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After months of unconfirmed rumors about its maybe, possibly imminent arrival, Western Digital finally released its next-generation WD TV media player--just mere days after we finished our Dec/09 issue, in which we named the previous-gen model as one of our “2009 Gear of the Year” favorites. We had a few niggling criticisms of that earlier version, but in the latest model, Western Digital has made some excellent improvements to what became our favorite set-top box for media playback.
With the unit plugged into your home entertainment center, you can take all the videos, photos, and audio content you’ve got on your Mac and play them back on your television or home stereo. WD TV Live supports HDMI for full 1080p HD output, but you’ll have to buy your own cable for that. (The HDMI cables at your local big-box store are grossly overpriced. Find a local electronics shop or order online to find the same cables for 20 percent of what the big guys are charging.) There’s also a SPDIF optical audio out for users with high-end home theater rigs. The player doesn’t have any storage of its own, but you can plug in nearly any standard USB drive (including flash drives) that contain media.
Network capability adds a tremendous amount of flexibility to WD TV Live. Easy transfers to and from the device meake it perfect for media freaks who want to take a break from staring at their Macs for a while.
WD TV Live plays back media from connected or networked drives.
New to the WD TV Live is network capability. Connecting the unit via Ethernet to your router instantly adds access to any DLNA media servers or shared volumes on your network. It’s the single killer feature we missed in the original WD TV, and it’s implemented quite well. Without any configuration hassles or software, the WD TV instantly recognized a NAS drive and two DLNA servers on our home network. And besides recognizing your existing shares, the WD TV can also bring any attached USB drives onto your network, which makes moving content to your WD TV from your Mac trivially easy. No more shuttling portable drives back and forth to your computer--now you can move files over your network to WD TV Live. There’s also support for a growing number of USB Wi-Fi adapters, so you don’t even need a wired connection to take advantage of Live’s best trick.
Now that WD TV is networked, there’s also support for online content. You can watch YouTube videos, view Flickr photos, and stream music from Live365 and Pandora. In particular, we enjoyed the Pandora access, which allowed us to bring our existing Pandora stations to our home stereo (for free, naturally). The Pandora interface includes the familiar Thumbs Up/Down controls for fine-tuning your stations, and displays album art and track information on your TV as the music plays. You can’t create new Pandora stations from WD TV, but that might be a blessing for some, as the system’s onscreen keyboard is vexingly difficult to use. Letters and numbers are laid out in a Qwerty keyboard pattern, but the virtual keys are listed alphabetically, making any text entry slow and unintuitive. For that reason, we quickly abandoned YouTube searches, although WD TV’s YouTube controls work well, and 720p videos looked great on our HDTV. Just don’t expect the WD TV to take low-res source videos and make them crystal clear on your 52-inch widescreen. We’re hoping that the streaming options will increase over time--Netflix and Hulu come to mind.
WD TV Live relies on a menu-driven navigation system via the included remote. We found the interface easy to use, but not without quirks--chief among them being that the dedicated Back button sometimes goes up a level, and other times you need to hit the left arrow to do the same thing.
Even with the added features, WD TV still stresses simplicity and ease of use. The menus themselves feel snappy and responsive. There are also file management capabilities built in, so you can delete already-viewed content or copy and move it between attached drives. It works, but for serious organizing, we still prefer to move files around in Finder on our Mac.