First Look: WD TV Live Streaming Media Player

Judging by the uproar over Netflix's (NASDAQ:NFLX) recent price hikes, people are certainly fans of streaming movies and TV shows from the Internet.  But come on, can you truly enjoy the full experience of "The Expendables" or "Family Guy" on a little laptop screen?  Enter the WD TV Live streaming media player, which lets users stream from several online services to the biggest screen in the house: the living room TV.

Like other smart set-top boxes, such as the Roku and Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) TV, the WD TV Live will stream services like Netflix to your television in full HD, but it aims to set itself apart from the rest in how it incorporates your own personal content as well as some services you can't get elsewhere, namely the music-streaming service Spotify.  FOX Business took a look at Western Digital's newest device and compared it with the others on the market.

As a hard drive company, Western Digital has certainly had a focus on storing and protecting personal media, said Western Digital Business Development Manager of Branded Products Amit Patel.  Indeed, it's earlier set-top boxes were primarily meant for this purpose, rather than streaming from the Internet.  With its more recent devices, however, the company has aimed to provide users with a one-stop shop for all content: personal and from internet sources like Hulu and Pandora.

Hardware and Interface

The WD TV Live, which costs $99.99, is similar in size to the current-generation Apple TV and the Roku.  It has two full-sized USB ports, which Western Digital says can be used to connect external hard drives as well as keyboards and digital cameras.  The Apple TV lacks a full-sized USB port and while the Roku has one, it can only be used with external hard drives.

Setting up the device was easy, requiring just two wires: the power adapter and an HDMI cable (not included).  The box can also be optionally hooked up to a stereo system with an optical audio cable for higher-quality sound.  It supports HDMI video output as well as composite (for older TVs), but lacks component output, which could be an issue for older HDTVs that lack HDMI ports.

Shortly after plugging in the device, it showed the available Wi-Fi networks and connected with no problems (the device also has an ethernet port for a wired connection).  The WD TV Live supports 802.11b/g/n wireless technology.  After network setup, the device went right to the home screen, which can only be described as gorgeous in terms of aesthetics and how everything is laid out.  The main screen displays all the main sources of content at the bottom, which you can scroll through using the included remote: Photos, Music, Videos, Services, Games, RSS, etc.  At the top there's an unobtrusive status bar that displays what's currently playing on the device as well as the current time and weather outside, all placed on top of a wallpaper of your choice (just like your desktop computer).

WD TV Live's Main Home Screen

The WD TV Live has a nice on-screen keyboard interface, but it could really use a backspace button or equivalent on the remote for inputting text.  It was frustrating when something was accidentally misspelled (something that happened quite often) and we had to use the arrow buttons on the remote to move through the on-screen keyboard to click the backspace key.  If you're going to be entering a lot of text, we'd recommend using a wireless USB keyboard with the device.

Handling Personal Content

One of the WD TV's strengths, according to Western Digital's Patel, is the way it interweaves the "best of the Internet" with "all your personal content," and, indeed, it accomplishes this in a better way than some other devices.  The Roku, for example, can access movies, videos, and photos from an external hard drive you plug into it, but it simply presents that media in a giant list with no thumbnails, making it difficult to browse through.  The WD TV Live not only shows album artwork and the covers of movies in a highly-browsable and visually-appealing way, but also looks up the metadata online to show you background information on the media like release date, synopsis, genre, music album info, etc.

Screenshot of WD TV Live's Movie Browser

Navigating to the music on the an external drive was a pleasant experience, displaying all the album covers the device found.  You can sort your content in various ways: by album, by artist, by playlist, etc.  We found a lot of artwork to be missing, though.  Even after setting the device to automatically find artwork/metadata, we had to manually search for several of the albums.  For movies, the situation was much better and, to be fair, a lot of this will depend on how well your files are named.

The video section display views are particularly well laid out and pleasant to look through.  You can see all the information on the movie you're browsing and the device cycle through photos from the movies you have in the background.

But the device can do much more than read a hard drive you hook up to it: it can also access content over a home network.  With DLNA support built-in, the WD TV Live can wirelessly stream media shared on a laptop, desktop PC, or network-attached storage (NAS) device.  And don't worry about file formats and encoding; another strong point of the device is the large number of audio and video codecs it supports.  "We licensed everything we could possibly think of with the exception of some random codec in Japan," said Patel.

However, a big negative, in our view, is that the device cannot connect to Macs running OS X Lion, the latest version of the Apple operating system.  With Apple CEO Tim Cook calling Lion its best-selling operating system yet, this could be an issue for many Mac users.  Western Digital Public Relations Manager Steven Johansson said a fix is currently in the works for this.

Access to Streaming Content

While it's great to have access to the content you already own, let's not forget the thousands of titles available on the Internet through subscription services like Hulu, Pandora, and Spotify.  Patel said the company focused not on providing every bit of content out there, but instead on higher-quality services.  "We don't think there's a market for the Justin Bieber TV channel," he said, jokingly.

And WD has, in fact, managed to pull in the bigger players in streaming content and social networks, including Hulu Plus, Netflix, Pandora, CinemaNow, YouTube, AccuWeather, Facebook, and Flickr, among others.  Even better, the WD TV Live includes Blockbuster on Demand and Spotify (the first smart box to offer them).

However, it lacks access to one biggie: Amazon Instant Video, which has been growing substantially in terms of titles in its catalog.

We were able to check out Hulu Plus, YouTube, and Accuweather, all of which worked flawlessly.

The inclusion and integration of Facebook on the WD TV Live was impressive.  Not only can users access their walls, posts, photos, and newsfeed, but the social network is integrated into the device's Photos section, alongside personal content.  As an added bonus, users can upload photos from the device to Facebook.  They can even connect a digital camera and upload photos from it.

Flickr is a nice touch to browse interesting photos on the site, but the lack of the ability to log into your own account limits its appeal.

Blockbuster On Demand and Netflix were not available live on the device at the time of testing.

Now for the big one: Spotify.

WD TV Live's Spotify Interface

As the first major smart set-top box to support it, the WD TV Live certainly gets the job done.  Users can edit, create, and stream from Spotify playlists.  They can view new releases on the service and the top-played content.  They can also search through and listen to Spotify's entire 15-million-track catalog. However, a premium Spotify account is required.

One issue we encountered involved using search.  After entering the name of a song or album, there were some occasions when the cursor would not move from the search field to the "Auto complete" section of suggested titles to choose from.

And there could be a easier, more direct way of getting back to the Spotify home screen other than hitting the back button on the remote several times or exiting and relaunching it.

Personalized Experience

Aiming to be a launch-pad for all the content a user might want to see on his or her TV, WD TV Live features a dashboard for quick access to your favorite services.  The Roku also lets users add favorite "channels" to their home screen, but the WD TV Live takes it a few steps further, letting users add pretty much anything they like: RSS feeds, a particular music album, a movie, etc.  And the fact that it's a separate menu (rather than serving as the main screen), makes it a pleasant, not-so-in-your-face place to save favorite items.

Screenshot of the Dashboard on WD TV Live

Further, users can select various "skins" (themes) for the device's interface and customize the background wallpaper, which is a nice touch that most other devices completely lack.

Final Thoughts

The WD TV Live, with its excellent integration of personal content as well as being first to have services like Spotify, really gives other set-top streaming boxes a run for their money.  If you already own a good amount of digital personal content like music, movies, and photos, this device will give you a fantastic way to browse through and listen to it all.   WD TV Live's Spotify implementation works pretty well and represents the first of these boxes to offer it.