Western Digital's WD TV devices are among the best media streamers we've ever tested. They're simple to the point that anyone could use them, and powerful enough to play even demanding 1080p video files. That's a recipe for success in our book.
Now Western Digital has launched the WD TV Live Hub. We think it has a slightly ambiguous name, but, once you get using it, you'll see the thinking behind the moniker. It's designed to let you watch video from your networked computers and USB drives, as well as from the machine's built-in 1TB hard drive.
It's a clever idea, so how does it stack up? We spent a good chunk of time playing with this �170 box of tricks to find out.
Two become one
The Live Hub is really two things in one deceptively slim box. If you plug it in to your home network, it shows up in exactly the same way as Western Digital's network-attached storage devices do. But, plug it into a telly, and you'll see it has a TV interface that does everything the older WD TV boxes do, but with an entirely new look and feel.
If you're looking for a way to save electricity, the Live Hub will certainly deliver many of the benefits of a NAS device, or a permanently switched-on PC, but it will consume a fraction of the power.
The Live Hub offers an HDMI 1.4 output, which could mean support for 3D at a later date, and Ethernet, composite, component and optical digital audio sockets. Out of the box, the Live Hub supports only wired network access. But there's also the option to use an approved Wi-Fi dongle. Happily, the list of compatible dongles is quite extensive.
From the moment we extracted the Live Hub from its box, we pretty much fell in love with it. It's small and will fit into any lounge easily. Its design doesn't really indicate how much it can do.
The Live Hub comes with a good remote control too. Its styling means it fits beautifully into your hand and the important buttons are within easy reach. It might sound silly, but a bad remote can really ruin the user experience. As much as we liked the older WD TV models, their mini controllers made them feel like toys rather than serious video streamers.
Stunning user interface
Media streamers and network players like this machine started out as geek tools. Back when they first started to appear, no emphasis was put on the user interface's design, because the enthusiasts using the hardware didn't care. They just wanted to play cat videos and watch Xvids they'd nicked off the Internet.
Now, though, needs have changed. Media streamers are being used by the parents of those geeks to enjoy music and family photos on their large TVs. To make that possible, a good user interface is essential. Fortunately, the Live Hub has a beautiful, colourful and tastefully animated menu system that's a joy to use.
While we like its appearance, we have a few minor gripes with how the system works. For example, switching from a local drive to the network isn't as easy as on a Popcorn Hour machine, which lets you make the switch with two button presses. On the Live Hub, you have to endure several clicks, and there are some confusing choices to make about whether you want a network share, local drive or media share. The distinction between the two network options might well confuse some people.