The new WD TV Live is barely the size of a mobile USB drive and costs only a C-note, yet can stream 1080p24 video from any local or networked storage via gigabit LAN or wireless-N, access 20 online media services, and work as a music jukebox or a photo/slide viewer.
Nov 20, 2011 by Mike Chin
|Product||WD TV Live
Streaming Media Player
|MSP||$129; $99 street price|
Television has changed so dramatically in the 21st century that the notion
of gathering at some prescribed time to view a particular program seems quaint.
Time shifting made possible by auto-scheduled recordings on PVRs, high definition
web downloads of shows with all the commercials neatly excised, online media
service providers like Netflix and the near-universal rise of home computer
networks has taken a huge bite out of the old paradigm of a 100 million people
huddled around their TV sets for a synchronized mind-feed of the nation’s most
popular show. Except in the case of mega sports events like the Super Bowl or
the NBA final, of course. (Or, if mainstream media is to be believed, the spring
2011 wedding extravaganza and whirlwind Canadian tour of British royals.)
Among the modern media devices competing for consumer dollars are not only
HD personal video recorders (PVRs) from subscription TV companies (both cable
and DSL-based), but a huge range of multi-media devices — smart phones,
video/MP3 players, computer tablets, laptop and desktop PCs, and streaming media
players like the WD TV Live in this review.
Digital media receiver or player is another term used to describe devices like
the WD TV Live. The first ones were audio only, but quickly expanded to video
as well. A fairly early, highly quality, audio-only streaming media player was
the Squeezebox, version 3 of which was reviewed here some years ago.
The more video-oriented media players are offered by a large range and number
of brands — Asus, Apple, D-link, Vewsonic, Sony, Logitech, and Denon, to
name just a few. Many of these brands have never ventured into consumer home
entertainment before, but as we race headlong to an all-digital world, computers
and entertainment technologies are rapidly merging. Western Digital, a name
long associated with hard disk drives, is a case in point.
The WD TV Live is actually a slight revision of the WD TV Live Hub, introduced in Q3 2010. The new product eliminates the built-in hard drive storage of the TV Live Hub, but is otherwise very similar, and uses the same interface and remote control. Aside from the HDD difference, the most important changes are the addition of wireless networking, and some firmware changes, including more online service providers.
This review asks two main questions. The answers are summarized below.
1. What does the WD TV Live do? It functions as a controller
to deliver all kinds of content to your HDTV from many sources — computers
on your network, a digital storage device connected directly to the unit via
USB, or web services. It accesses your existing network via wired or built-in
wireless ethernet. Video, music, and photo files of virtually all types are
supported. A couple dozen web sources of content — both free like youtube
and pay like netflix — are preprogrammed into the WD TV. Presumably,
as web services are expanded, firmware upgrades to the WD TV Live will make
new services available.
WD TV Live provides the media streaming functionality of a HTPC without the
bother of setting up and maintaining another computer. As long as you have
one or more computers and high speed access to the web, WD TV Live is as good
as a full-fledge HTPC in most practical ways. Of course, one limitation is
tuning directly to a TV station; WD TV Live does not have or support a tuner.
It also has no way to download and save files directly from the web, either,
but presumably, that functionality already exists in your computers.
2. How well does it do all the above? The complete answer is
the whole review, but the short answer is, “Very well“.
Most notable is the user interface, one of the cleanest, quickest, and most
transparent I’ve encountered in any electronic/digital device in quite some
time. Most people exposed often and long to complex machines come to realize
that the user interface is critical. A product like TV Live is by its very
nature, a complex one, and WD has succeeded in creating a menu and command
system that feels straightforward and intuitive for a casual user, yet with
quick access to fine details to satisfy an Alpha geek. User friendly, simple
setup, and consistent are apt descriptions. On top of this, the quality of
the video and audio output on HDMI is excellent.
Now for the details.
WD provides a lot of information about TV Live, but in many different places.
The info in the box below is all from WD, the web pages and the manual.
|WD TV LIVE SPECIFICATIONS
Weight & Dimensions: 0.42 lbs / 0.19 kg; 30h x 100d x 125w
Electrical: 100-240 VAC / 50~60 Hz; Power disspation not specified
Interface: Ethernet, USB 2.0, HDMI (1.4), Composite A/V, Wi-Fi,
File Formats Supported
Several noteworthy points about the above:
Finally, while WD emphasizes the TV Live’s ability to stream all kinds of media
from all sources, it makes most sense in the role of video streaming. Admittedly,
if you hook this device to a computer monitor, say no bigger than 24″,
then the power consumption would be modest enough for it to stay always on,
to be used as a music player, with a random slide show screensaver for multiple
entertainment. But it would profligate to use a big screen HD TV with its much
higher power consumption (>200W is not unusual) as the music jukebox screen
for the WD TV Live.
