There will come a day, I suspect, when you walk into the average Canadian’s living room, gander over at the entertainment centre and find nothing there that can play a DVD. The optical disc format we’re so used to is on the way out. Like the music CD, advancements in digital technology make accessing and playing digital files easier and more convenient than using a physical format. Electronics makers and tech companies know this and all of them have getting into your living room at the top of their agendas. Delivering entertainment directly to your big screen TV over the Internet is the golden ticket.
Already we’re seeing a steadily growing number of devices and smart TVs that are fighting for a foothold. Apple TV and Boxee Box are two popular TV-connected devices that allow you to access media on your various computers and storage drives, plus scroll through online libraries of content to stream or download. Another popular name in this category, especially among over-the-air TV enthusiasts, is Western Digital’s WD TV series of media boxes. Their newest product, the WD TV Live, just launched in October and packs a wealth of features.
However, all of those products lack one thing: an internal storage drive.
Western Digital’s WD TV Live Hub ($199) is a set-top box that can connect to your network, stream content from various online services and also contains a massive 1 terabyte hard drive. Why is that important? Many people stream downloaded content from a PC or a network attached storage (NAS) drive to a game console or set-top box attached to their TV. That’s a great way to access content from the living room, but in my experience some 1080p video files can hitch and freeze when they’re streamed. Scrolling forward or backward can sometimes cause the video to lock up. Plus, I’ve got to constantly manage my PC hard drive to clear up space. Not big deals, but these issues all disappear with the WD TV Live Hub.
The WD TV Live Hub stores, streams and plays movies and music, displays photos and streams video from such internet services as Netflix. The Live Hub can smoothly play 1080p video files in a wide variety of formats, including Xvid and h264, and can access files that have embedded subtitles or multiple audio tracks. Ripped DVDs can play as well. Content can be dropped onto the Hub through one of the two USB ports or over the network. Or you can scan media folders on any other NAS drives or PCs and index them. As long as those other sources are up and running, you can access those files, too. On the back of the device there’s an Ethernet port, which you'll need because the live hub does not connect wirelessly. You'll need to connect it directly to your network, which will be a problem for many users. ( Tips on home networking here.)
Connecting to a HD TV proved simple. Although Western Digital does not include HDMI, component or composite cords in the box, all of those options are available on the back of the device. Plus, the two USB ports allow you can connect a wireless keyboard to one and a portable hard drive to another. Western Digital’s home screen is attractive and easy to navigate with jump options for video, music, files and so on. Some of the setup options are not especially intuitive. It took me a little while, through trial and error, to access and index media files on other drives. And while I found the remote simple to use, it reminded me of a kid’s toy with its rounded edges and big rubber buttons.
One of the benefits of a set-top box is access to subscription music and video services. The WD TV Live products have several built-in apps that launch Netflix, Facebook, Flickr and YouTube as well as Pandora and Blockbuster, but those last two are only available in the U.S. Western Digital also has a new content deal with music streaming service Spotify, which is heavily promoted in their marketing. A lot of good that does you here. Licensing and distribution rights means services such as these take a lot longer to get to Canada. However, as we’ve seen with Netflix and Rdio, some of them eventually do make it here. The more services that do make set-top boxes all the more attractive. So while the WD TV Live Hub may be an imperfect TV companion today because of the limited range of content and inability to connect to a Wi-Fi network, it’s rock solid in every other way.
Editors note: Some information about WD TV Live Hub's features was incomplete in a previous version of this story.