Media streamers are certainly the flavour of the moment. People are increasingly keen to watch video from the Internet or other places on their swanky HD televisions. We've seen quite a few of these devices recently, and, although they're mostly excellent, there are some that fall flat.
The Western Digital WD TV is a very petite package, and it costs just £80 or so -- a really decent price for something that plays music, photos and 1080p video without breaking a sweat.
In the box
The WD TV itself is a very compact unit, so it won't take up much of the space beneath your TV. Like the main unit, the remote control is very small too. Also in the box is, as you would hope, a power adaptor and a composite video and stereo audio RCA lead. Regrettably, there's no HDMI cable included, but we can forgive that on a relatively cheap machine like this.
We've seen numerous tiny or 'simple' remote controls recently. It's a sad fact of life that, in fact, they're rarely easy to use when you actually come to point them at anything. The WD TV's remote is slightly different, though -- its 17 buttons are logically labelled and all do something useful, and there's no over-complicated scroll wheel or any fancy jazz that comes between you and the user interface.
The arrow keys are used to navigate the menus. You scroll between the photo, music, video and settings options using the up and down arrows. Sub-menus, when present, are navigated with the left and right keys. That's pretty much all you need to know, because ever other feature is obvious from the labels on the keys.
Smaller remotes aren't desirable if you've got large hands, but this one is still usable even if you're cursed with massive sausage fingers, like us.
The WD TV has a pleasant and simple user interface -- there are barely any options to confuse and disorientate users. The quality of the menus is very impressive. There's nothing fancy to see, but the graphics are rendered well and the text is clear and legible. It's a refreshing change -- most such devices have a fairly generic and clunky set of menus.
We're also massive fans of the music player, which offers a pleasing visual theme. It shows album art, if it's present in the music folders, too. The only criticism we could level at it is that it doesn't flip the image from time to time, like Apple TV does. This might cause a problem with certain, cheaper plasma TVs, but, as image retention isn't much of an issue these days, it's a very minor problem. Also, you can always resort to the Western Digital screensaver or just set up a photo slideshow, both of which will keep your screen safe.
Codec and container support
Like most recent media players and streamers, the WD TV can cope with video up to a 1080p resolution. It can also support MKV containers as well as AVI and MOV files containing MPEG-4 video.
On the audio side, the WD TV plays the usual MP3, WAV and AAC (unprotected) formats. A bonus comes in the form of OGG and FLAC support, meaning the open-source codecs get a look-in too. We're thrilled to see FLAC, because, although lossless music is very desirable, it's not supported by nearly enough devices.
Despite its diminutive size, the WD TV has two USB inputs. One is located on the back, and the other is on the left-hand side of the player. The rear input is quite restricted in terms of available space, especially with the HDMI cable plugged in next to it. That makes the rear USB ideal for hard drives, connected by a USB cable, leaving the side input free to accept memory sticks of a bulkier nature.
As well as the USB and HDMI inputs, you get an optical digital input for sending surround sound to an AV receiver. There are also composite video and stereo audio RCA jacks, for older, standard-definition equipment.
Video and sound quality
We used our WD TV to watch 1080p video, listen to music and watch photo slideshows. The quality of each was very good indeed. Photos looked very crisp and detailed on our 1080p plasma TV, and music sounded rich and clear via our Denon soundbar.
Video was the most impressive of all. High-definition video had a very appealing look to it, with plenty of detail and natural-looking colour. Our only criticism is that the WD TV doesn't seem to do any de-interlacing itself, so 1080i media can suffer from artefacts if your TV doesn't have a good de-interlacer built in. Luckily, most TVs are very capable in this regard, but we'd urge caution if you're using a PC monitor to watch video, as these often don't have the same scaling and de-interlacing hardware that you'd find in a TV. Minor complaints aside, this machine has no problem dealing with high-quality video.
Our time with the WD TV was, for the most part, totally trouble-free and very enjoyable. Any problems were incredibly minor. For example, if you're browsing the video files on one USB drive, and, during the process, you add a second USB drive, the WD TV doesn't immediately add the files into the list of available media. You need to back out to the menu, then return to the video list to see the contents of the second drive.
The only other issue we had was that, very occasionally, we found a file that wouldn't play. This is pretty common on all media streamers, but, with the WD TV, it involved just a plain old AVI trailer for Hot Fuzz. We aren't sure what the problem was, but it was so rare that it's unlikely to ever cause you a problem.
The Western Digital WD TV is far from expensive, and does what it does very well. The user interface is simple, the video quality is very good and the whole package feels like it's the result of a labour of love.
The lack of network connectivity is a barrier to convenience, though, and using external storage is something of a pain. Rumour has it that there is a networked WD TV due soon, so it might be worth waiting if that feature is important to you. The Popcorn Hour A-110 does more, but costs significantly more too. No matter which box you end up going for, we think you'll be very happy with the results.
Edited by Charles Kloet