Review: Western Digital WDTV Live Hub

Hello, my name is John, and I am addicted to movies. My drug of choice is DVDs, especially since my local cineplex isn’t exactly fighting to screen an Eric Rohmer retrospective or hosting a Godzillathon. Sometimes I find myself ordering a bunch of kung fu classics from a Hong Kongbased website at 2 a.m. I need help.

Help that is, with my massive DVD binder cases and slew of ripped files scattered across multiple computers. It can take me 20 minutes just to find the flick I want to watch, if I can find it at all. Did I mention I’d also like to cut my insane cable bill?

Thankfully, Western Digital’s new WDTV Live Hub has arrived to try to save me from myself. The latest of WD’s media streamers, the WDTV Live Hub faces an onslaught of buzz about AppleTV and GoogleTV, but it manages to organize and stream digital entertainment without much hassle. And unlike its competition, the Live Hub also includes a 1-terabyte storage drive for cramming in enough content for most users.

Like most media streamers, the WDTV is simple to navigate and responds to commands quickly. Some pretty-detailed setup options will have you tweaking everything to your liking, down to customizing subtitle style and font size. AV geeks will like the basic remote-admin features: Just type in the IP address into a web browser, and you can perform some basic functions like configure iTunes streaming and set up internet media sources.

There’s even a virtual remote for the PC that looks just like the WDTV remote. Click a button with your mouse and you can control pretty much any WDTV function. It’s pretty slick.

While there is a wicked-simple setup guide included in the box, you’ll have to go to WD’s website to download the full manual. Cables aren’t included either, so add buying HDMI and ethernet cables to your list. Once I had everything plugged in, the WDTV instantly saw all my network shared folders, and bam — all of my content was aggregated in one place.

You can set the WDTV to automatically sync with attached USB storage and even remotely shared network folders, for easy aggregation of your flicks and tunes. If you have a large collection of videos and music (guilty!), you’ll fill up the 1-tearabyte internal hard drive pretty quickly. But you can plug in a USB drive for more capacity, and it easily streams from any local network source too, so your storage options are essentially unlimited.

One not-so-small criticism is that the WDTV makes you choose your media source before browsing, instead of indexing everything in one central place. So, you’ve got to pick between the built-in hard drive, attached USB storage and any network devices with shared folders. Can’t remember where you saved that folder of party pictures? You’re out of luck, especially because the search feature doesn’t scan across multiple devices.

It’s not a dealbreaker, but it would be icing on the cake if you could browse and search all media in one central location, regardless of where it’s stored. To slightly offset the search limitations, you can add music and movies to a queue as well as set favorites, so they’re easily found again.

Compared to the WDTV Live Plus we reviewed back in October, the WDTV Live Hub is a massive step forward. The boxy chassis has been upgraded to a slimmer, better-looking box.

And while it takes a while to begin streaming, WD seems to have addressed video-stuttering issues with better caching, at least I didn’t notice any, using a hard-get-gadget ethernet connection. Local network streams were very quick to start, but online Netflix streams took a good 20 seconds to begin.

After watching dozens of videos, overall playback quality was razor sharp, with true-to-life motion and sparkling audio fidelity. As always however, video quality is still largely dependent on the speed of your local network and internet connections, as well as how the file was encoded in the first place.

The remote has gotten an upgrade as well, with some customizable shortcut buttons, 0–9 alphanumeric keypad, and even a mute button. It’s actually a pretty good remote compared to the quality of most “included in the box” remotes. As a side note, you can also connect a USB keyboard to make typing in searches easier. I even got my wireless keyboard to work.

Unfortunately, if you want to cut your cable bill, this WDTV Live box can’t quite do it. It does serve up a handful of the better online services: Netflix, Youtube, Blockbuster, Live 365 radio, Pandora and Mediafly.

However, you’re out of luck if you like Hulu, and many of the better Mediafly channels are audio-only. For now at least, there is a massive gap between all the content available on cable, what you can view on a PC web browser, and what you’re limited to on a media streamer.

The WDTV Live Hub will keep you entertained as long as you’re aware of its limitations, but I’m probably asking too much from a pretty simple box. If you’re looking for something more robust, build or buy a home theater PC.

For the rest of us, the WDTV Live Hub bridges the gaps among computer, TV and internet — and does it well. It kicks tail if you’ve already got a large media collection, and while it won’t actually tidy up your digital clutter, it will at least motivate you to organize your media. At least it did in my case.

And if it can save me from digital-entertainment ennui, it can certainly save you.

See Also:

  • Logitech’s Google TV: Brilliant Concept Hampered by Networks
  • Battle of the Boxes: Apple TV vs. Western Digital and Seagate
  • Sweet Set-Top Box Transforms Your Mac Into a DVR
  • For Apple’s New Stream Machine, Jobs Giveth, Jobs Taketh Away
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