Western Digital TV Live Streaming Media Player - Review

WD TV Live Streaming Media Player - Photo of Front View with Included Accessories
Photo - Robert Silva - Licensed to About.com

Western Digital is well-known for its hard drives and other computer peripherals, but they are also making a big mark in home entertainment with their successful line or Network Media players, such as its previous WD TV Live Plus and WD TV Live Hub. Now, Western Digital has introduced its third generation of the WD TV Live Media Streaming Player, that provides both a physical design update and adds new features. 

Features of the WD TV Live

  • Core Function: Network Media Player that features content streaming from the internet or home network for viewing on a TV and home theater system.
  • Internet Connectivity: Wired Ethernet connection provided.
  • Internet Streaming Services (at the time this review was published - some services are free and some require paid subscription):

TV/Movies - CinemaNow, Flingo, HuluPlus, and Netflix.

Music - Live 365, Mediafly, Pandora, Picasa, Shoutcast Radio, Spotify, and TuneIn Radio.

Misc Videos - Daily Motion, YouTube. Added via firmware update: Vimeo

Information and Social Networking - Accuweather, Facebook, and Flickr.

WD TV Live Setup

The first thing to notice about this latest version of the WD TV Live is its extremely small size. At just 4.9-inches (125mm) Wide, 1.2-inches High (30mm), and 3.9-inches (100mm) Deep, the WD TV live can just about fit in the palm of your hand, making easy to fit in just any small space that might still available on a crowded equipment rack or shelf.

Once you place the WD TV Live where you want it, just plug in the provided AC Adapter to supply power, connect an HDMI (preferable) or supplied AV connection cable to your TV or home theater receiver. Another audio and video connection option provided is to connect the HDMI output directly to your TV or video projector and separately connect the digital optical output to your home theater receiver for the audio portion. This is practical if your receiver does not have HDMI connections. However, keep in mind that Dolby TrueHD bitstreams (if you encounter any) can only be accessed via HDMI.

After making your audio and video connections, the next step is to then use either the Wired Ethernet or built-in WiFi option to connect the WD TV Live to your internet router/home network. I found that using either the wired or WiFi internet connection was glitch free. Using the wireless option, the WD TV easily found my router and automatically proceed through the internet access setup procedure. For those that do experience any difficulty with the automatic process, you can go through the steps manually.

Once set up the home menu page is displayed on the screen, with the current time and weather displayed on the top right corner. Along the bottom of the home, menu page a bar that provides navigation to the following menus: Setup and Advanced procedures, Photos, Music, Video, Services, Games, RSS, and Files.

The Photos, Music, Games, RSS, and Files menu display listings (either in the text, icons, or thumbnails) of the items to be accessed, just scroll and click to view or play.

Now that you have an overview of the WD TV Live, it's time to check out its performance.

Menu Navigation

Once you have the WD TV Live up and connected to the internet, you can now enjoy access to oodles of content. There are no access controls on the unit itself, but Western Digital does provide a remote control that looks and operates in the same manner as most remotes that provided with media players, TVs, etc... However, do not lose that remote!

However, one issue you are faced with is the periodic need to input text-based information, such as usernames and passwords for setting up and logging into online service accounts, as well as the ability to enter text when searching out specific music, TV, or movie-related information.

This is where the front USB input comes in handy. Although you can do everything with the provided remote, if you have an extra windows-style USB-enabled keyboard laying around the house (or just unplug the keyboard from your PC), you can simply connect your keyboard to the WD TV live and use either the remote or keyboard interchangeably to navigate through WD TV's menus. Better yet, use a wireless keyboard and just plug in the keyboards wireless USB receiver into the WD TV's front USB port and give yourself even more freedom.

Once you get into the menu system of the WD TV (which is the same type of menu that that is used in the step-up WD TV Live Hub), there is a varied user experience. For instance, although the Setup menu has a lot of options, it is easy to navigate through each option and select and change settings.

Likewise, with the direct access menus, such as Photos, Music, Video, and Files. Just designate where you want to get your content (either from the internet, USB device, or network connected PC, NAS, or media server) and then click on the files you want to view or listen to.

On the other hand, although navigating through menu system is easy, navigating through some of the content provider menus is where it can get a little tricky, which might have more to do with services than the WD TV's menu navigation interface.

I found that using the remote to navigate with some services was a little clunky. For instance, scrolling through Netflix and Hulu interfaces was very slow. Also, in the case of Hulu Plus, when browsing through movies and TV titles, it actually dropped out of browsing mode on occasion. In addition, navigating through Spotify, I found it tricky to backtrack out of some of the navigation categories after I had gotten in and selected a song. Also, since the big part of Spotify is its search capability, using the remote to type in search terms is cumbersome - a keyboard is actually a necessity if you are doing a lot of music searches.

