The Western Digital WD TV Live Streaming Media Player is really fascinating. It’s such a small box, but it packs so many features, and it does them all so well. I just got hold of one and I’ve quite impressed. Streaming media players have been around for many years, but it’s still not quite that ubiquitous here in Singapore. It will change, no doubt. Television has changed so much in the last decade.
This is the third generation of Western Digital’s network media player. What exactly does this WD TV Live Streaming Media Player do? It’s name describes its core function: this gadget streams digital content from your home network for playback on your TV. But it does so much more, we wouldn’t do it justice if we don’t go on to describe all its other features. It plays just about all the popular video formats, streamed from direct attached storage, network storage, or various services on the Internet. You can also use it to listen to Internet radio stations, view your photos, access Facebook, Flickr, even watch live TV via SlingBox (not in Singapore), and so much more. A very nice feature is the free iOS and Android remote control app, with which you can control the box right from your smartphone.
I think the only primary complaint I have with the WD TV Live (let’s just shorten the name to that) is the lack of volume control on its own included remote control.
Before I dive deep into the WD TV Live, let’s just see what’s in the box.
The WD TV Live is a pretty small, somewhat nondescript, black mostly-matt box. It comes with a power adapter (both UK 3-pin and US 2-pin heads included), remote control, and batteries for the remote control.
The front of the WD TV Live box has a bright white LED to show when the unit is “on”, as well as a USB port for attaching storage. The back has, from right, a 3.5mm AV out connector, another USB port, HDMI out, Ethernet RJ45 jack, optical audio out, and the DC-in power connector.
Setup is simple. Plug in the power, connect an HDMI cable from the box to the TV, pop in the batteries into the remote, then just turn it on. The initial setup on-screen is as simple as you’d expect any appliance box to be. Choose language, select Wireless network, enter network password, and done.
Some of the WD TV Live specifications are sketchy. It has Wi-Fi and Ethernet, but no details more than that. I know it’s Wi-Fi works only in the 2.4GHz band, and it does support WPA2 PSK. The built-in Ethernet, which I did not test if it is just Fast Ethernet or Gigabit Ethernet, will come in useful if you happen to be able to run UTP cabling to the box, since that will be more reliable than a Wi-Fi connection.
The WD TV Live will play all sorts of things, from audio, video, photos, and streamed content from a variety of online services. Most people probably want the WD TV Live for playing videos, and the supported video formats are impressive: AVI (Xvid, AVC, MPEG1/2/4), MPG/MPEG, VOB, MKV (h.264, x.264, AVC, MPEG1/2/4, VC-1), TS/TP/M2T (MPEG1/2/4, AVC, VC-1) MP4/MOV (MPEG4, h.264), M2TS, FLV (h.264). It’s supported audio formats are also nothing less: MP3, WAV/PCM/LPCM, WMA, AAC, AC3, FLAC, MKA, AIF/AIFF, OGG, Dolby Digital, DTS.
You can also view photos (GIF, JPEG, PNG, BMP, TIF/TIFF formats), supports playlists (PLS, M3U, WPL), and handle video subtitles (SRT, SUB, SMI, ASS). If you haven’t got the gist yet, the WD TV Live just about takes in everything you can throw at it.
Apart from streaming files from your home network (i.e. a Windows share, or known technically as a SMB or CIFS share), the WD TV Live also gives you direct access to plenty of online services. Many of these are not available in Singapore, unless you know how to get around the geo-network restrictions. Online live TV can be streamed from SlingBox. Other video services include Netflix, Hulu Plus, Flingo, CinemaNow, Daily Motion, YouTube and Vimeo. Music services include Live 365, Spotify, Pandora, TuneIn Radio, and ShoutCast Radio. There are also other miscellaneous stuffs like Facebook and Flickr. Oh, and this is not the exhaustive list. Yup, there’s more.
The WD Live TV is a full-HD player, which means with supported video formats, the right content, and a compatible TV, you can enjoy full glory 1980×1080 24p movies. Performance of the box is superb. Fast-forwarding is so much more usable than the StarHub Hubstation I have. The user interface is pretty easy to navigate around, and generally responsive. The few places where it lags is when the WD Live TV has to load online services, and then, that’s not exactly entirely its fault. If your PC has to fire up a web browser and then access to Facebook, it will show some lag too.
The only big problem I’ve found with the WD TV Live is the lack of volume control on the remote control. Yes, of all things, the volume isn’t one of the buttons on the control. I suppose Western Digital figured you could use the volume buttons on the TV control. Yes, sure I could, but it would be more convenient to do it right on the WD TV Live’s own control. Besides, you do have to adjust volume because the output levels seem to differ from content to content, service to service. YouTube videos, for example, are excruciatingly loud compared with AVI files played back from my network (at least for the samples I tested with).
Having said that, the WD TV Live does have free iOS and Android remote control apps. Once your smartphone is joined to the same home network, the app automatically finds your WD TV Live (it apparently can manage more than one box too!). There is volume control in the app! Furthermore, if you ever find yourself needing to type, having a full soft keyboard to use on a smartphone sure beats struggling with the physical remote control’s keypad. Overall the app is a very nice touch.
Finally, firmware upgrades are done over-the-air. Again, simple as it should be.
The WD TV Live is a really impressive media player. Your TV will become the new entertainment centre again. If you’re finding that your PC has been competing for that role, well, now the whole family can enjoy streaming media on the large screen together. Your TV will do so much more than it ever did before.
All thanks to a little small black box.