Western Digital WD TV Live Streaming Media Player
Price: $99 At A Glance: Great picture and sound quality • Wi-Fi-enabled • Clean, easy-to-use menus • Variety of streaming content services • Quirky difficulties with file indexing
The WD TV Live streaming media player has much in common with its predecessor, the WD TV Live Hub. When the WD TV Live Hub came out, I thought it was the best network media player and streamer on the market. It has a clean menu system; can play movies, music, and photos on my home network, and simply works.
The WD TV Live is the Hub stripped of its memory, with built-in Wi-Fi and a price tag slashed by $100. Still, the newer WD TV Live is a bit more quirky and not as reliable as the Live Hub.
The WD TV Live can play 1080p video and 5.1 Dolby Digital surround sound. The picture looks as good as the source content. As with any media player, if you are streaming Netflix or Hulu Plus and your Internet connection slows down, the picture quality can slip to standard definition. YouTube videos rarely look good using any media player when blown up to fill a 40-inch-or-larger screen; the WD TV Live makes no exception here. The quality of your downloaded video depends on the amount of file compression, so an MKV file looks much better than an AVI file. The WD TV Live cannot play 3D video.
Vudu’s HDX format streams movies in Dolby Digital surround sound. If you have a fast Internet connection, the sound is clear and well separated. When I watched the taxi chase scene in Date Night, the cars zoomed around the room. You’ll need to go into the WD TV Live’s Setup menu to turn on HDMI audio passthrough or S/PDIF passthrough if you are using an optical audio cable.
The WD TV Live is Wi-Fi-enabled. That is a huge benefit over the WD TV Live Hub because you don’t have to run Ethernet cables to your router or buy accessories like powerline adapters or a Wi-Fi dongle that can cost as much as the media player. While it has been commonly thought that the only way to stream video is over a wired connection, recent A/V routers are providing speeds that are fast enough to get good quality over Wi-Fi.
There are two USB connections—one on the front and one on the back of the box. You can use either or both to attach an external hard drive. When a drive is attached, the WD TV Live will aggregate your personal files on the drive so all photos are accessible from the unit’s Photo menu, video from the Video menu, and music from the Music menu. You can extend this Media Library feature to include files from all sources—computers, hard drives, network-attached-storage (NAS) drives, and media servers—connected to the same home network. (Read on before you decide to turn on the Media Library.)
The front USB port is great for connecting a USB keyboard during setup. The WD TV Live also has a Facebook app. If you’ve ever tried to type a meaningful status using an onscreen keyboard, you’ll appreciate having a connected keyboard option, ideally a wireless one.
If you don’t have a USB keyboard, you can use your smartphone’s keyboard in Western Digital’s WD TV Remote app for iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, and Android devices. The free app gives you direct access to the different services. It has a keyboard and a touchpad-gesture-control option. The app not only worked flawlessly for me; it automatically found the WD TV Live. There are a few remote apps available for WD TV; this is the newest version. Check to make sure that the developer is Western Digital.
Still, if you can stand the included remote control, its buttons can be programmed in the WD TV Live’s Setup menu. As a default, the No. 1 and 2 keys can be used for volume up and down, respectively, if you have turned on the HDMI CEC function and are connected to a home theater receiver or TV with the HDMI CEC feature.
HDMI CEC (Consumer Electronics Control) began showing up in HDMI version 1.2a. Its name varies depending on the manufacturer. This feature will turn off a TV and home theater receiver that is connected to the WD TV Live using HDMI cables. I love the convenience of being able to turn off the player and my whole home theater by pushing a single button. It will also turn on my TV and receiver, changing to the correct inputs. Unfortunately, while compiling the Media Library, it randomly changed the inputs while I was watching something else. I disconnected the HDMI cable until the Media Library compilation was complete. Remember that the Sync/Control feature must be turned on in each component.
When shopping for a media-streaming device, you must first consider which online services are available. Start by looking for the big four video streaming services—Netflix, Hulu Plus, Vudu, and Amazon Instant Video. The WD TV Live includes three of the four, minus Amazon Instant Video. Cinema Now is included as a close alternative to Blockbuster On Demand, which still appears onscreen although is no longer available, the result of Blockbuster recently pulling its service out of many devices.