Editors' note: As of a December 2011 firmware update, the WD TV Live Hub 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.
Editors' note: As of an August 2, 2011 firmware update, the WD TV Live Hub reviewed here can now also access Hulu Plus (subscription required) and Shoutcast Internet radio (free).
In the digital-media box market, it seems like Apple and Roku have been getting the most attention lately, but companies like Seagate and Western Digital are trying to differentiate their boxes from the rest by offering tie-ins to their companies' portable hard drives. However, in the case of the WD TV Live Hub, Western Digital has taken things a step further and built a networked 1TB hard drive right into the unit itself.
With that embedded hard drive, this box is bigger than the Apple TV and the latest crop of Roku players, but it is still relatively compact, measuring 1.25 inches tall by 7.8 inches wide by 5.9 inches deep. It's also attractively styled, with a glossy black finish and simple, understated looks.
Included in the box are a remote control and a set of composite (red, white, yellow) AV cables. You get outputs for component video, but most people who own an HDTV with HDMI inputs will choose to buy an optional HDMI cable to hook this guy up. An optical audio output is available for those who want to use component video cables and run digital audio out to an AV receiver.
The first thing you'll notice when you fire up the WD TV Live Hub is the simple, elegant onscreen interface that offers pretty zippy performance. In terms of the interface, Western Digital has come a long way from its first digital-media box, and we were impressed by the overall look and feel, though things get a little more complicated once you start adding a bunch of files to the system.
You can go with one of the default themes or choose to customize screen backgrounds or themes with your own images. If there's an issue, it's that some of that elegance disappears once you start drilling down into the menus for your files. Alas, you can end up with a lot of text file names without the nice thumbnail images you'd find, say, on an Apple product--or within the "controlled" environment of the Services section on this product.
The 1TB hard drive does make this a more expensive purchase than the Roku Player or Apple TV, and it should be pointed out that those units offer Wi-Fi connectivity while this model doesn't. (You can add any one of several compatible USB Wi-Fi dongles to the Live Hub.) However, that hard drive will appeal to a certain type of customer.
Who is that? Well, it's someone who has a lot of multimedia content stored on his or her computer and wants to throw it all onto one box and be able to connect it to a TV and play files directly from that box. Of course, WD TV also has some nice streaming services available, such as Netflix and Pandora, and an assortment of other "channels" that includes YouTube, Flickr, Facebook, and Blockbuster On Demand. But the real differentiator here is the integrated hard drive that doubles as a networked drive that can be accessed by other PCs (or game consoles such as the Xbox 360 or PS3) in your home network.
Live Hub supports playback of a wide variety of file formats, including audio and still-image files, but the user who will gravitate toward this box will probably be most interested in storing and viewing video files. In that regard, the playback capabilities are the same as what Western Digital offers with its WD TV Live Plus box. We threw a lot of files at the Live Hub and it played back all our test files without a hitch. You get support for 1080p video formats in such "containers" as MKV, MP4, and MOV. The casual user won't know what we're talking about, but techie types are well versed in the various video compression schemes and formats.
Here's a look at the file formats supported:
|Video||AVI (Xvid, AVC, MPEG 1/2/4). MPG/MPEG, VOB, MKV (H.264, x.264, AVC, MPEG 1/2/4. VC-1), TS/TP/M2T (MPEG 1/2/3. AVC, VC-1) MP4/MOV (MPEG4, h.264), M2TS, WMV0|
|Image||JPEG, GIF, TIFF, BMP, PNG|
|Audio||MP3, WAV/PCM/LPCM, WMA/WMA Pro, AAC, FLAC, MKA, AIF/AIFF, OGG, Dolby Digital Plus, DTS|
|Playlist||PLS, M3U, WPL|
|Subtitle||SRT, ASS, SSA, SUB, SMI|
While not officially listed, ISO files are also supported. That means--legality concerns notwithstanding--that ripped DVDs can be played back on the unit (either as ISO or MKV files, or using the DVD file system--directories full of VOB files). Moreover, the Live Hub can attach title-specific metadata to such files. If the movie name is in the file name, the system does a good job of guessing the title, as in the example pictured above. If not, it's easy to use an onscreen look-up to do so. (The Live Hub has an onscreen keyboard, but file hoarders will appreciate the fact that it also supports USB PC keyboards.)
Once the metadata is attached, you get movie summaries, cover thumbnails, and even rotating wallpaper images based on the movie (see above). Moreover, the playback of ISO and VOB files is identical to what you'd get on a DVD player--chapters, menus, subtitles, the works.
To reiterate: if you're breaking the encryption of a DVD or Blu-ray, the process of getting this content onto the Live Hub may not be strictly legal. But if you've already created backup copies of your movies on USB or a networked drive, this may be your definition of movie heaven.
As we said, video, music, and photos stored on the device can be streamed to any DLNA/UPnP-compatible products, including PCs and game consoles (though the destination device will need to be compatible with the file formats in question).
Just as importantly, the Live Hub is able to access other DLNA/UPnP servers, including PCs running software such as TwonkyVision. It's also able to access iTunes software running on networked PCs, so you can easily access your music collection (assuming your music doesn't still have the old iTunes DRM encoding). As with the movie thumbnails, album art is also supported.
The device comes with two USB ports that let you transfer content from cameras (including Flip Video camcorders), external hard drives, or other products to the WD TV Live Hub. Unfortunately, on the internal drive, you can't create or rename folders and arrange content in buckets, which would be nice if you have hundreds, or even thousands of files (a terabyte stores a lot of files). We had no trouble transferring files from both a Flip Video camcorder and an external hard drive, though it did take a while to copy over the files, especially the larger video files.
The channel selection is a mixed bag. It isn't as robust as Roku's 100-plus lineup, but it's arguably better than Apple TV's limited offerings. Most of the important ones are onboard, including the aforementioned Netflix and Pandora, as well as YouTube, Live365 audio, Flickr, and Facebook photos. We were also happy to see the Mediafly channel, which offers a huge selection of audio and video podcasts. You won't find the Roku's MLB.TV, NHL GameCenter, and Hulu Plus channels (which, to be fair, all require paid subscriptions), but we did like the inclusion of an AccuWeather channel. And the upgradable firmware means that Western Digital could always expand this channel list in the future.
In the end, despite its having a few shortcomings, we came away really liking the WD TV Live Hub. Indeed, if this product had integrated Wi-Fi, it'd be a 4-star product and a potential Boxee Box killer. Still, for those who've managed to put together a nice collection of video files and want to create a sort of movie jukebox that can also play Netflix movies and spin some Pandora tunes, this product will make a lot of sense. Yes, it's more expensive than some competing products, but those simply don't come with a 1TB hard drive. And for some, the inclusion of that networked drive will make all the difference.
Editors' note: For more detailed discussion of products that let you access online video, check out CNET's quick guide to Internet TV.