There's an interesting new niche market developing in the media player arena as storage companies like Western Digital, SanDisk, and Iomega look for a way to tap the growing number of consumers who have multimedia files stored on their computers and want to bring them to their TVs without the hassle of PC hookups or network connections. In Western Digital's case, the product is the Western Digital WD TV HD Media Player (model number WDAVN00), a little black box that attaches to your TV and reads a variety of audio, photo, and video files. The product is designed to be paired with a portable hard drive that's loaded with media files. Naturally, Western Digital would prefer if you purchased one of its My Passport drives, but you can connect any USB mass storage device--whether it be a hard drive or thumbdrive--to the WD TV Media Player. The WD TV lists for $129, but it's widely available for $100.
The WD TV Media Player comes with a remote and connects to your TV via HDMI or standard composite AV cables (only composite AV cables are included, however). We tested the unit with both a thumbdrive and a couple of external hard drives; all worked without a hitch. While USB compatibility lived up to its "universal" name, it would have been nice to see additional connectivity options: FireWire, eSATA, or flash media readers (SD, MemoryStick, and the like). That said, those would've undoubtedly added more girth to the tiny unit.
You can actually plug in up to two USB storage devices at once and the content on those drives will show up in an onscreen menu system that's pretty easy to use. If there's a small knock against all these types of media players, it's that it takes a short while for the unit to initially recognize and load all the media files. It's not a huge delay, but you're not looking at the same kind of zippiness you've probably come to expect from connecting a drive to your PC or laptop and having the files show up in a few seconds (so long as everything is connected via USB 2.0). It's also worth noting that the stock thumbnail icons all look the same; there's no custom image for each thumbnail to differentiate the file icons. (You tell them apart by their titles.)
Western Digital assumes you obtained all your media files legally, but the WD TV Media Player appears to be rather inclusive in the types of files it plays. The device also ships with ArcSoft's MediaConverter 2.5, which converts photo, video, and music files into formats optimized for use on the WD TV HD Media Player. According to Western Digital, the player supports full HD video playback--up to 1080p--via HDMI, though 1080p files tend to be pretty large (5GB+). Our tests confirmed 1080p playback.