Western Digital TV Live Hub Review  
Home Theater Media Servers Home Theater/Media Center PCs
Written by Mike Flacy   
Thursday, 04 November 2010

You would be hard pressed to find a company that's consistently rolling out positive hardware revisions of its media players more than Western Digital.  Earlier this year, we took a look at the WD TV Live Media Player that added Netflix streaming into their hardware model.  But that player, and every player previous to it, lacked any type of internal storage to save all of your content rather than streaming it off your home network.  It always seemed odd that a hard drive manufacturer didn't delve into providing central storage for all your downloaded content.  Enter the Western Digital TV Live Hub.  Not only does it include a 1 Terabyte hard drive to store content, the WD TV Live Hub player has been upgraded to take advantage of HDMI 1.4, received an updated UI, can be used as a media server, included Blockbuster On Demand access for more streaming content and even a Facebook login of the people needing to stay plugged into their social circle at all times.

Similar to previous versions of the WD TV Live media player, there's not much in the box beyond the actual unit, remote, power supply and the instruction manual.  In order to utilize the hard drive, the width of the player has been expanded over the media player, but the height is smaller.  The black, sleek design fits in easily with any home theater setup, although the LED indicator light for hard drive use can be distracting in a darkened theater (the light can be turned off in the menu).  On the front of the player, you will find a power button as well as a single USB port for plugging in a thumb stick for expanded storage.  On the rear of the unit, you will find the power connection, component and composite video jacks, an optical audio port, a HDMI port, the network jack and a second USB port for another thumb drive or another media device like a camera or external hard drive.

WD Front with Remote

The remote has finally been upgraded, although you will be familiar with the rubberized, utilitarian feel of the buttons and remote's general design.  It's about twice the length of the previous remote in order to include a full keypad as well as multi-colored buttons to jump around in the user interface.  You have the ability to assign actions to specific buttons on the remote, either through the on-screen interface or when connecting to the Live Hub from a PC for a visual interface to adjust the buttons on the remote.  I'm glad that they provided the functionality, but the remote still felt limited compared to the majority of the programmable universal remotes I've tested, specifically all touchscreen models.  Still, the WD remote offers vastly more functionality compared to the simplicity of the new Apple TV remote.

Taking a page out of the XBMC or Boxee playbook, Western Digital has created a more friendly, customizable UI for the new Live Hub.  It's a big step up from their previous player, both in design and functionality; more impressive if you have only used previous WD players .  Western Digital is also promising future themes coming from the community as soon as they open up the platform's XML engine to the public.  The UI also makes tasks like downloading new firmware more clear as well as general sorting of content.  If you want to view content by file type rather than title, you can.  If you want to filter by genre or favorite movies, you can.  This is accomplished by the unit's ability to assign meta data to your content automatically.

Back of the player

If you are familiar with Gracenote, you know that they provide all the access to song title / artists / album covers for Apple when anyone uses iTunes.  Western Digital is attempting a similar concept by providing the ability to scrape all of your content and figure out what meta data is supposed to be attached with it.  For example, if you have a quantumofsolace.avi file sitting on your hard drive, it's going to figure out that the Quantum of Solace film information is supposed to be attached with it.  It's also setup to figure out which episode and season of a tv show that you are watching.  I've used similar services with plugins on other HTPC units, but the implementation feels a bit more streamlined here.  It's certainly not perfect at figuring out what you are watching, but you have the ability to correct the data as well.

Identical to previous players, you will find incredibly robust support for a variety of file types.  It really makes the Apple TV closed platform look silly, if you are the type that wants freedom of choice when it comes to video / audio content.  It handles 1080p content like a champ without a hint of stuttering or lip sync problems.  This is the first player that I would consider a legitimate rival to a physical Blu-ray disc in regards to video quality, especially when using the mkv or mov file formats.  They rate the player as having the ability to store up to 120 movies, likely using the DVD9 format as a metric (or 8 GB of space per disc).  Obviously, storing just the movie files on the player allows for more space to be utilized as well as deciding what level of bitrate that you are comfortable with when watching movies / television shows.  Even when encoding video in a high-quality HD mkv file, you are going to find a tremendous amount of space for your movies, music and other media files.  

