Western Digital TV – HD Media Player Review
These days, everyone wants to be able to view all of their media easily. And of course, why not, with media coming from so many places… digital cameras, video cameras, cell phones, and of course the Internet. You also don’t want to have to physically change your DVD or Blu-Ray discs because that would be, well, not North American! 750-something donuts a year, we Canadians eat. It has to take its toll somewhere.
But in all seriousness, playing all the different media you may have is never an easy task. Let’s look at the options some of us might have.
XBOX 360: Somewhat capable, but suffers from codec incompatibility, no built-in WiFi, volume, and other issues. Surprisingly, it is reported that 360 can read HFS+ (Mac) partitions which I like for various reasons, while PS3, a product from a competitor company other than Apple, cannot read HFS+ or NTFS. Even more surprising, the 360 can’t read NTFS. I’d love to know what happened behind the scenes… were there any disgruntled employees who said, “Let’s stick to EM, baby! HFS but not NTFS! HAHA! There!” The menu, sorry, Dashboard works pretty well for a console, but not as good as a media center in my opinion. Ultimately, the 360 simply uses too much power.
Sony PlayStation 3 – Considered by many to be a good media player, it’s not met with the same kind of fanfare in my house. It can’t handle MKV, although the files inside that container are generally fine for the PS3, it can’t accept files larger than 4GB, it can’t stream these kinds of videos from a PC (and even if it could, its 802.11g speeds would would stop). It can also get loud/hot like the 360, and requires a lot of power. Other than that, the PS3 having a Blu-Ray player is its saving grace. That, its Blu-Ray boot speed, and the fact that it can decode lossless formats internally make it a decent player. I even like the XMB to the point where I don’t mind using it to organize pictures and music, but since it can’t handle my MKV video collection, it unfortunately has to get a thumbs down too.
Wii- Hah. Next, I’ll talk about the 1080p media center capabilities of my original Game Boy.
Popcorn Time: This was one of the first proper media center things that had all the required features on paper. Hard drive, included, along with Wi-Fi, RSS Bit Torrenting abilities, and the ability to play MKV and high-bitrate 1080p video. The only problem is that he didn’t do it right. First-hand reports abound of the player stuttering, freezing, and generally unable to play 1080p video.
Several other network media streamers – all work decently well for pictures, music, and even SD video, but then again, so does the 360 and PS3 with TVersity. No, the real test is full-bandwidth 1080p video, and I’m afraid both the players and their meager wireless connections aren’t quite up to the task.
HTPC – This would be the only real solution for a long time. I even have posts detailing what they do and how to put them together. Why do these work? Because they are just computers connected to televisions. Dual-core CPUs, lots of RAM, and fancy video should make anything you can throw at them short, at least in theory. Having had HTPC since I was able to connect an S-video cable to my Radeon 9700 Pro in the past, I can tell you that the experience is not as smooth as it should be. Why? Because we are using Windows! XP Media Center Edition was just XP, and Vista has Media Center built in, so Media Center is just an application running on top of it. BSODs, crashes, slowdowns, and other issues will keep happening, especially if you use the box for other purposes, like downloading in the background. That, and the incredibly complex setup procedure was very annoying. Of course you have to install Vista, but then the codecs, and making sure things are converted and handled correctly, the sound is output over the coax or toslink or HDMI as it should, and finally calibrating the video output was a chore and anything else. Most of these issues go away when using Plex with a Mac as your HTPC. It’s one of the best media center interfaces I’ve seen, and it’s incredibly efficient with its processing, smoothly playing videos that won’t in VLC or Quicktime with Perian. Still, it’s a great investment (well, it’s actually a depreciating asset, but let’s not split) to buy a full PC, and a Mac too. Your only aesthetically acceptable option would be a Mac Mini, and its price-performance ratio It’s unheard of (in a bad way).
WD TV HD Media Player – Finally, that brings us to the subject of this review, the Western Digital TV HD Media Player. Nobody expected this thing at all at this price, and certainly not from WD. But none of that is important.
We’ve been led to believe that good things come in small packages, and it looks like this little device may be a champion of that idea. It’s impossibly small, at least to my eyes, which are used to seeing decent 1080p playback from big boxes containing massive coolers atop multi-core CPUs that breathe hot air, suck up electricity, and add to the noise and sweltering heat produced by the other components. inside that (usually) ugly box. This thing has no fans, it’s pretty green and it’s panting…it really does what it’s supposed to do! Setup couldn’t be easier, and I believe no AV device in history has been easier to physically set up. The power cable, the HDMI cable… and that’s it. Yes, this is also the case with many other HDMI devices, but this one is small and only has a few connectors, so it is very difficult to mess it up. There are no physical buttons on the unit, so you turn it on with the remote. A whiter than blue LED lights up to indicate power, and if you have a USB device plugged in, it will flash or light up, depending on whether it is scanning the drive or ready to go. I ran into a problem early on. After setting up easy cabling and accessing the menu, I found that it wouldn’t recognize my 1TB external hard drive. Alarmed, I immediately copied a 720p TV show to my Patriot Xporter flash drive and plugged it in. After a few seconds of inactivity, it started flashing and the videos appeared. Still, if it couldn’t read 1TB hard drives, now it’s not really an effective 1080p media center, is it? I updated the firmware and it finally saw the drive. I also noticed improvements in speed! Hopefully this will get better and better with each firmware update.
This baby will play just about anything digital you can find. From old school DivX encodes to the latest super high bitrate 1080p MKVs, this will handle them all. More surprisingly, she seems to have no problem reproducing them. They are not signs of struggle! I put in a specially copied version of The Godfather, barely compressed from the original, taking up about 20GB. It started playing right away, faster than my gaming computer could start playing (and it has a 4GHz Yorkfield and 8GB of RAM). VLC and other players sometimes have a lot of visual blemishes when playing high-resolution, high-bitrate video, but there was no such macroblocking, other than compression present. If you haven’t compressed your Blu-Ray recordings very much, or if you just copied the streaming file from a Blu-Ray disc (which WILL play!), the video will look great. The sound is as good as standard Dolby Digital or DTS (if connected via composite, it won’t decode DTS), but currently, to my knowledge, it doesn’t do DTS-MA or TrueHD.
The interface is a bit like a simplified, vertically scrolling Sony PS3 XMB interface in Windows XP color. Sounds a bit like Windows Media Center, right? Actually, it is no different. Although the menus are a bit simplistic, they do the job and I can’t really complain too much. The only problem I have with the interface is that each icon should have the corresponding text near it, not in the bottom right corner. A small inconvenience, really. The device has the ability to create libraries for you, but I disabled this feature because I have my own organizational structure on the drive and also it seems to take forever to index a 1TB drive. One more caveat here is that you can’t do this for HFS+ formatted drives, and I think that’s because you can read them, but not write to them.
After using the device for a few hours, I can say that I am very satisfied with it. Switch between videos easily, resume videos where you left off, and never crash during playback, no matter how demanding the video file is. At this point, I only have one drawback… the remote is too small for a grown man’s hands, and the buttons take a lot of effort to press. Sounds like a bit of a problem, which can be easily solved using other types of remotes (programmable, Harmony, etc.). At $139 Canadian, it’s a great deal, as it can do what HTPCs can’t do as reliably or quickly, for hundreds less. It also outperforms all other media solutions on the market, including consoles.
I give it a 9 out of 10.