Gadget Review: WDTV Live

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I recently bought a WDTV Live media player, for the reason I wanted to play videos through my TV without the need of a PC. Years ago, I did my own setup of a Home Theater PC, but recently, it just didn’t make sense to keep it running because of the high power usage of a PC. Now with my experience with a HTPC, how will the WDTV Live fair out for me?

 

If you’re not familiar with a media player is, (a lot of my friends don’t really know what it is, so I thought I might explain further) it is a device that plays a variety of media files which we get from the internet or when make on our own. Most of us though, don’t really care what format it is, all we want to know if it runs, that’s why it’s frustrating when you get a music file that you wanted to hear, then when you hook it up on your TV or DVD player that has a media file support then suddenly it shows you that it can’t read the file. Media Players are the solution to that, they are small, easy to connect to a TV or an audio video receiver and they play a variety of files.

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What drew me about media players is the ability to play almost any format available, which is very similar to using a HTPC and it should be able to play subtitles if it has it. Old models of some media players have a selected number of formats, but so far the WDTV is handling everything that I put in it especially MKV (matroska files) and it has subtitle support like SRT’s. Although it does mention that it could read some ISO files (copied disks like DVD and BluRay videos), the device can’t play menus. It can only read ISO files that only contains the movie. If you force the player to play an ISO file that has menus on it, the screen will just go blank. Video quality is amazing especially on 1080p resolutions. It’s a treat rewarding some videos in my collection because it’s the image quality is so much better than how it was on my HTPC. The only thing that made the HTPC better is image upscaling. Low resolution videos plays good, but you will notice some details that you don’t want to see like forcing an image to get bigger when it can’t anymore, which results on a blurry image. But the flaw is minor that it’s still better to watch on WDTV than on an HTPC.

What I bought is the old model of the WDTV Live, I thought it might be a good time to buy since prices went down compared to its value a couple of years ago. The new model has the same name, but it has Wi-Fi and a different design. Physically, it looks like a small but chubby Western Digital hard drive. There are 2 USB ports, 1 Ethernet port, 1 audio/video port, 1 optical out, 1 component port and HDMI. The only thing missing here for TV setups is S-Video, but then again, S-Video never got that popular. Most ports are at the back side of the case, but 1 USB slot is found on the left side of it. Since this is an old model, the official website doesn’t have any details of this model anymore, but they still have the support page though. If you look for WDTV Live, they usually just show you the new model. Also note that WDTV Live Plus is not sold in the Philippines for it does seem useless for us because we don’t have that much online media like Netflix or Last.Fm which is the only difference between the old WDTV Live and Live Plus.

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The remote control is very small, personally, I’m not that comfortable with it, but it’s adequate for it’s purpose. My problem with the remote is that the back button is a little off for my taste, maybe it’s just me. I keep mixing up the reverse button and the back button. All other buttons are okay to use, but when you are using it, especially when typing anything, the remote is not the best way to do it. It’s a good thing that WDTV Live can support USB keyboards.

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I like that it has an Ethernet port, this makes transferring files easy, but my problem at the moment is that I don’t have a computer that directly connects to my home router, all my computers at home are connected via Wi-Fi, which makes transferring files very slow. But, at least I can transfer music, small videos, pictures or edit file names. If I need to transfer a large file, I just connect the external hard drive to my PC and transferring files are very quick.

As a music player, it works just the way I want it. Although I’m not a music buff, I still enjoy just listening to some game or movie soundtracks. My issues with this that I can’t make a playlist on the system, I have to do it on a computer to get it running. Also, there is no animated screen when music is playing, but then again, you can run a image slide show based on a folder and let that run for a while. Music is played by folders, so you have to setup a folder to play a particular set of music that you like.

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Viewing images is similar to the music player, WDTV Live will only view the set based on the folder. There are a couple of effects on transitioning but not that interesting. You can also zoom in and out of the images which is great when checking out detail.

Regarding the videos, I did mention that the image quality is great. There are a few more things needed to mention, I like that it can do a continuous play method, but it works only by alphabetical order. Rather than pressing enter on the file, you press play instead and this plays the videos in a fixed order. My beef with the video playback is more related to how some videos are encoded, like if someone made a file that’s made for widescreen and encoded it for a standard TV at full screen (without the top and bottom borders), which will look terrible when everything looks long and wrong; WDTV Live has no support to change the aspect ratio to correct it. Audio support for the movies is amazing too, so far I’ve seen it work with DTS and Dolby Digital, which I was never able to do on an HDTV because my onboard soundcard doesn’t support optical output.

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The menu is pretty simple, you get a few icons like video, music, pictures, games, online streaming and setup. The basic media focuses on video, music and pictures which goes though like folders. It’s pretty easy to navigate if you’ve arranged your media files properly. What stands out is that you can also choose Media Servers, if you have them. Like at home I have my desktop as a Media Server, WDTV Live automatically sees them and can access the media I shared though it. Also, it can check up on shared networks to see if you have other files that you have but not added on the Media Server. I tried streaming videos at home, even on Wi-Fi, and it does work well. I just wish I could fix my network so it won’t cut off every few minutes when handling large amounts of data. Online streaming consists of online services like YouTube, 365 Live (online radio), TuneIn, MediaFly and several other services. The online services are a great addition to your media collection, but some lags (possibly because of my slow connection) makes it hard to use on a regular basis. The games on the other hand is just there if you don’t have anything else to do. It loads very slow and controls are difficult on the remote control. Note that the games were just added later through firmware, it wasn’t there when I first bought the system. The only problem I had with the menu is that you can’t modify the look of it. It’ just a dark blue background with some hazy circles. Don’t get me wrong, it does look nice, but it can get tiring after a while.

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The system itself starts pretty quick. It only takes a few seconds to start up and maybe a minute or more when detecting large external drives, but once everything is loaded, it’s pretty quick to play even with large HD 1080p videos. The only issue I have with it is that sometimes it won’t start, but by simply removing the power cord and connecting it again will get it started again. this only happened a few times, but it doesn’t bother me at all.

I did some research regarding power consumption of the media player and it seems like it only uses 8-10 watts of power. This is great news because it’s a far cry from using a Home Theater PC which eats up power like there is no tomorrow, also the load time of the player is much faster than an HTPC.

I did get my sister to try it out, and she did encounter a few MKV files that won’t work. Strangely, that hasn’t happened to me yet. But I think she enjoys watching her videos now using the WDTV Live rather than watching it through a small computer screen.

By the way, here’s a tip, if you plan to use Media Players, keep your files defragged, because if you don’t, some files will look terrible. But then again, always defrag. It’s always a good tip when you use a computer on a regular basis.

Overall, I really like the WDTV Live media player. I haven’t tried anything else yet, but I am curious to check them out. I do hear that the Asus O Play is also very good. After using the WDTV Live, I don’t think I’ll be going back to using an HTPC or using the PS3 or Xbox360 to stream videos considering the power consumption of game consoles is like 100 to 200 watts just to watch a video.

Note: I checked if you can use a USB hub on the WDTV Live so that you can hook up more than 2 external drives, but it seems that you can’t. The work around is to hack and replace the firmware, but that’s not something that I’ll tackle at this time. I still have this on a full year warranty, and I’m pretty happy with the device as it is. Maybe next year, I’ll try putting on the popular b-rad’s firmware which as they say, do wonders for the player like the changeable background, added movie details and more.

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  1. Thank You 2011, Hello 2012! « Pinoy Video Gamer

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