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.
After plugging the Live Hub into my home network, Windows 7 quickly detected and mapped the Live Hub as a network drive. Dumping files onto the device over the network proved much easier than connecting an external drive, allowing me to skip the less-than-intelligent syncing process.
Once media files are on the Live Hub, they can be shared with the rest of your network. The Hub didn’t have any problems feeding video playback on my main PC while playing a movie on the television in the living room. Local video playback remained smooth when I was copying media to and from the device over the network, as well. As one might expect, the Hub was also able to stream video content from my PC without issue.
If your home network’s tentacles don’t extend to the living room, the Live Hub also works with a number of wireless adapters listed on WD’s site. My Linksys USB 300N card isn’t mentioned, but I gave it a try in a fit of optimism. No dice. Compatibility with a wider range of wireless network adapters would be helpful for those who, unlike myself, happen to live in dwellings that offer more square footage than a handicapped washroom.
Temperatures and Noise Levels
Because the Live Hub contains a hard drive, cooling the unit is even more important than with earlier generations of the WD TV. Here’s a look at the underside of the device, which has minimal venting and appears to rely on a single fan. In a nice touch, WD puts a couple of screw hangers on the bottom panel to allow the Live Hub to mounted vertically.
I spent quite a bit of time testing the Live Hub. When it comes to watching a lot of television in a short amount of time, my dedication to TR’s readership knows no bounds. Throughout this extensive testing, the Live Hub’s hard drive seemed virtually silent. I had to press my ear against the Hub in order to hear any drive noise at all. The fan did kick in from time to time, but I never would have noticed if I had not done some of my testing with my PC monitor. This setup put the Live Hub less than three feet away from me during testing, making the device’s subtle acoustic profile easier to hear. With the unit beside my TV, and me about 15 feet away on the couch, the Live Hub is essentially silent. Even during the quietest moments of some movies, I couldn’t hear it making any noise.
The Live Hub’s minimal heat disspiation is key to its low noise levels. After several hours of constant use, the unit only feels warm to the touch. Even after more than five hours of playback, the device’s exterior doesn’t get too hot to pick up. I would put it somewhere with at least a little ventilation, though.
Interface and Navigation
The user interface can make or break a device like the Live Hub. Fortunately, Western Digital’s UI is responsive, intuitive, and easy to navigate. My roommate, who is much more artistically inclined than tech savvy, had no problems negotiating the various menu trees, watching videos, browsing photos, or listening to music. When compared with the Media Center interface included with Windows 7, the Live Hub’s UI feels equally straightforward but considerably quicker.
With a terabyte of internal storage capacity, organization is key to making one’s media library easy to navigate. The Live Hub’s embedded software sorts media into three main categories: video, audio, and photos. If you’re syncing with an external drive or copying content over the network, existing folder structures will be maintained. It’s also possible to seek out content using a search button on the remote. Hitting that button brings up an on-screen keyboard, and while inputting text is a little slow with the remote, the search feature otherwise works well. The search function is going to be especially useful for folks who load up the internal hard drive or have a vast array of content available via network sources.
In addition to being easy to use, the Live Hub’s interface also offers a lot of flexibility. Users are free to use their own photos as a backdrop for the home screen, and they have the opportunity to do a lot more tweaking with custom themes. Western Digital is giving users access to a theme template as well as a number of samples. User-created themes can be submitted to WD, and the best will be available for download for all Live Hub users. That said, the default theme looks fine to me. The wallpaper depicts a rolling green field whose colors are bright and complement each other well, and the menus use a crisp font that’s easily legible from across the room.
The robust interface also includes Facebook integration for folks who want to stalk their friends from the couch. Using just the remote, it’s possible to log into your Facebook account, browse your friends list, view photos, and post on walls. I’m unsure whether people really want Facebook on their television, especially considering the tedium of text input with the remote. Fortunately, the Live Hub supports USB keyboards, which can also come in handy when logging into password-protected network shares and searching for specific YouTube videos. It would be nice if WD included USB mouse support to allow quicker navigation of the various menu options, as well.
Is the WD Live Hub worth its $200 asking price? The answer, as usual, depends. The Hub’s immediate predecessor, the $100 TV Live Plus, lacks a hard drive but otherwise offers similar features. If you plan on streaming content exclusively from network shares and have no need for additional network-attached storage, the Live Plus looks like the better deal. However, if you do want some local storage, adding an external terabyte costs about as much as stepping up to the Live Hub, and the resulting two-device solution will surely be less elegant.
Elegance matters in the living room, and there’s a lot to like about the Live Hub in that environment. The device’s broad file compatibility is particularly impressive, handling everything I threw at it as easily as VLC media player does on my Windows PC. Even with local storage, the ability to stream media off network shares is an incredibly useful feature. Simple drive mapping makes transferring media to and from the Live Hub as easy as a few clicks in Windows Explorer, too. And, as the proud owner of an aging television that was state of the art back in 1991, I’m very happy that the Live Hub has RCA and component outputs.
Despite that praise, I’m disappointed that WD didn’t see fit to bump the Live Hub’s USB ports up to version 3.0 of the standard. In addition, a smarter or at least selective syncing process is sorely needed to prevent incompatible file formats from being copied to the device automatically. Moving Wi-Fi onboard would be a nice bonus, as well, and I’m a little peeved that the Live Hub failed to make me coffee in the morning. Other than that, it’s tough to find flaws with WD’s latest media player.
PC enthusiasts may prefer to deploy nettops or home-theater PCs in their living rooms to gain the flexibility of a standard web browser, additional applications, and games. However, the Live Hub is meant to appeal to mainstream users who don’t want to have to spend a lot of money or put together an entire computer just to get media playing on the big screen across from their couch. For them, it’s a perfect fit: robust media playback, decent Internet integration, plus a terabyte of network-attached storage. This may not be the best device for my own living room, but my mom’s getting a WD TV Live Hub for Christmas.