Western Digital’s WD TV HD Media Player

Western Digital’s WD TV HD Media Player

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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.

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
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 decoding—something 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 past—whether Windows Media Center, Apple’s Front Row, or even Sony’s XrossMediaBar—will 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.

Software updates
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.

It’s hard not to like the WD TV, especially for a first effort. It’s certainly not perfect: WD drove down the price by making some serious hardware sacrifices. The lack of built-in network streaming is disappointing, and you have to factor in the price of an external hard drive (assuming you don’t already have one) into the overall cost of the unit. While Western Digital was kind enough to include a $20-off coupon for its My Passport portable hard drives, I would still prefer to see a fully integrated unit with a built-in hard drive. But margins must be protected.

What makes the WD TV so appealing is its price tag. $129 is attractive enough already, but I’ve regularly found the device on sale for as little as $99, putting it dangerously close to impulse-buy territory if you’ve already got a spare USB storage device. The software needs a bit of fine-tuning, yet the WD TV strikes me as an excellent choice for people like my grandparents who don’t need a next-generation game console or a home theater PC just to enjoy a digital video every once in a while. If you’re on the fence about an HTPC, or you’re just plain frustrated with the inconsistent format support from game consoles, the WD TV might be right up your alley. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a few episodes of Battlestar Galactica on my thumb drive I need to catch up on.

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