About two months ago, I looked at Western Digital's revamped WD TV, in the form of the WD TV Live Plus HD Media Player. That's a mouthful of a product name, but the conclusion is stated easily enough: The WD TV was decidedly middling, with access to just a few online services, decent format compatibility and fairly unique Play To/DLNA push functionality, and lacking any kind of wireless networking. As a very friendly device for those in the Windows camp, however, it wasn't without its charms.
Well, WD is back, and its new offering is decidedly a step up. The WD TV Live Hub expands on the capabilities of the other WD TV devices, including the Live Plus HD Media Player, offering several key enhancements. So rather than drill through the entire feature set, let's just agree that it's a superset of the other devices and focus on what's new and unique here.
The WD TV Live Hub comes in an attractive, pancake-style enclosure that will look right at home in the living room. This enclosure is not as tall as, but much wider and deeper than, the other, diminutive WD boxes. But it's still quite small, similar in size and shape to the original Apple TV.
The reason for this form factor change is simple: The Live Hub includes a 1 TB hard drive so that it can function as a media hub as well as a media streaming. You could connect external hard drives to previous WD TV units, of course, but the media hub stuff is unique to this machine; I'll discuss that momentarily.
Aside from the internal storage, the Live Hub also features gigabit Ethernet, two USB 2.0 ports (one conveniently located right on the front), HDMI, composite and component audio/video, and optical audio capabilities. There's no wireless networking at all, however, which is a crazy mistake in this day and age; WD maintains a page about compatible USB-based wireless adapters for those who want such a thing, but it should just be in the box.
The remote is also much improved over previous WD TV models, with a full numeric keypad and additional keys. It's cheap, but much more usable (and far less likely to end up trapped inside your couch) than the useless Apple TV remote. You can also plug in a USB keyboard for text entry and logon/password information, which I recommend, especially on day one when you configure it for all the services you want to use.
The WD TV was previously derided most often for its horrible and clunky user interface, and you can tell that WD got all sensitive about it because the UI on the Live Hub is actually pretty beautiful, with Windows Phone-type fonts, pleasant background images, and a more graphical menu. Dubbed "Mochi," this UI still suffers a bit from performance problems, though you can mitigate this by using text lists for big media collections instead of thumbnails.
Like previous WD TVs, the Live Hub can be used to stream media--music, photos, and videos--from PCs (and home servers) on your home network to the HDTV in the living room. In this guise, the Live Hub works much like its predecessors, and you can navigate your remote media collections--slowly, for larger collections like mine--easily enough. The Live Hub is compatible with virtually every media format imaginable, including the obscure ones. This has always been a strength of the WD hardware.
New to the Live Hub is a new media hub functionality--thus the name--in which the Live Hubs acts as a central storage point for media on your home network. You can get media onto the device's internal storage a number of ways, including by attaching external hard drives, using methods both automatic and manual. There's also a web interface for the device so you can access it, and its various features, from a web browser.
Once it's configured, you can browse the Live Hub from your PC in various way. Through the Network interface in Windows 7, for example, it exposes a network share just like a Windows PC would, letting you drag and drop content back and forth across the network. You can also access the device's media from Windows Media Player, playing content from it or, like with other WD TV devices, by pushing media to the device with Play To. For you iTunes users, it even acts like an iTunes "server," allowing you to access its content through Apple's media player on the network.
WD even advertises a set up where you have a WD TV Live Hub at the center of your network and various smaller WD TV devices scattered around your home, attached to different PCs. This is a cute little idea, but I still think the other WD TV devices are lackluster. And besides, you could stream to almost anything, so there's little reason to go all-WD. That said, I appreciate the lack of lock-in to this strategy, which is in direction opposition to, say, Apple's approach.
The media hub functionality is, perhaps, the best new feature here, and one of the best reasons to get a Live Hub. It's the reason many people consider a home server, but in a far less complex and inexpensive package.
Where the WD TV Live Plus HD Media Player offered access only to a handful of online media services, the Live Hub's collection is a bit more complete. Sadly, it's also a bit lacking.
What you get is the ubiquitous Netflix, MediaFly, Blockbuster on Demand, Facebook, You Tube, Accu-Weather, Flickr, Pandora, and Live365. These are mostly tier-a services, but some don't work as expected. Flickr, for example, doesn't offer a way to sign-in to your own account for some reason. And some important services--like Hulu/Hulu Plus, Amazon On Demand, Google Picasaweb, Windows Live, and so on--are plain missing.
If WD can bolster its online services support, this box will be a no brainer. In this category, the Live Hub is close, but not quite there.
The WD TV Live Hub is a huge improvement over previous WD TV devices, and answers some but not all of the complaints I had with the WD TV Live Plus. At about $200, it's not as cheap as previous devices, and not as cheap as the Apple TV or Roku boxes. But it does provide 1 TB of onboard storage and some unique media hub capabilities. What's missing here are a few key features, including bundled wireless and support for a few key services. So it's very close, very close indeed.
In the battle of the set-top boxes, WD has created an entry that is truly competitive, and one you should consider if you're looking for a way to access your PC-based digital media on your living room's HDTV.