Review: Western Digital TV Live Media Player

Our score: 4/5
Reviewed: November 5, 2009 11:00 PM
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Published: November 5, 2009 11:00 PM
By Régis Jehl
The WD TV HD has been 2009's most popular multimedia box on Digital Versus. The arrival of the Western Digital WD TV Live is therefore a bit of an event. On the menu: the design and concept go unchanged, a higher performance decoding chip, DTS compatability and above all networking capability.

The box looks similar to the previous model. Still the same size and the same MyBook external disk drive traits. The glossy black has been exchanged for a less flashy matte grey anthracite.

Still no screen at the front of the device, so you have to turn on the TV to listen to music. And you still can't house a hard drive inside it. You have to link it to an external hard drive or USB key via one of the USB ports (see below). The other solution is to use the ethernet 10/100 socket and the networking capabilities (see inset).

Nor is the remote any different. An exact replica of the one on the previous model, it's small and nestles in the your palm. A shame that it's so thick as it would be a lot more classy otherwise. Nevertheless, in spite of the fact that there are only 17 buttons on it, navigation through the menus is easy enough to handle. However, regrettably, again, you can't adjust the volume. As a result, you have to use the TV remote or the speakers to change the volume.

The menus: no change

Nothing new here either, the menu interface is identical to the one on the previous model. Rapid, easy to work your way around, with nice graphics, the accent is on visual navigation with visualisation of album and film covers. This aspect is less developed than on the NMTs (PopcornHour C-200 for example) however as you have to work it manually.

With videos, you can visualize the files in a dossier by the covers but you have to place a film image on the folder in which that film is stocked yourself. If you have several folders (several series for example), they can also be displayed via images. Each folder will be displayed using the first available image from that folder. In both cases, you have to retrieve and place the images manually. You can't display the synopses.


With audio things are more complicated: if you have MP3s with the album cover in the metadata, it will be displayed. Otherwise, as with videos, you can place an image on each folder (each album) so as to search visually. Once again, you must retrieve and place the images manually.

The search filters are handy. For music, you can navigate by artist, genre or date. You can also view photos in the form of thumbnails. The only drawback, you can't specify how many to display.

When it comes to energy consumption, performance is both good and bad. Playing videos, consumption is between 6.5w and 7.5w. On standby however we took a reading of 4.6w, which makes it one of the worst in its category.

Decoding: H.264, HD and MKV

The WD TV Live uses the recent Sigma Designs SMP8655 decoding chip. This is a lighter version of the SMP8643 used on the PopcornHour C-200. There's no Blu-ray player support and the processor is slightly slower (500 MHz against 667 MHz). Nevertheless the decoding is still excellent. You can play all video formats in high definition as well as MKV encapsulations.

To list them, the WD TV Live can handle MPEG-1, MPEG-2, MPEG-4 ASP (DivX, XviD), MPEG-4 AVC (H.264, x264) et VC-1. All formats can be played both in SD and HD up to 1080p. There's also a 24 Hz mode but you have to activate it manually. Moving on, container support - files with a video track and several audio tracks and one or more sub-titles - is also very thorough: AVI, DVIX, MP4, MKV, WMV, MOV, MTS, M2TS and OGM (which is very rare).

DVD backup and support is however less good. ISO files are recognised but you lose menus and languages support. It's the same for RIPs, it doesn't play IFO files and you have to start VOB files manually (same limitations as previously). This is obviously a software limitation rather than a chip limitation. For Blu-ray backups, the M2TS are well handled including for the audio tracks but no subtitles.

For audio, too, the bases are covered with MP3, WMA, AAC, OGG and FLAC. Above all, note that there's a DTS decoder and Dolby Digital to allow you to decode and play this type of audio file on, for example, the TV speakers (downmix stereo). Bitstream mode (erroneously called pass-through) also means you can send the audio signal to an external decoder (audio amplifier for example) without decoding it. There's also support for DTS HD HR / MA and Dolby Digital Plus / True HD (downmix and bitstream).

Like multi-audio support, subtitling is very easy to set up (go to options and select the subtitle or audio track you want). Nevertheless, while you do get SRT, SSA, SMI and IDX support, SUB isn't supported. For subtitles in containers, it only handles MP4s, MKVs and OGMs. No subtitling support for DIVX and AVI files then. Once again, this is a software limitation, as the chip is capable of handling all these operations. Western Digital needs to react and give us an updated firmware.

Lastly, looking at photo formats, we have JPEG, BMP, GIF, TIF and PNG support. No problem for high res JPEGs (tested up to 21 Mpixels) and you need to wait 3 seconds between the display of photos.

Connectivity: HDMI, network and Wi-Fi optional


At the back of the box, there's an HDMI 1.3a out, an optical out to link the box to an external decoder and two jacks. They are for specific cables that are supplied: one for YUV, one for RCA for low definition TVs.

There are also two USB Hosts for USB keys or other external hard drives. One is at the back of the box and the other on the left hand side. All that's lacking is an SDHC card reader. You can also connect a USB Wi-Fi key (not supplied). There's also an Ethernet (10/100 Mbps) network socket (see inset).
4/5 Western Digital TV Live Media Player DigitalVersus 2009-11-06 00:00:00

Pros

  • Extensive multimedia compatibility
  • Good navigation interface
  • Simple to use
  • Network socket and Wi-Fi compatible (optional)
  • DTS and Dolby Digital support

Cons

  • Album and film cover graphics not generated automatically
  • No support for synopses
  • Software limitations for some subtitling and DVD backup
  • Remote looks too chunky
  • High stand-by energy consumption

Conclusion

WD TV Live is no revolution, rather a development of the WD TV HD. The addition of network support, DTS support and web services is a real plus. Now, however, people are also looking for more flexibility in creating a video library as well as a product that allows them to add web services manually.

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