The full manual is in PDF format, downloaded from the WDTVL web page. The manual
is extensive, surprisingly well-written and organized, well worth referring
to in order to get the most from the product.
The unit comes with a brief pictorial quick start sheet. Setup is a matter
of hooking the WDTVL to AC power, a HDTV, and your home network. AC power is
obvious; HDMI is the normal single-cable hookup to a HDTV, but an AV output
and breakout cable for composite phono plugs is an option as well. The hookup
to the home network can be either wired or wireless, 802.11n — described
as “Wireless-N” in the product spec sheet.
The HDTV used for this review was connected to an audio-video receiver, a HTPC,
the home network via wired gigabit ethernet, and to the Internet via Shaw Extreme
cable (with a maximum download speed of 25 Mbps). It was simple to hook up another
ethernet cable from the local network box under the TV, and plug the WD TV Live
into the receiver via HDMI. This took all of five minutes, spent mostly in getting
access to the back of the gear. The unit powered up without a hitch, and within
30 seconds, the AV receiver display was reporting the WDTVL as a 1080p input
source. Accessing files on other computers was just a matter of ensuring folders
are shared on the network, with or without password protection, which if used,
the WDTVL will remember next time. Within a minute or two after hookup, an HD
movie file from my HTPC was playing on the TV through the wee box.
This was probably the quickest, most pleasant, hassle-free out-of-box setup
I’ve had with a complex electronic device in… years. Modems, TVs, PVRs, mobile
phones, cameras — almost all techno gear, in fact — can have complex
and non-intuitive operating systems that make the out-of-box experience challenging
and frustrating. WD gets full marks for making the TV Live work easily from
the get-go despite the obvious complexity of what’s under the little hood.
The default screen that presents itself at turn-on is reminiscent of a Windows
desktop background. The menu options are in a full width bar across the bottom,
and always present on the home screen, with the center box clearly highlighted
as the chosen one. It is pleasant and functional. It turns out that like a
Windows desktop, the background image can be easily changed. There are a couple
dozen built-in image options, and you can easily upload your own photo, as
A quick scroll across the main menu gets us to the Setup page, which has
nine sub menus.
In the A/V Output section, WDTVL had detected the HDTV properly and set the
output to 1080p 60Hz. This was reset to 1080p 24Hz for best movie viewing.
Stereo sound came through the HDMI as expected, to the AV receiver. Though
capable of 5.1 channels, the Paradigm Millenia speakers are set up as a 3.1
channel system to avoid the clutter of speaker cables running to the back
of the small den — left, right, center and subwoofer speakers provide
plenty of high quality sound. There was no change in fidelity whether music
or movies were played, either from the HTPC or via the WDTVL.
Setup of wired networking is virtually automated and not worth going over
here. Wireless networking is a little more complex to set up, but this only
reflects the difference between wired and wireless; the need to input long-ish
passwords, for example, can be a bit tedious with the remote control and on-screen
keyboard. However, WDTVL accepts any standard USB keyboard, including wireless
ones. I plugged in an optical USB all-in-one keyboard and keyboard inputs
via the IR dongle were accepted without a hitch.
A comparison was made streaming content through the WDTVL via the gigbit
wired ethernet versus the 802.1l-N wireless network. With photos and music
of any file size on hand, there was no difference. Both wired and wiress connections
A bit more variation was seen streaming video files. Only a couple of 480p
files were tried, and not in any systematic way, but no differences were apparent.
In today’s HD video world, there is really not much point with 480p except
With 720p video files, there was rarely any difference betwen the two network
routes. Both worked smoothly without hitches, although the video preview window
became active more quickly with gigabit, but this was a minor issue. With
1080p files, however, the wireless network was consistently more glitchy,
with random starts and stops and sometimes crashes on some files.
There are two main points I will make here:
- Most people have a hard time appreciating the qualitative difference between
720p and 1080p even on a >50″ 1080p TV, so if you’re making choices
about which compression to use when ripping Bluray discs, keep in mind that
the 720p files are much smaller, and stream more easily over wireless.
- Gigabit wired does make everything work just a bit faster (especially
any file transfers), so it’s probably worth the bother to run a cable
to the WDTVL if you already have a gigabit network. Then, traffic on the
network has virtually no chance of interrupting the media streaming.
