Cutting Loose: Connected TV for Everybody Page 3

WD TV Live

The latest incarnation of WD's popular digital media receiver is the WD TV Live, a stripped-down, inexpensive box, coming in at the same price point as the Apple TV and the top-of-the-line Roku. The 2011 version of the WD TV Live comes without the 1TB drive of its big brother, but with onboard Wi-Fi and a nice mix of streaming services and ability to access media stored on local drives and NAS, presented in a streamlined and downright attractive user interface.

The WD splits the difference between devices meant to appeal to those who want to make use of a lot of local content and those who have no use for such things. Is it all DMRs for all people?

You get access to the major services - Netflix, Hulu Plus, CinemaNow, and Blockbuster On Demand, crowdsourced content from YouTube and Vimeo and a full range of music services, including Pandora, Deezer, and Spotify. There's even PlayJam, a casual gaming service. It's a pretty full plate of connected offerings. There's no TV tuner here (if you use this as your soul source, you'll be relying on Hulu and Flingo for TV programming), and no DVR functionality, but the WD doesn't really aim at fulfilling those needs in the first place.

Connectivity options are basic - no support for older sets here. You'll find only a single HDMI output, an optical audio output, and a combo composite video/stereo audio output on an 1/8" minijack, along with an Ethernet port (supplementing the onboard Wi-Fi) and a pair of USB ports for data-entry devices or local storage.

A remote is included, though it's not a universal model - it's got a full set of transport controls. four color-coded hotkeys (that match onscreen menus) for accessing commonly used functions, and a numerical keypad, though no QWERTY (which I found myself wishing for when using music services and looking for content on connected drives). There is an audio mute button, which is a handy thing to have if you don't feel like scrambling for your primary remote when the phone rings.

The interface is very attractive; landscape wallpaper with a scrolling toolbar along the bottom border of the screen. Everything's organized well, apps are nicely functional (you even get a choice of YouTube interfaces - both the TV-oriented leanback interface and the standard Web interface are provided), and all functions are a couple of directional clicks away. Some might find such comparisons distasteful, but the overall the WD TV Live combines a very Windows Media Center look with an Apple feel - it's not a bad combination.

There are some less-than-perfect implementations here. Some of the presentation is a little redundant - a "dashboard" seems unnecessary given how easy it is to get to the apps from the main interface - and there's also a bit of repetitiveness in the library interface, with the overlap between "content sources" and the library a bit confusing at first. Still, overall it's a very clean and easy-to-browse UI, which is not something you can take for granted in the DMR universe.

There's a lot of flexibility under the hood for expert users as well. The main strengths of the bigger WD TV Live Hub were access to media on local and connected drives and support for just about any media file format; both carry over here. If you like the idea of the bigger WD TV Live Hub but don't need the onboard 1TB drive, this might be for you.

The WD TV Live will play back media files from just about any NAS you might be likely to have: it's DLNA/UPnP compliant, supports Samba and NFS shares, and can play back shared content on Windows machines and Macs. You can even admin the WD TV Live via a browser, which makes tasks like configuring the remote and establishing shares a whole lot simpler, and while the process is simplified about as much as it can be, it probably isn't for the novice users who this box will appeal to otherwise.

I had some problems initially when trying to access a drives attached to an AirPort Express, but managed to sort things out with a quick browse through the tech support knowledgebase - the manual proved to be a little vague on some formatting particulars. And once I did get set up, I had periodic system lockups when accessing media on both local and network drives; a restart generally solved the problem, but it was a tad annoying in practice. The device feels a bit like a work in progress on this front. There were two firmware upgrades distributed during the brief period I was experimenting with the box, so it does seem like WD is on the case.

Despite the nicer look and feel, as with the Channel Master, large music libraries slowed down the interface significantly; since this is a problem that seems common to DVRs I can't really single out the WD for this. But I'm waiting patiently for a DMR to come with an app that provides a truly pleasant interface for accessing and managing music libraries - it doesn't need to be iTunes, but there's got to be a better way.

These issues aside, the WD TV Live is a very full-featured device with a friendly face. It doesn't do quite as much as a Boxee or a dedicated HTPC, but it has a far simpler and more immediately attractive interface, making it appealing to both cable-cutting newcomers (at least those who don't need an all-in-one device that includes a TV tuner; those folks still might have more interest in something like the Channel Master) and veteran networked media nerds.