High-definition video files were meant to be seen on big-screen televisions, not your 19-inch PC monitor. But getting these files—either personally ripped from high-def sources or downloaded from the Internet—from your desktop to the living room has always been a cumbersome process. Users previously had the option of streaming over a network to devices like the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, which have restrictive file compatibility, or they could use a dedicated video player like Western Digital’s WD TV, which could only play back files from attached USB drives. The new WD TV Live, however, comes with a much-needed Ethernet port, and along with the addition of other new hardware and software features, is the best video streamer we’ve tested yet.
Like its predecessor, the WD TV Live doesn’t actually store any media. Plug portable hard drives filled with your movies, music, and photos into the player’s two USB ports and it’ll output the content to your home theater via either an HDMI, composite, or component video connection (also added since the original design). And while the first WD TV supported a host of popular file types, format compatibility on this successor is even more impressive. In our tests, high-bitrate 1080p videos encoded with MPEG, Xvid, H.264, or WMV codecs played without a hitch, even when housed in a variety of file containers, like Matroska MKVs. You can also play videos with multiple audio tracks, soft subtitles, and even DTS audio—a big omission in the last iteration. We only ran into problems on a few occasions, most notably with WMV 9–encoded files that wouldn’t play audio, and raw video recorded from high-end digital cameras.
Robust media-format support on the WD TV Live means you can finally leave the time-consuming process of video transcoding behind.
The player earns its Live moniker with a built-in Ethernet port, so it can browse and play files off media servers, and network shares off your home network. High-def videos stored on a local PC, NAS box, and even Windows Home Server played smoothly over a 100Mb wired connection, though 16x fast-forward seeking during playback sometimes kicked us back to the menu. Wireless streaming also worked by tethering the player to a Wi-Fi bridge, but you’ll need an 802.11n connection to get reliable high-def streaming. While connected, the WD TV Live appears on your network as a network share, so you can drop files directly onto a USB drive attached to the player.
Being connected also lets you browse videos from YouTube, play music from streaming services like Pandora, and view photos from Flickr, but logging in or navigating through these services is frustrating given the unit’s difficult-to-use onscreen keyboard.
With the player’s emphasis on video playback, audiophiles will be a bit disappointed by the lack of gapless music playback and playlist customization. Sure, the WD TV Live will play every DRM-free music file in your collection, but sifting through a list of hundreds of albums is annoying. Some users have also reported that their players cut off half a second of playback from the beginning of songs, though we didn’t encounter this problem.
These gripes aside, the WD TV Live is still a significant step up over last year’s model—the network support alone justifies an upgrade. There’s still room for improvement, much of which may be addressed by community-released custom firmware, but even out of the box, the WD TV Live is your best bet for liberating videos from the confines of a dinky desktop display.
Western Digital WD TV Live
File playback over a network; component video output; improved file compatibility over the first WD TV.
No DRM-encrypted file support; time-consuming directory navigation; not ideal for music playback.