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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.
Here's the list of supported file formats:
Video: MPEG1/2/4, WMV9, AVI (MPEG4, Xvid, AVC), H.264, MKV, MOV (MPEG4, H.264), Subtitle SRT (UTF-8)
Photo: JPEG, GIF, TIF/TIFF, BMP, PNG
Audio: MP3, WMA, OGG, WAV/PCM/LPCM, AAC, FLAC, Dolby Digital, AIF/AIFF, MKA Playlist PLS, M3U, WPL
Aside from the lag issue when loading files, we were pretty pleased with the setup. We played several video file formats on both a small 17-inch TV and a larger 50-inch TV. If you're dealing with a small TV, the picture looks pretty good whether you're connected via the standard composite (yellow) cable or HDMI, though HDMI will always look better. When you start to step up to bigger TVs and try to blow the picture up, you're limited by the quality of the file you are playing. The less compressed, high-resolution files will obviously look better.
In terms of compatibility, the WD TV Media Player was able to play back all the video files we threw at it, including some 1080p film trailers that looked really good. However, we had some trouble with audio playback from a couple of those files. In one case, the audio ended up playing back through the stereo composite cables but not the HDMI connection. In the other instance, audio wasn't available through HDMI or the composite AV cable. For the record, this was much more the exception that the rule, but don't expect it to play back every file under the sun. We tested the unit with the 1.01 version of the firmware; Western Digital may add support for additional formats with future firmware upgrades as well (just download the new firmware and copy it to a USB drive to upgrade).
Owners of the PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 should note that those consoles already do a good job of media playback (via USB or over the network), but the WD TV might have some key file format support that those do not. Likewise, dedicated media streamers such as the Popcorn Hour A-110 (which has built-in networking capabilities for streaming files directly from your computer to your TV, and even a dedicated BitTorrent client) or the Sling Media SlingCatcher (which supports file playback via USB) may be more full-featured, but they're far more expensive as well. They also include some degree of network configuration, while the WD TV is more of a plug and play device.
As far as direct competition, the Iomega ScreenPlay TV Link is less expensive ($80-100), but the WD TV Media player is the sleeker looking device and has a easier-to-use interface. However, the Iomega managed to play the audio without a hitch on those two files the Western Digital player had trouble with. Meanwhile, at the time of this writing, Seagate hadn't quite released its FreeAgent Theater HD media player, but the two products are very similar and carry identical price tags. We doubt that model will have any significant advantages over this one, so if you're in market for this type of device as a way to free your multimedia files from your computer, we have no problem recommending the WD TV Media Player. While it may not be without its kinks or offer networking capabilities, it does what it advertises--and does it pretty well.