There are myriad ways to acquire content to watch on your computer: DVDs, YouTube, BitTorrent for educational films that aren't copyrighted, and so on. The trick is finding an easy way to consume this digital media on your television, which is often located in a different room than your computer. Being chained to a desk to watch all these videos feels very limiting, not to mention impractical if you want to kick back with a bunch of friends. Fortunately, there are a number of viable options to move the party into the living room. DVD and Blu-ray players have long been able to play individual files stored on optical media, and along with the recent crop of televisions, new models are starting to sport USB ports and memory card slots. It's also possible to connect a laptop or PC to a TV via HDMI, although only newer televisions offer HDMI connectivity. Alternatively, one could go all out and build a home theater PC, but that choice involves some additional cost and setup time compared to standalone media players.
In the realm of standalone media players, we've been impressed by Western Digital's TV HD, which brings support for a wide variety of music, video, and image file formats into the living room. However, the device lacks internal storage and networking capabilities, requiring users to plug in drives of their own. In the 18 months since the original TV HD's release, WD has brought integrated networking to the table with a line of TV Live media players. Most recently, it added a terabyte of internal storage to the mix with the WD TV Live hub, a device that can store, stream, and share content while tapping the Internet to fuel a whole world of additional possibilities.
Western Digital managed to add those features without ballooning the size of the Live Hub, which looks small, sleek, and unobtrusive—perfect for the living room. At only 1.25" tall, 7.8" wide, and 6.1" deep, the Live Hub's compact dimensions make it easy to slide the device into a crowded entertainment unit. Next to my slim DVD player and cable box, the Live Hub looks tiny.
Despite its slender profile, the Live Hub includes a bevy of connection options, such as HDMI, RCA, and component video outputs. WD made a smart choice by including a legacy connection like RCA. It was probably tempting to just throw HDMI and component output on there and call it a day, but the addition of RCA connectors significantly expands the Hub's compatibility with older televisions.
An S/PDIF output also made the cut, providing a conduit for high-quality digital audio output. You get an Ethernet jack and a pair of USB ports, too. One of those ports is at the rear, while the other is located conveniently up front.
Setting up the WD Live Hub–sync or swim
Opening the Live Hub's box reveals that WD has no intentions of burdening the consumer with a bunch of free cables. The Live Hub only comes with a remote (batteries included), an AC adapter, and a quick start guide. The complete omission of any cables is disappointing, especially for a device that targets mainstream consumers who are going to expect it to work out of the box. Throwing in an HDMI cable probably wouldn't have bankrupted Western Digital. I was lucky to have an HDMI cable kicking around to connect the Live Hub to my Samsung 245T monitor, however.
After plugging my external hard drive into the Live Hub (a WD Passport Essential 500GB with a USB 2.0 interface), a dialog box popped up asking if I wanted to sync the contents of the drive to the WD Live Hub. I agreed, and the race was on. The pace turned out to be very, very slow, though. There were about 13,500 files on the Passport at the time, taking up a total of 385GB. At a fairly consistent transfer rate of 15MB/s, the full sync took over six hours. Granted, the initial sync had successfully consumed over a third of the capacity of the 2.5", 12.5-mm terabyte hard drive inside the Live Hub. You're not likely to sync that much data regularly, but I still have a few bones to pick with the process.
Although my own portable hard drive is a USB 2.0 model, I'm surprised that WD didn't go with the newer 3.0 standard for the Live Hub. Western Digital already offers several portable hard drives with SuperSpeed USB connectors, and it seems short-sighted to stick with USB 2.0 given the dramatic step up in speed available with the new standard. SuperSpeed connectivity could cut down on sync times, at least for folks with compatible drives.
Since the WD Live Hub is a media player, it would be nice if it only synced the media files on my portable hard drive. However, the synchronization process hoovered up files with no regard for their format. As a result I ended up with service packs, ISO images, and other unplayable files on the Live Hub. This kind of indiscriminate syncing can prolong an already lengthy process unnecessarily, and it eats up valuable drive space. The interface doesn't have an option to selectively sync certain kinds of files, so if you want to keep the Live Hub up to date with the contents of an external drive, be prepared for it to grab everything. The only way to avoid this is to skip the sync process entirely and play media files directly off the external drive attached to the system.
Building on one of the key perks of its predecessors, the WD Live Hub can play just about any media file you throw at it. A full list of compatible formats can be found on WD's site, but highlights include important yet seldom-supported formats like MKV, FLAC, and OGG. Audio buffs will no doubt appreciate the latter two, and movie fans will be pleased to see the inclusion of DTS support. DTS allows multichannel audio to be passed over a single digital cable, in this case via the Live Hub's HDMI or S/PDIF outputs. Without it, you'd be stuck with two-channel stereo output piped through the device's RCA audio jacks.
To test the Live Hub's playback chops, I fed it a variety of video files in different formats, some of them downloaded and some ripped from my own DVDs. The Live Hub handled them all with aplomb. Picture quality was generally excellent, although Cyril pointed out that playback looked a little too sharp and overprocesed compared to the Windows 7 media player's output with the 720p MKV we used for testing in his lab. In my own home, with a mix of standard-defintion videos, straight DVD rips, and hi-def MKVs at 720p and 1080p, the difference in picture quality between the Live Hub and Windows 7 was difficult for me to discern.
One feature that deserves a little extra attention is the superb support for VOB files. I have a number of DVDs with great special features, so the Hub's ability to smoothly open a folder containing an entire ripped DVD and mimic the full experience is a big win. I'm also a fan of how well the Live Hub handles subtitles, which even when embedded, are easy to turn on and off with the remote.
If the Hub is connected to the Internet, you can also stream videos from YouTube as well as access content from Netflix and Blockbuster on Demand. I don't have a subscription to either of the latter two services, but I was satisfied with the search and navigation options offered with YouTube content. You can log in with an existing YouTube account and add videos to your favorites or access existing playlists. Naturally, the poor quality of many YouTube videos is painfully accentuated on a larger screen, but that's no reflection on the Live Hub. Even with the compression artifacts, it's nice to be able to kick back on a lazy Sunday and watch a tubby Star Wars fan nearly decapitate himself with a makeshift lightsaber.