Power Consumption & Noise
Just a quick note to get it out of the way, as there will be no other purely
technical measurements here: AC power draw measured 7W at idle or “off”,
and 8W maximum doing anything. This means as long as the unit is connected
to AC, it is constantly on. 7~8W is peanuts even by Green standards, certainly
lower than any HTPC. It probably does not differ that much from other media
And no, noise was not measured, because even with the unit held to my ear,
there was little I could hear from it. A trace of hum/buzz might have been
coming from the AC/DC adapter, but it is one of several in a forest of dongles
behinf the TV, receiver, Bluray player, HD PVR, and HTPC, so we’re just going
say noise from this unit is just not an issue, even when the TV is off.
MENUS & NAVIGATION
It took only a bit of time and handling to learn how to navigate the menus
with the remote control, which has good ergonomic design. Buttons are well-placed,
though perhaps a bit tall, and a contoured underside provides a natural groove
for the index finger of either hand to grip comfortably.
The size of the remote is just about right for most hands, and that
contoured wedge underside puts the index finger of either hand in a comfortable
The buttons themselves are familiar to anyone who has used one for
a TV or VCR/PVR, with “transport” buttons near the top, and
the circular pattern of menu naviation buttons in the center.
Closeup of the most often used buttons.
For menu navigation, the arrows move the highlight on a given screen,
the prev/next page buttons allow quicker movement on long lists, and
the back button moves you back up to the previous menu level. The option
button acts a bit like the right mouse button inWindows depending on what
screen you are on when it is pressed, providing detailed information and options.
The setup button is a quick shortcut to that page, which is on the
top menu level but can requires a bit of a scroll if using the arrow buttons,
as there are eight choices: Scrolling to the right, starting arbitrarily from
Videos, there is Games, RSS, Services, Games, Files, Setup, and Photos. The
colored A, B, C, and D buttons are normally keyed to the function of similarly
colored icons on the screen, but they can be reprogrammed as desired. This
will make more sense when you see more menu screen shots.
ACCESSING MEDIA CONTENT
You start by selecting Music, Videos, Photos or Files on the main screen.
The first time, you need to select from several content sources:
- My Media Library – Scans all available network shares and attached
USB storage, can take a long time
- Local Storage – Storage devices attached to USB ports 1 and/or
- Media Server – Network-attached media server devices (more metadata
- Network Share –
- Samba – Windows and Mac network shares, most network attached
- NFS – Linux network shares
- Online Service – Photos and videos posted in your Facebook and
Picasa online accounts.
FILES AT YOUR LOCATION
The network share or media server are likely to be key for most users, as
the essence of media streaming is to access and play a media file remotely.
Keeping the shared media folders password-free makes most sense to me, but
passwords can be negotiated with the WDTVL, and remembered after first use.
Some users might keep all of their media on a portable (self-powered) USB
drive, however, and move it around the house for simplicity.
You might think USB storage would give you the snappiest access, but this
really depends on what and how much data is on the storage device, the speed
of the network, and the “tidiness” of your media files in your shared
network folders. With a 500GB USB hard drive about half full of a hodge podge
of files (many thousands), the WDTVL activity light stayed blinking for hours,
presumably trying to scan all the content, even though the ~150GB of media
files seemed to be fully accessible in a few minutes. In contrast, on the
gigabit wired network, the shared videos folder (with nearly a terabyte and
hundreds of movie files) in the main HTPC storage drive was visible in a few
seconds. YMMV. The difference in speed appears to be the relatively slower
performance of the USB chip and core processor in the WDTVL compared to the
>3GHz AMD Phenom II 4-core processor and 8GB RAM PC pushing the HTPC storage
It’s probably best to dedicate a USB drive for WDTVL media content. If the
USB drive is more or less permanently connected to the WDTVL, you can set
the box up to be a Network Share Server, with all its media visible to other
computers on the network.
Interestingly, if the WDTVL and your computer are attached to the network,
you can transfer files between your computer and any USB storage device connected
to the WDTVL. This was not tried; there are too many bottlenecks between those
points for such an operation to be speedy for transferring something like
a big HD movie file.
All the comments regarding file access are specific to computers running
Windows 7 and Vista, but I had similar results with a couple of Windows XP
machines still on the network, and WD claims native Mac OS (Leopard or Snow
Leopard) functionality as well.
My own preference has been to keep all media content on a 2TB storage-dedicated
drive in the HTPC, with regular backups to a NAS box elsewhere in the network.
