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Western Digital's WD TV HD Media Player


Break out the popcorn
— 11:00 PM on March 12, 2009

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If you're anything like me, you often find yourself wishing for an easy way to watch your digital media from the comfort of your own couch. I mean, we've got all of these random devices that let us watch videos, but I still can't simply carry a USB thumb drive into the living room and watch the latest Star Trek trailer in all of its 1080p glory on my 46" HDTV. All right, I'm being a tad dramatic (and maybe embellishing the size of my TV). Regardless, there are many ways to get your digital content onto your television. For example, you could simply encode and burn a DVD, but that's time consuming and limits video resolution to standard definition. Besides, burning discs for the sake of moving data from one room to another is so 1999.

Both the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 support a variety of different media formats, including high-definition video. But if someone's not interested in gaming, that's an awful lot of money to spend on a device that won't even have half of its capabilities put to use. And neither game console is fully compatible with some of the more obscure media formats, requiring you to transcode your content to make it compatible. Once again, that can prove time consuming. Assuming the trancoding is between one lossy codec and another, it can also degrade quality.

Home theater PCs are a tantalizing option, but they can prove cost-prohibitive if done right. Building a proper HTPC isn't simply a matter of tossing your last-generation desktop into the living room. Acoustic, thermal, and even aesthetic considerations all come into play—but that's worth a separate article in and of itself.

Instead, some folks may rather have a simple device whose sole purpose is to play downloaded or ripped content in the living room. The digital media receiver, as it's come to be known, serves just such a purpose. Simply plug one into your television, and it acts as a Swiss Army knife for content playback. The Apple TV represents the upper echelon of these products, as pretty much a full-blown computer with Wi-Fi, Internet streaming, and a large amount of internal storage—though it has its share of drawbacks, as well. Below that, you'll find devices like the popular Popcorn Hour A-100, which ditches the Apple Tax and internal storage to bring the price down a notch.

One of the most recent newcomers to this market is the not-too-originally named WD TV HD Media Player, with which Western Digital aims to shake up the market. Like the A-100, the WD TV lacks any form of internal storage, but goes one step further to lower costs by removing network access. Accordingly, the WD TV's $129 suggested retail price is almost half what some competing devices cost.

No, it's not a hard drive
But... it's made by Western Digital, and it looks exactly like the firm's My Book external storage solutions! I assure you: while the WD TV certainly shares some design characteristics with other Western Digital products, it's a completely different kind of animal.

Sporting a glossy, piano-black finish and only two subtle LED indicators on the front, the WD TV is a pretty slick contraption that would look right at home in just about any entertainment center. The included infrared remote is about the size of an average cell phone, and it fits comfortably in your hand. Home theater buffs will most likely replace it with a universal remote, but for the price-conscious consumers Western Digital is targeting, the stock remote works just fine.

The WD TV stashes the majority of its connectivity options at the back. Going from left to right, you'll find the requisite power port, USB 2.0, HDMI 1.2 for high-definition video, TOSLINK for digital audio, and Composite video connectors for standard-definition output. The lack of component or S-Video analog output is somewhat disappointing for those without the latest tech. I was an early adopter, so my high-definition TV doesn't even have HDMI—only component and DVI-D. Luckily, the WD TV doesn't enforce HDCP encryption over HDMI, so I was able to use an inexpensive HDMI-to-DVI cable for video and then rely on either TOSLINK to my receiver or composite audio to my television.

Speaking of cables, it's worth noting that the WD TV only includes composite cables, which is pretty odd for a device that brands itself as an "HD Media Player." Customers without a spare HDMI cable will be upset to find that they can't enjoy high-definition content from the WD TV right out of the box, which is borderline inexcusable. Didn't Sony catch a ton of flack for the exact same thing with the Playstation 3 over two years ago?

Another curious inclusion in the box is a vertical stand for small portable hard drives—ideally a My Passport device, as far as Western Digital is concerned. It's an interesting addition, but if cost is an issue, I think most users would trade the stand and the composite cables for an HDMI cable.

Along the left side of the WD TV lies an additional USB 2.0 port for a second mass-storage device, as well as a pinhole-sized reset button. Though the WD TV isn't as large as something like a DVD player, the inclusion of a secondary USB port makes it more convenient to plug in a USB thumb drive quickly without going to the back of the unit and displacing a more permanent storage solution like an external hard drive.

Notably missing from the WD TV's array of ports is an Ethernet jack. No, it doesn't have Wi-Fi either. The WD TV completely lacks any networking interface, making it impossible to stream content from your PC or NAS. That's a pretty huge concession that may downright eliminate it as an option for some users.

I wasn't kidding when I said that the WD TV has a glossy exterior. It's practically a mirror finish, as my Lego Star Wars mini-fig stylishly demonstrates. To be honest, I'm not a huge fan of piano black on tech products due to the number of fingerprints it attracts. However, in the case of the WD TV, it won't be touched all that often, so fingerprints shouldn't be a big issue. Also, one would expect to be sitting more than six feet away and looking at the TV rather than the WD TV, making small visual blemishes the least of one's concerns. Plus, the smooth exterior makes it look a lot more expensive than it really is, and in the realm of home theater equipment, that matters.

The WD TV's footprint is almost exactly half that of a DVD case. At just over 1.5" thick, it's a rather discreet addition to the home theater. You can even prop it upright, should you need to squeeze it into a tight spot. Just make sure there's at least some open air around the device, because it can get pretty toasty during playback.

The WD TV isn't designed to be taken apart, but that didn't stop me. Like its My Book counterparts, the WD TV relies on a number of hidden plastic clips to stay closed. However, after two minutes with a knife and screwdriver, I had full access to the WD TV's naughty bits. (Note: that was not a dating tip.)

The hardware isn't all that much to look at, since the Sigma 8635 chipset used for decoding is buried under a large heatsink that happens to be glued on there pretty tight—believe me, I checked. Four Nanya RAM chips making up a total of 192MB are littered around the PCB, along with a Silicon Image PHY for HDMI 1.2 output. Near the top right of the photo, you can also spot a four-pin interface I have to believe is for debugging purposes. Firmware updates can be done over USB, though, so users shouldn't ever have to worry about that connector.