Supported file formats
Besides the low price, the WD TV's greatest benefit over something like a Playstation 3 or Xbox 360 may be its broad format support. Matroska support for video game consoles has been notoriously difficult, and don't even think about watching anything that requires soft-subtitles. Pillow-hugging anime fans and foreign film aficionados have been stuck watching their programming at their desks or going with a full-blown home theater PC solution. But the WD TV will play just about any popular codec you throw at it, including videos with soft-subtitles and multiple audio tracks. Even the more obscure formats like OGG and FLAC are included. Still not convinced? Here's a full breakdown of all supported formats:
|Video||MPEG1/2/4, WMV9, AVI (MPEG4, Xvid, AVC), H.264, MKV, MOV (MPEG4, H.264), MTS, TP, TS|
|Subtitles||SRT (UTF-8), SMI, SUB, ASS, SSA|
|Audio||MP3, WMA, OGG, WAV/PCM/LPCM, AAC, FLAC, Dolby Digital (AC-3), AIF/AIFF, MKA|
|Pictures||JPEG, GIF, TIF/TIFF, BMP, PNG|
|Playlists||PLS, M3U, WPL|
|File systems||FAT32, NTFS, HFS+ (no journaling)|
Support for absolutely everything would make this review too easy, however, and the WD TV does have its technical limitations. For example, MPEG2/4, H.264, and WMV9 support are restricted to maximum resolutions of 1080p at 24 FPS, 1080i at 30 FPS, and 720p at 60 FPS. Finding content that exceeds those specs is no easy task, though, so most users should never hit those caps. DRM-protected content from stores like iTunes is also incompatible with the WD TV, but that's not unexpected. Steve has to sell Apple TVs somehow.
One format that is notably absent from the list of supported audio codecs is DTS, a popular surround sound format for commercial DVDs and Blu-ray discs. When the WD TV encounters a video with DTS audio, it simply passes it through one of the digital audio connectors (TOSLINK or HDMI) rather than decoding it directly. This incompatibility is no doubt due to the DTS licensing costs, which might have driven up the WD TV's price.
In order to watch videos with DTS sound, you'll need to have a DTS-capable receiver to handle the decodingsomething anyone worried about surround sound playback should already have. The other solution is to rip your movies with multiple audio tracks and include a downsampled mix using a codec like AAC. Then, all you have to do is select the alternate audio track while watching your videos on the WD TV.
Due to the nature of HDMI 1.2, the WD TV is also unable to stream lossless DTS-HD Master Audio or Dolby TrueHD audio found on some Blu-ray discs.
Using the WD TV
A device as powerful as the WD TV can easily be ruined by the user interface that drives it. Thankfully, Western Digital got almost everything right with the WD TV's software. Anyone who's used a media center in the pastwhether Windows Media Center, Apple's Front Row, or even Sony's XrossMediaBarwill feel right at home with the WD TV. The clean and intuitive software looks great, even at resolutions up to 1080p. Videos, music, pictures, and settings are all separated into their own sections. Within those, you can browse content by additional categories like artist, album, and genre. WD lets you view the folder hierarchy, too.
Unfortunately, there are some UI quirks that seem to demonstrate a lack of polish. For example, when browsing video files, one movie's file size was reported as 8332063KB (Western Digital engineers should be the first to know about gigabytes). Other browsing issues, like the lack of hierarchical tags within the music library, are a tad frustrating. The software also isn't as snappy as a dedicated HTPC, either, which isn't so surprising. I wouldn't go so far as to call the UI sluggish, but it can take a couple of seconds to launch a video, and menu navigation certainly isn't instantaneous. Luckily, none of these complaints are show-stoppers, and the WD TV's software would be perfect after a bit of interface streamlining.
Getting content to the WD TV is a fairly easy process. For users who have never converted videos before, Western Digital includes a customized version of ArcSoft Media Converter, but any number of transcoders will work. Personally, I'm a fan of HandBrake, though there are plenty of other alternatives, like SUPER©, meGUI, and MEncoder. However, the only time you should have to worry about conversion is when you're creating the content. Just about anything you find on the Internet should work without issue. Then, just place your content onto any free USB mass storage device and hook that up to the WD TV.
Video performance was very impressive, and the WD TV handled everything I threw at it with ease. To start things off, it had no problems with standard-definition TV programming encoded with Xvid, but I wouldn't expect it to have fits with 480p using such a well-established codec. The real tests involved HD content. Starting with a 720p rip of The Dark Knight (encoded with x264 into MKV at around 8Mbps), the WD TV was able to play the file without issue and even recognized my included subtitles. Seeking and pausing were also much snappier than I expected for HD video, although maybe I'm just too used to the awful performance of my ISP-provided DVR. Picture quality was superb, as well. I hooked up the WD TV to my 1080p monitor, and I couldn't spot a difference with the output from my desktop PC.
My goal then became to discover the WD TV's performance limits by finding the highest quality-video content I could get my hands on. I started with a 1080p trailer for Star Trek encoded in AVC with an average bit rate of about 12Mbps, with stream peaks of almost 20Mbps. The WD TV didn't even break a sweat. Determined to find even higher-quality video, I found some users reporting the device could play an M2TS file pulled from the folder structure of a Blu-ray disc, even though WD doesn't explicitly mention that feature. Of course, I had to give it a shot. Amazingly, even with the bit rate spiking at around 40Mbps, the WD TV didn't quit. I think it's safe to say that this thing has plenty of horsepower for any HD content.
Perhaps where the WD TV stumbles the most is with its support for soft-subtitles. I tried watching a rip of the German film Der Untergang, and the SRT subs were continually out of sync and didn't always display properly. After some hunting on the Internet, I found this seems to be a common issue for WD TV users. The solution is currently to remux the subtitles into the video file. I hope Western Digital will correct the issue in a future firmware update.
Fact: if it runs Linux, Internet nerds will hack it. Due to the GPL roots of the WD TV's software, Western Digital has already released portions of its source code online for users to tinker with. In fact, enterprising coders have managed to create custom firmwares with support for USB Ethernet adapters, NFS and SAMBA/CIFS network shares, and the ext2 and ext3 file systems. If you're looking for a creative way to stream content to your living room, with the right USB adapter and a hacked firmware, you could be in business. Of course, you would void the WD TV's warranty in the process, but isn't that the best way to use technology anyway?
Besides the community endeavors, Western Digital seems committed to supporting the WD TV. It's already released two firmware updates for the device, and it keeps a line of communication open by interacting with WD TV owners at sites like AVS Forum. Bug reports and feature requests are common, and it's good to see Western Digital listening to that feedback rather than ignoring it.