The WDTVL’s USB capability did not change my habit. The network share avoids
the clutter of yet another device on a USB cable connected to the WDTVL, and
the potential noise of that drive.
Folder or Browser Display Options
There are several different view options for each of the different types
of media. Videos have the most number of view options.
WD TV Live
Folder Display Options
In the list views, a small icon image shows up next to the highlighted files.
For videos, the most interesting option is Preview, which actually
plays the highlight video file in a small window above basic properties information
about the file.
Video Preview screen actually plays the highlighted file (whether
there is one file in the screen or many) and provides basic properties
aboiut the file.
Preview display option on higher level view of folders.
Options Button: Subtitles & Audio Lip Sync
Several functions are accessed with the Options button while the video
file is selected or playing: Play Mode gets you into repeat, etc; Zoom
& Pan is obvious and interesting but low priority, and Audio lets
you choose between different language tracks (if that’s an option in your
video); you can even delete the file from here if you so wish (though most
users will probably prefer to manage the media files on their network from
The Subtitle function is found here, although there is also a dedicated button for it on the remote. Subtitle files must be located
in the same folder and have same filename as the video file. When subtitles
were needed, I found it easiest to start the video, then immediately pause
it, and click on the Options button to set up the subtitles.
This is the screen that comes up when the options button is pressed
while a video is playing. The Subtitle menu lets you choose the
right one (if there is more than one), and you can position and color
the the subtitle text as you like.
Another very useful function is Audio Lip Sync, which is just what
it sounds like: Adjusts the timing between audio and video. There is nothing
quite so annoying —in an otherwise unflawed video — as a lag between
action and sound. Select Audio Lip Sync while the video is playing, and you
can delay or advance the audio track by 100ms increments using the left/right
arrow buttons. There seems to be no limit to how much delay or advance; I
stopped it at 11.4 seconds delay in the screenshot below. The time delay or
advance engages immediately. When it is right, just hit the Back button
to go back to viewing your video with the sound and action in sync.
The Audio Lip Sync function is not documented. It may have been
added after the last update of the manul.
Music & Videos
The WD TV Live’s ability to function as a jukebox or slide viewer is OK,
but there is nothing truly exceptional here. Yes, the ability to pull the
files in from any digital source in your home is nice, but the actual fuctionality
has been done before, and probably done better with more specialized software
for PCs. Google’s Picasa, an example of a free image viewer application, comes
to mind. Still, the functionality is there, and it works well enough, so there’s
no need to hook up other devices or computers to the big screen TV when the
WDTVL is already there.
Note, however, that a folder of images that views correctly in vertical or
horizontal layout in Windows does not always views the same way on the WDTVL.
With the music, once it is playing, you can freely acess most other screens
without interrupting it. Only when you get into a video preview or play screen
will the music be interrupted (after which it must be manually turned back
on if you want it to continue playing).
As mentioned earlier in this review, if you hook this device to a computer
monitor, say no bigger than 24″, then the power consumption would be
modest enough for it to stay always on, to be used as a music player, with
a random slide show screensaver for multiple entertainment. But it would be
a bit profligate to use a big screen HD TV with its much higher power consumption
(>200W is not unusual) as a music jukebox screen for the WD TV Live.
Thus far, our coverage has been entirely on media content that is in your
own location, on networked or USB storage. WDTVL also provide extensive access
to online media content. The review sample (with firmware version 1.03.10)
offers 19 online services under the Services option on the main menu.
(NOTE: As this article was being posted, firmware version 1.04.12 became
available. It increased the number of online services to 20 by adding Vimeo.
A couple dozen small fixes were also implemented.)
There are 15 service options on the first Services screen…
…and five more on the second.
The offerings are quite varied, from music and video streaming sites, to
weather forecast and photo storage/sharing sites. You can log in to your existing
account and have the same access to paid content as on a computer. You can
upload videos and images, as well, to your accounts at Facebook, Picasa, or
Youtube, for example.
- AccuWeather.com – Local and international forecasts, climate
trends, latest news.
- Blockbuster On Demand – Watch digital movies on your TV instantly,
rent or buy, including new releases, cinema classics and TV shows, with
no monthly fee. Account required, US only.
- CinemaNow – New release movies the same day they come out
on DVD, TV episodes for many popular shows the day after they air. Account
required, US only.
- Deezer – Personalized on-demand music service to listen to
seven million tracks, one of the most popular Internet and mobile music
offerings in Europe.
- Facebook – Share your status, photos, videos, and your favorite
links on Facebook. Access it all on your big screen TV.