Internet Services

Moving beyond some of the pluses and minuses of menu navigation, the best thing about the WD TV live is its ability to access a host of the internet and network-based content, as well as being able to play just about any digital media file you can through at it. However, there are some exceptions. According to Western Digital, the WD TV Live is not compatible with "protected premium content" such as movies or music from the iTunes Store, Movielink, Amazon Unbox, and Vongo".

In addition, at the time this review was published, the WD TV Live did not offer access to the Vudu movie streaming service.

However, despite the lack of Vudu and the incompatibilities mentioned above, the WD TV Live offers key internet streaming services that provide access to an abundance of music, TV, and movie entertainment.

Netflix, Blockbuster, CinemaNow, and HuluPlus are all paid subscription services that provide access to TV and movie programs. However, Netflix and HuluPlus do offer a free trial period to wet your appetite.

There are also several music services, such as ShoutCast and Pandora Internet Radio, but the best music service offered is definitely Spotify. This service, which is also a pay service, has an extensive catalog of music that you can access via its great search function. I was able to find some pretty old and niche stuff, such as the entire library of recordings by Juan Esquivel (one my favorite band leaders from the late 50's and early 60's).

Video Performance

One of the shining aspects of the WD TV Live is its video output quality. If using the HDMI output, the WD TV delivers a 1080p resolution signal, regardless of the incoming resolution from your content sources. In other words, the WD TV upscales lower resolution signals to 1080p. Of course, upscaling isn't perfect and the actually displayed image quality will vary depending on the quality of the incoming source, so compression artifacts due to slow internet speeds for file formats can't be totally eliminated. For example sources such as Netflix and Hulu Plus were top notch, while sources such as YouTube varied widely depending on the quality of the video upload source. However, overall, I found that the WD TV Live does a very job in the video performance department.

Audio Performance

The WD TV live is compatible with several surround sound formats, including Dolby Digital, Dolby TrueHD, and DTS, if incoming audio signals utilize those formats. One example is that when I was watching the films Agora and The Warrior's Way on Netflix, the Onkyo TX-SR705 home theater receiver registered that it was receiving and decoding a Dolby Digital EX surround sound signal via either the digital optical or HDMI input options.

What I Liked

  • Very compact size.
  • Fast start-up.
  • Colorful and easy to read and understand the onscreen menu.
  • Very good video quality.
  • Very good audio quality.
  • USB keyboard plug-in option adds data entry convenience.
  • Easy Access to both the Internet and Home Network-based content.

What I Didn't Like

  • No Vudu access (see new services update at the end of this review).
  • No Amazon Instant Video access.
  • Cannot play some copy-protected files.
  • Slow menu navigation on Hulu Plus
  • Remote control not backlit - tricky to use in a darkened room.

Final Take

The ability to stream audio and video content from the internet and a home network are becoming increasingly important in the home theater environment. The WD TV Live is extremely compact, has an easy-to-use onscreen interface (despite some variations with some content provider menus), provides access to key online content services as well as content stored on USB devices and home network. In addition, the 1080p video output quality makes it a good match for viewing on an HDTV. If you don't already have a network connected TV or Blu-ray Disc player, the WD TV Live definitely makes a great addition to your home theater setup.

Update 12/20/11 - New Services and Features Added: VUDU, SnagFilms, XOS College Sports, SEC Digital Network, Comedy Time, Watch Mojo. Also available, the WD TV Live remote app for iOS and Android.

Update 06/05/12 - New Services and Features Added: SlingPlayer (Worldwide), The AOL On Network (US), Red Bull TV (Worldwide), ABC iview (Australia), maxdome (Germany), BILD TV-App (Germany).

The Western Digital WD TV Live has been discontinued after a 2011/2012 production run - for more recent models of media streamers and network media players, refer to our continually updated listing of Best Media Streamers.

Additional Components Used In This Review

The additional home theater hardware used in this review included:

TV/Monitor: Westinghouse Digital LVM-37w3 37-inch 1080p LCD Monitor

Video Projectors: Vivitek Qumi Q2 HD Pocket Projector, and Epson MegaPlex MG-850HD (both 720p projectors on review loan).

Home Theater Receiver: Onkyo TX-SR705.

Loudspeaker/Subwoofer System (7.1 channels): 2 Klipsch F-2's, 2 Klipsch B-3s, Klipsch C-2 Center, 2 Polk R300s, Klipsch Synergy Sub10.