Media streamers like the Western Digital WD TV Live and Netgear NeoTV make just a little less sense than they did a couple of years ago. In those days, they were the perfect alternative to stuffing a home theater PC into your entertainment center. These days, you can get nearly all the same functionality from a new Blu-ray player or a Smart TV.
On the other hand, the latest incarnations of these two products cost less than a new Blu-ray player, and they’re several orders of magnitude cheaper than a new HDTV (or a home theater PC, for that matter). And while they do have some features in common, the NeoTV delivers far fewer features than the WD TV Live and is priced accordingly, so we’re not making a direct head-to-head comparison between the two here.
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.
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.
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.
(Note: After our review went out, Western Digital added Vudu as well as remote control via Android and iOS devices via a firmware update.)
Craving a spot at the commercial online media buffet, but not at all interested in ripping your own media? Netgear has just the right dish. The NeoTV taps your broadband connection to serve up Netflix, Vudu, Pandora, YouTube, Picasa, and plenty of other online services; but it can’t tap media stored on your own network, and it doesn’t have any USB ports to access local storage.
We initially considered this to be a major disappointment: If you own a late-model Blu-ray player or a Smart TV, the NeoTV has very little to offer. But plenty of us haven’t made such investments, and if online entertainment is all you’re looking for, Netgear’s device costs $40 less than Western Digital’s. You’re not getting as many features, but you’re also not being forced to pay for features you won’t utilize.
The NeoTV’s built-in 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi adapter performed just as well as the one inside the WD TV Live—we had no problem streaming Netflix and Vudu movies without wires (although we were once again limited to 720p resolution; we needed to plug in a CAT5 cable to enjoy Vudu movies at 1080p). The only other connectivity features on the box are HDMI and S/PDIF—there’s no support for analog audio or video devices at all.
Netgear provides a very basic remote control with the NeoTV. We have no complaint with the button layout, and we like the clicky, tactile feel it provides much better than the mushy buttons on Western Digital’s controller; but there’s no alpha-numeric keypad for typing search queries (you must use the arrow buttons to navigate an onscreen keyboard), and there’s no mute button. But Netgear redeems itself with a free app that will turn your iPhone or Android phone into a compatible remote. That’s sure to come in handy when the regular remote’s two coin batteries crap out late one evening.
There's also a very good collection of streaming media services on tap. While Western Digital scores a big win with its support for Spotify, Netgear can deliver movies in HD and in surround sound on demand via Vudu. And if you’re a Napster subscriber, you can listen to your tunes on the NeoTV, but not on the WD TV Live. There’s a long list of other less interesting services, including a host of video podcasts (does anyone actually watch those?) and some very basic online games (the same ones that Western Digital offers, including Black Jack Royale, Kaboom, Sudoku, and Texas Hold ‘Em).
Enthusiasts will want more than what the NeoTV delivers, but this is a good product to recommend to friends and family who just want an easy way to stream media from the Internet to their entertainment center.