbnail navigation mode for music, and after selecting "List" you'll find it much easier to browse to the artist you're looking for. The scroll tabs do feature acceleration, but it could be argued that it builds up a bit too much speed, and you may overshoot the option you need by quite a way.
Navigation niggles aside, the unit works very well. The plethora of file formats means that it takes a lot to flummox it and there are also Random modes available to give you a different mix; however, nothing is as sophisticated as Apple's Genius. As most of the connection options are digital, and you need to use a dongle adapter to use A/V we didn't do analog audio sound tests — most people will probably let their receiver do the work anyway. We did some listening tests with the WD TV connected to a Sony STRDA5400ES receiver and the sound quality of the FLAC'd Beatles Remasters was excellent.
Video quality was something we could gauge in a more useful way, and we have to say it was excellent. The unit will clean up some of the rough edges of your movies and present them perfectly scaled to the size of your TV. We streamed HD files over the office network and had no problems with stuttering video or belching audio. YouTube and Flickr were similarly positive, though we wish that Flickr photos scaled to fit the size of the screen because resizing each time takes a bit of trouble.
If you use this device to connect to your network you shouldn't have any troubles, set-up was easy and we were watching videos in minutes after connecting an Ethernet cable. USB disks were another matter though, and like last year's model it had problems reading from some including a 16GB Toshiba USB stick. However, we found that a smaller SanDisk 4GB worked great.