server front

Another major selling point of this player is the ability to use the Live Hub as your house media server.  If the device is connected to your home network, you can stream content off the 1TB hard drive onto other net connected devices in the house.  More to the point, connecting another Western Digital player to another TV in the house allows for this functionality.  You can also connect via computer to watch as well as use the Twonky Media Server interface to upload new content onto the hard drive.  If you rip and encode all of your media on your Macbook in the bedroom, just upload it to the Media Server through the interface and watch it in your home theater after the files have been moved.  You can also stream it from your laptop / desktop, but having it in one central place helps anyone have access to it in the house.  You can also connect up to your iTunes libraries to play non-DRM files.

Content:

With the introduction of the hard drive into the mix, this allows Western Digital to open up the player to the rental market.  With Blockbuster on Demand support, you can rent newly released films and watch them with 24 hours of starting them.  Unfortunately, the dinosaur that is Blockbuster has covered all purchases in more DRM than I thought possible.  Want to watch your recently purchased legal copy of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World on another TV in the house?  Sorry!  You can't stream it to another television or computer in the house.  Thanks for not trying, Blockbuster.  It's no wonder that company is slipping into obscurity.

Similar to the last rendition of the Live player, we also have Netflix at our disposal.  The interface is similar, but it's not as sleek as the Apple TV interface for browsing Netflix.  It's also tough to find an Internet connected device that doesn't utilize Netflix these days, so interface is key in bringing people back for more.  Opposite from Apple TV, this device requires you to authorize the player as one of your Netflix devices over on the Netflix website.  Streaming performance has been improved from the previous player, possibly to caching the streaming content on the new hard drive.  It also seemed faster to get to the content I wanted in the interface, although still not beating out Apple TV.

Internet interface

Beyond Netflix and Blockbuster, you have Youtube, Pandora, Last.fm, Flickr, Live365, Accuweather and Mediafly apps at your disposal.  Beyond Pandora (and the included functionality to like to dislike songs), there really isn't much that stands out in the pack.  I also didn't care for Mediafly's interface and the convoluted navigation to try and subscribe to a podcast or other Internet content.  However, I did like the internal Facebook application.  The navigation is laid out well, perhaps even more streamlined than Facebook on the Xbox 360. It also includes the ability to upload content by connecting the camera / video camera to the Live Hub and directly uploading, pretty handy if you really aren't into spending time editing your media on a computer.

Caveats:

One of the problems I ran into with the Live Hub was trying to stream multiple HD files from different computers in the house at the same time over a wired network.  I can understand the problems with trying to stream to wireless notebooks, but not being able to do this on a wired connection seems like an unfortunate mis-step if Western Digital wants consumers to use this as their server for the entire house.  I also didn't care for the lack of functionality for transferring files via other sources like USB sticks or portable hard drives.  You have to connect via an external computer rather than WD including a file transfer tool in the UI; perhaps in a future update of the interface.  Finally, I'm still astounded that there's no built in Wi-Fi functionality at this stage in the product revision of the WD players.  It seems like an obvious inclusion at this point for those without wired connections at their home theaters.  (You can still purchase a Wi-Fi USB dongle to get access on the player, but that takes up a USB port and is an extra cost.)

Top view
Conclusion:

The Western Digital Live Hub is one of the most fully featured media players I've tested  in a while, something that may not bode well for the upcoming release of the Boxee Box later this month.  While they really need to find a better partner for their downloadable DRM filled media, the player is a powerhouse when it comes to storing, cataloguing and playing an enormous variety of file formats.  Also, this is the most user friendly revision of the user interface to date.  If you are looking for a more robust platform to consumer digital media on within your home or even just your home theater, don't hesitate to consider the Western Digital Live Hub as your primary media player. (MSRP: $199.99)  Highly recommended!





Like this article? Bookmark and share with any of the sites below.
Digg!Reddit!Del.icio.us!Google!StumbleUpon!Yahoo!Free social bookmarking plugins and extensions for Joomla! websites!
 
Joomla SEF URLs by Artio