Western Digital recently brought to the market a new flavor of home media player. Rather than follow well-trod footsteps by coming out with a networked media streamer, which plays back media stored on a PC somewhere on the network, Western Digital played on its strength in storage by introducing a device that plays back media solely from USB external storage devices. That device is the WD TV HD Media Player, available online in the $105-$130 range.
In a nutshell, the WD TV is a tiny box, smaller than a typical 3.5" USB drive, that decodes media content located on attached storage (or a digital camera, camcorder, or PMP) and displays it on a TV. Indeed, compared to my hand, the unit is impressively small.
The unit offers a surprising variety of connections for something so tiny. From left to right in the photo below: power jack, USB, HDMI, digital optical audio out, composite video/audio (RCA), and a second USB port on the side.
Requisite unboxing photos available after the jump...read on for the rest of our initial hands-on review.
Box contents include (clockwise from upper left in above photo): a stand (for WD My Passport drives), quick-start guide, warranty information, rubber feet for the unit, software CD-ROM, power supply, remote, batteries (for the remote), the WD TV unit itself, and composite A/V cables. No, no HDMI cable is included, which is mildly disappointing given Western Digital's emphasis on the HD-ness of the device.
The remote control (right) is very small; I can imagine losing it regularly in the couch cushions. It takes two 'AAA' cells and has fairly basic and straightforward controls. It is not backlit.
In terms of usability, the remote is not terribly intuitive. Unlike, say, a TiVo remote, where the button squarely under your thumb does most of the selection and doubles as play control, the WD TV's remote has dedicated play control keys that are smaller and harder to locate without looking.
The Home button takes you to the top of the menu system. Search enables a search function (as you'd expect) and Eject initiates the external media for removal.
Moving on to actually using the WD TV, the menu system and on-screen display are bright, attractive, easy to understand, and generally nice to look at.
Below is the inital start-up screen; note the banner at the top indicating that the unit is searching the attached drive to locate and catalog its media content. It does this every time the user inserts a drive into one of the WD TV's two USB slots. It took several minutes to wade through the drive when I had around 20,000 files on it, but it took under 3 seconds when the drive contained just a few hundred. So, unless your media collection is massive, startup seems pretty reasonable.
The WD TV promises to support a huge range of media formats. Per the WD product page:
Music - MP3, WMA, OGG, WAV/PCM/LPCM, AAC, FLAC, Dolby Digital, AIF/AIFF, MKA
Photo - JPEG, GIF, TIF/TIFF, BMP, PNG
Video - MPEG1/2/4, WMV9, AVI (MPEG4, Xvid, AVC), H.264, MKV, MOV (MPEG4, H.264)
Playlist - PLS, M3U, WPL
While it didn't play absolutely everything I threw at it, the items it did not play (e.g., a Sorenson/SVQ file, an old Real video file, and some odd H.264 variants), were definitely on the more obscure range of formats. I was very impressed that it played large ISO files without a hiccup. The WD TV does not support DRM content (but then you shouldn't be supporting DRM by buying encumbered downloads in the first place). The CD-ROM included in the WD TV box provides a media transcoding app (ArcSoft MediaConverter - "a fast, easy-to-use application that converts photo, video, and music files into formats optimized for use on the WD TV HD Media Player"), which is a good sign that hardware companies may not be as scared of content owners as they once were.
An interesting/fun bit of functionality is that you can view photos while listening to audio coming off the same, or a different, external drive, as the WD screen cap below shows.
So you can get a sense of how responsive the WD TV's menus are, and perhaps see the range of video quality you get out of the device, here's a 4-minute video (unedited...apologies for the pauses) going through some of the functions and showing a few bits of video playback.
So, what's the verdict? It's hard to tell definitively based on only a couple of hours' usage, but here are some initial thoughts.
For positives, I'm really impressed with the usability of the menus, the ease of installation (it's incredibly simple to set up...you just hook it up to a TV, plug it in, and attach an HDD with some media on it), the size of the unit (very unobtrusive, although it doesn't look consistent with any other home theater componentry), and the price point ($100 or so is hard to argue with for what this does). Also, the fact that you can access content on two USB sources simultaneously is a really nice feature; many companies would have stopped at one and called it done.
On the downside, the unit may not be 100% stable yet. In our limited testing, it has hung twice (both after being left on for quite a while without being used), requiring a power cycle to come to. Also, I'm a bit disappointed at the lack of a super-high-speed fast-forward and rewind. At 16X, moving 100 minutes into a movie would take over 6 minutes of real time; that's not ideal. Lastly, the remote could use some usability reengineering, but it's certainly workable as is.
Two issues that I'd like to address after I've had more time with the device are fundamental to the nature of the WD TV. First, since it's not networked, it relies on sneaker-net to get more content on it. Typically, this means unplugging a USB drive, taking the drive to wherever the content is (such as a PC somewhere), filling it with new content, and then returning it to the WD TV. If you don't have to do that often, it may not be such a big deal. But if you're wanting to watch content that you're constantly acquiring (e.g., new episodes), this could get old pretty quickly.
Second, the unit seems particularly sensitive to the quality of whatever media you're feeding it. Because it decodes and displays the video in whatever form it's in (e.g., 320x240 15fps) with only simple upscaling, you're trapped in a GIGO (garbage in, garbage out) situation. Compared to the DivX Connected device, which transcodes content on a PC into a format and dimensionality more suited for the display its being sent to, the WD TV doesn't have this intermediate step. That's good for simplicity, but you lose the chance to do computationally intensive (i.e., high-quality) upscaling on the fly. But, given the constantly dropping price of external storage, creating vast libraries of high-quality ISO images that play back beautifully on the WD TV could be a very viable strategy.
One thing I think WD should consider is offering an upgrade model (WD TV+, perhaps?) that adds wired/wireless NAS functionality. If I could have a couple of 1GB drives installed in the WD TV, which then transforms them into network-accessible storage AND retains the ability to play back the media stored on them, it has solved multiple needs for me. First, I don't have to rely on sneaker-net to move new content to the drives; I can just copy it across the network. And second, NAS-capable storage is still more expensive than USB storage; being able to cheaply upgrade my network's total storage via a device that also serves other purposes (e.g., entertainment) would be ideal.
All in all, I'm impressed with WD's first effort. While a few edges could still be smoothed out, and I'm hoping to spend more time with the device to see if the two issues above really are valid concerns, anybody wanting a relatively cheap and easy way to get their media onto their TV/stereo should give the WD TV a try.
Product Link: Western Digital WD TV HD Media Player product page