Western Digital TV Media Player Review

24 Jan 2009

As soon as I mentioned I’d ordered one of these, I’ve had a lot of interested people quiz me about it, so it seems a review is in order! Apologies for the use of press photos here, as the ones I’d taken (and the video) were rubbish – I’ll hopefully post decent ones in the next few days.

Quick recap: The WD TV is a device for playing your non-DRM media (Movies, Music and Photos) through your TV (via HDMI or Composite) with audio out via toslink if you prefer. There is no internal HD, you simple plug in up to 2 USB drives, making it easily expandable. It intrigued me for 2 reasons: cost and size. It was small (in fact even smaller in reality than I expected!) and inexpensive. My hope was that it was an easy plug and play solution.

The set up I use is as follows:

Everytime you plug in a USB device, WD TV needs to scan it. Small USB sticks are scanned in a matter of seconds, but a larger 320gb drive take a couple of minutes to finish scanning. So you need a strategy: The larger drive would most likely be left attached most of the time, with USB sticks used to quickly play new content. This would work particularly well if there was the option to copy files from one device to the other, but sadly there isn’t. Not a huge problem though, and a possible feature for a future firmware update maybe?

You can use most drive formats, but OS X users note: Mac OS Extended (HFS+) is fine, but Journaling must be turned off, with a partition map of either Master Boot Record or Apple Partition Map, not GUID. Fortunately, you can turn off journaling on a drive in Disk Utility.app without reformatting it.

I found that the the lack of network capability didn’t matter too much to me. Looking at new content was quick and easy by plugging in a USB Stick, It was more for functions like downloading metadata that I missed it. I’m sure someone could get a networked USB drive hooked up, but as I understand it, you would need to eject the disk, take the USB out and plug it in again, for the WD TV to see the new content. So no time gain really!

Playback is hard to fault. While I don’t have a 1080 TV to test it’s full capabilities on, it played crisp and rich at 720, using .mov, .m4v and .avi files. The only playback issues were that .avi movies from my Canon Ixus digital camera had horribly distorted sound – something that’s echoed by other users across various forums. Other .avi files played fine however. It also does a good job of making YouTube sized downloads look presentable on screen.

Interface & Remote

WD TV will easily make thumbnails from jpegs, but for movies and music it needs to have an image embedded in the file. I haven’t quite worked out how to do this (and whether I want to go through manually adding this data) but what this means is that I ended up browsing endless screens of the default thumbnails. It can feel like a lot of clicking to find what you want to play. In settings, you can turn this off and use a simple list view, which is easier to navigate, but doesn’t make sense when browsing photos.

One feature I didn’t expect was that holding down the down arrow button longer will accelerate scrolling, so reaching Vampire Weekend at the end of a long list of artists isn’t too hard.

In general, the interface was far more pleasant than I’d expected from the screenshots I’d seen. It’s bright, crisp and well laid out. The menus do not play any feedback sounds, which is quite a relief. The only sore point (other than lack of thumbnails) is it’s letter spacing, which is pretty random. I’m not even talking about kerning pairs either, any old letter could be bizarrely spaced.

The remote is tiny, and in glossy piano black with small cheap looking buttons that need a rather firm press to register. My Logitech Harmony One remote controls it just fine though. It does feature a home button which is good for when you’re buried deep in subfolders.

Upgrading the firmware

For a device that doesn’t have any network capability, upgrading is still pretty easy. To see what version you’re running you go to Settings > System > About, and compare this number to the Western Digital Site. When I received my unit, a new firmware (1.01) was available. I just downloaded the update, copied the .bin and .ver files to a USB stick, which was immediately recognised by WD TV.

You just OK the offer of updating, and it reboots and installs (which just took a couple of minutes).

Apple TV

Many people have asked me about this, wanting a comparison with the AppleTV. It’s hard to compare, as the WD TV is intentionally a much simpler device, not a true competitor. However, there are a few plus points over an AppleTV (ATV users, feel free to correct me if I’m wrong!)

Of course, it depends on what you want to use it for. ATV can ‘do’ a whole lot more, such as rent and buy movies and music and view online content from Flickr/YouTube. If you just want to play some media files from your computer, the WD TV is brilliant.

For me, I wouldn’t use the WD TV to play music. I found my ideal setup for that with the Mac Mini, Syncopation and the iPhone remote. Photos? I don’t tend to look at photos on TV. The idea was appealing a few years ago, but I’ve found that I prefer using a laptop for that. Which leaves movies. So that leaves it as a HD movie player, and the WD TV works very well for that, as long you don’t want any fancy data views that solutions like XBMC setups would provide.

It’s not really solved my dilemma. After using this for a while I felt like going back to Boxee on the Mac Mini for a bit more functionality, but it soon froze, with no way out but to restart the Mini. Faced with that, the WD TV simplicity and reliability is attractive.

To sum up:

Pros: Simplicity. Very easy to use and setup. High quality playback of just about any format. A very small, shiny black footprint. Attach a wide variety of USB sources. Portable too!
Cons:Simplicity! On screen menu typography is a bit clunky. Navigation can feel hard work with large media collections in thumbnail view. Remote buttons need a hard press to register.

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