For a company whose primary business is manufacturing hard drives, Western Digital sure knows a lot about digital media and how to stream it over a network. Each succeeding generation of the company’s WD TV Live product has led the market in terms of features, price, and performance, and this one is no different.
With this incarnation, WD adds several new services (including Hulu Plus and Spotify), a collection of simple online games, an integrated Wi-Fi adapter, and even the ability to decode Dolby TrueHD. Unlike the pricier WD TV Live Hub, which remains in Western Digital’s lineup, this product does not include any local storage. But it is equipped with two USB 2.0 ports, so you can easily connect a portable drive. You can also connect a USB keyboard, which makes initial setup (entering Wi-Fi and network user IDs and passwords, for instance) considerably easier than hunting and pecking using the remote and the onscreen keyboard.
The third-generation WD TV Live is thinner and more capable than previous models, and the remote is significantly better.
Most people will connect the WD TV Live to their entertainment system using the HDMI 1.4 port (you’ll need to provide your own cable), but the device will happily accommodate older equipment with its analog A/V and digital S/PDIF outputs. There’s also an Ethernet port in the back panel, but the integrated 802.11b/g/n wireless client adapter proved plenty fast for streaming video at 720p—an impressive achievement, considering that we tested the box in a room-within-a-room home theater at Maximum PC Lab North. We needed a hardwired connection to stream video at 1080p. Image quality was excellent.
The remote is easily the best that WD has come up with so far, with a molded grip that feels very natural in either hand. We needed to bend our thumb to reach the alpha-numeric keypad on the bottom half the device, but we seldom use those buttons, anyway. We used the home, arrow, mute, and transport (play/pause, stop, fast forward/rewind, and skip forward/back) buttons far more frequently, and those are all within easy reach. The remote also has four shortcut buttons—labeled A, B, C, and D—that can be custom programmed.
Plenty of device support here, with both analog and digital audio and video outputs.
Western Digital offers a strong collection of online movie and music services in addition to the new ones mentioned earlier. You’ll find all the old standbys here, including Netflix, YouTube, and Pandora; but you’ll also get CinemaNow, Blockbuster on Demand, Live365, and several others. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to tap what we consider to be the best online, on-demand movie service of them all: Vudu. Western Digital does deserve praise for its broad media file and container file support, which includes the video standards AVI, MKV, MPEG-1/2/4, h.264, VOB, and M2TS (the container for Blu-ray movies); the audio formats AAC, FLAC, OGG, and MP3 (including 24-bit/48kHz FLAC); and the digital photo formats BMP, JPEG, and PNG. The device supports playlists and subtitles, too.
The WD TV Live is the best full-featured media streamer you can buy today, but we’d like it even more if it included Vudu.