- Flickr – Connect to Flickr using the on-screen menus. View
the photos on your Flickr account and enjoy them on your TV.
- Flingo – Offers free Internet Television from leading studios,
TV networks, and video websites.
- Hulu Plus – Current hit TV shows and award-winning movies
anytime in HD. Watch any current season episode of top shows like Modern
Family, Glee, 30 Rock and many others, enjoy classic series, or explore
acclaimed movies from The Criterion Collection and Miramax. Account required,
- Live365 – Listen to thousands of commercial-free Internet
- Mediafly – Stream daily video podcasts from CNN, NBC, MTV,
ESPN, and other online content to your TV.
- Netflix – Access your Netflix membership and instantly watch
TV episodes and movies on your big screen. Account required, some countries
- Pandora – Free, personalized Internet radio. US only.
- Picasa – View, share and enjoy your photographs right from
- SHOUTcast Radio – Online radio stations directory featuring
over 45,000 music, talk, sports, and community radio stations from around
- Spotify – On-demand access to over 15 million tracks and albums.
Available in USA, UK, Sweden, Finland, Norway, France, The Netherlands
and Spain. Account required.
- TuneIn – The world’s largest Internet radio guide with
access to over 30,000 free radio stations searchable by location, genre,
- YouTube – Watch your favorite videos from the world’s
#1 video sharing website on your television.
- Vimeo – Videos from a community of creative people passionate about
sharing their art. (added mid-Nov 2011)
The above services are integrated with their web-based counterparts when
accessed via the WDTVL. If you are a registered user, everything you create,
rate, or bookmark when using the WDTVL shows up on your account the next time
you sign in from your computer.
The interface for these services varies. I did not check all of them, but
most function quite logically, which is very good, given the much fewer controls
on a remote control compared to a web browser and a full keyboard.
The main screen on the Youtube Video service link. This
week’s top rated videos on youtube, in a list + icon view.
The resolution of the online HD streaming video content is generally only
as good as — and usually not quite as good as — the 1080i of cable
or DSL TV, and the quality can vary with providers as well as the vagaries
of web traffic. However, there was no quality difference between viewing these
on the WDTVL or my own custom-built HTPC. You get the occasional sound (usually
not video) dropout on either, even on Shaw Extreme cable’s supposedly 25 Mbps
After several weeks of living with the WD TV Live along side my HTPC, identifying
the preferred video playback device is a tossup. It is easier and quicker to
organize, modify or otherwise manipulate the media files on the network with
the HTPC. However, the navigation and playback controls on the WDTVL are quick
and responsive, and it has native capability to play the ever-popular MKV video
files, unlike any native Windows software (like Media Center). In fact, the
WD never balked at any video file type I thre at it. The ease of access to handy
tweaks like subtitle controls and audio scychronization make the TV Live quite
compelling for local or network video streaming. The quality of the video and
color rendition are as good as the HTPC, and with motion, it is often smoother
on difficult files.
The online services offered are well implemented, and for viewing, the experience
is about as good as you’d find with a PC. Finding a specific video online could
be a bit tedious, but then it can also be a pain even when you have a keyboard
and browser. The WDTVL accepts a USB keyboard without any problem, even a wireless
The underlying system setup controls are extensive, though not every detail
was fully covered in this review. The extensive setup controls, along with the
speedy, user-friendly main interface, makes it desirable for both casual user
and Alpha geek. The 1080p 24fps support necessary for videophiles is also there,
along with both built-in wireless-N and gigabit wired eithernet. The tiny size
of the device and its innocuous appearance is a plus, although the need to keep
it within line of sight of the remote control is not.
The photo viewing and music playing capabilities are about average, but there’s
not much to complain about. They work well enough, but not on par with dedicated
software and PC or an audio-specific streamer like the Squeezebox.
The fact that you get all this in the wee box for just $100 is quite something,
really. The WD TV Live looks like the one of the best products and a great bargain
in its category.
* * *
Our thanks to Western
Digital for the TV Live sample.
Western Digital Live TV receives the SPCR Editor’s Choice Award
* * *
Market Note: Potential buyers should note that there appear to be
several WD TV Live products on the market: One is the variant reviewed here,
which is the latest. The other versions are in a slightly bigger, older, casing
without WI-FI built in, and called WD TV Live Plus. There is
a version of TV Live Plus for Latin America, though it is not
clear what makes it so. Finally, the slightly earlier TV Live Hub
appears to have about the same functionality as the TV Live minus WI-FI, in
a chassis big enough for a 1TB HDD to be housed within it and sold for about
twice the price.
* * *
* * *