Editors' note: As of December 2011, the WD TV Live reviewed here has been updated to add a variety of new channels, including Vudu, Flixster, XOS College Sports, and SEC Digital Network. Western Digital has also released compatible iOS and Android remote apps.
Following the success of the WD TV Live Hub, Western Digital has now introduced the diskless version in the new WD TV Live (2011). The new Live adds a couple more killer features, namely built-in Wi-Fi and support for the Spotify music-streaming service, to the already long list of services and file formats handled by its predecessors. And all for only $99--the same price as the Roku XS, the Apple TV, and the Logitech Revue (Google TV). It has one of the prettiest interfaces of all the streamers, even if it can be hard to use at times, but its main appeal over those other devices is its broad file support, an extra that should appeal mainly to people who make heavy use of downloaded video files. The only thing we wish for, aside from Amazon and Vudu support, is an App controller. The WD TV Live isn't yet the ultimate streaming device, but it comes pretty close.
The box shares the same footprint of 3.9 by 4.9 inches as the original WD TV Live HD (fall 2009) and WD TV Live Plus (summer 2010) but sheds their rounded "bookishness" for something blockier yet sleeker. It's also much lighter at 6.72 ounces, which is actually a negative in our experience; the collected mass of cables and USB keys can make it rear up like a seesaw ridden by one person.
Then there's the remote. That wonderful, hateful remote. It's decently ergonomic with indents underneath that enable it to sit naturally in your hand. All of the buttons are well-marked and, interface aside, easy to use.
Our problem was with the buttons. They're tall, rubbery blighters that take some effort to press quickly in succession, making inputting anything, especially long lists, tedious. We'd swap this out for a quality universal remote as soon as possible.
The addition of Wi-Fi to the WD TV Live is crucial, since its lack was the weakest point of the Live Hub. Western Digital has also made sure wireless setup is straightforward. When you turn the device on for the first time, you are greeted by a language screen, and are then asked to choose your wireless access point and input your password.
With the newfound wireless freedom, Western Digital has been sure to boost the number of services offered compared with the Live Hub, more than doubling them from 9 to 19. Joining Netflix and Spotify are the streaming services Hulu Plus, YouTube, Blockbuster, CinemaNow, DailyMotion, Pandora, TuneIn Internet radio, and Shoutcast, among others. The major missing items are Amazon Instant and Vudu, both of which are available on Roku. The WD's apps include Facebook (but not Twitter), Picasa, and Accuweather.
The Live inherits the Mochi interface from the Live Hub, and it's friendly even if the small "colored button" icons used for some navigation are a little indecipherable.
The reason you'd buy this over the Roku, though, is if you have a large library of digital files. The laundry list of supported types misses very little and includes notables such as FLAC, AAC, MKV, DivX, and even ISOs. The small Dolby TrueHD logo on the top suggests that the device will also play Blu-ray "rips" with full-quality sound (although we didn't test this).
Where the Live Hub had the real estate for a wealth of connectivity, the Live is more modest. It eschews its forebear's extras, such as a component output, for just HDMI, a composite AV breakout, two USBs (one front, one back), optical digital, and Gigabit Ethernet.
The device features an onscreen keyboard but text input can be laborious because of the clunky remote and the keyboard being alphabetical and not QWERTY. Thankfully the WD accepts USB keyboards, which makes setup much quicker.
As a DLNA device, the WD TV is a cut above the norm, though perhaps not in the realm of dedicated music devices. The Next and Previous Page buttons do speed navigation of large media collections once a content source is cached by the device. We also liked the "Now Playing" bar that appears at the top of the screen.
If you use a lot of WAV files, you will probably use the Files option a lot to find your music, but be aware that you need to press "Play" instead of "Enter" to play a whole folder full of music. If you have a large music collection and use an external DAC or receiver, then the WDTV is a good option to listen to high-quality music, especially because of its wide format support.
Streaming movies via DLNA is also a highlight of the device, as it will also pull salient details about your movies and will even display DVD menus from ISO backups. We watched a 720p copy of Australian horror flick "The Tunnel," and it looked great with no stuttering and plenty of detail.
But it's the newfound streaming capabilities where the WDTV really hits its stride. The device has one of the strongest lineups for the price--Roku notwithstanding--and most online subscribers should find their service provider of choice. We liked the newly added Spotify, though it is still a little impenetrable for new users, but at least it uses the device's Mochi interface.
Netflix was quite slow to load--and even looked like it had crashed--but with perseverance we found the familiar Netflix interface from other connected devices and quickly found the content we were after.
We did find some random crashes and glitches including slow menus. Since they occurred while it was caching the content on an attached drive, perhaps the device finds it hard to walk and chew gum at the same. However, as this is a brand-new device, we expect that the bugs will be ironed out with further firmware updates.
The only other downside was its lack of interplay with other devices. DLNA support from Windows 7 was as buggy as ever--though probably Microsoft's fault and not WD's--and even third-party DLNA apps for the iPhone refused to work.
It's here where we think Western Digital is missing a trick with the lack of a dedicated iPhone/Android app. The company introduced WD 2Go last month, an app that remotely controls content but only works with the My Book Live. Perhaps a WD TV app is coming soon?
The WD TV Live also competes directly with the Apple TV, a device with the big advantage of AirPlay--which does away with the poor intercompatibility of DLNA and just simply "works." Where the WD soundly trumps Apple, though, is in the wide variety of supported files and streaming services.
The WDTV Live is a further distillation of the ideas introduced two years ago, as it offers a wealth of services and enjoys wide format support. If you want a device that will stream and play back your downloaded files, this is one of the leading models. Only a couple of operational issues prevent it from being the best media device yet.