I didn’t know until the last couple of years how media starved we must be. I assume we must have been starved, because suddenly there’s a bounty of set-top-style devices on the market that grant us access to more entertainment media than I’m sure we can digest—still, knowing it’s there makes me feel better.
Most of the new media devices are web-boxes that stream or download content from various cloud sources. Others permit local storage or stream from local sources, such as an owner’s PC or home server. One of the newest of these big media refrigerators is Western Digital’s WD TV Live Hub. The Hub is a bit of a hybrid of those models—it features a number of streaming apps, plus it’s got a whopping 1 terabyte of local storage for your personal media files—music, video and pictures.
The online apps on the Hub are limited, at least today, to nine services (NetFlix, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, Pandora, Live35, Mediafly, Blockbuster and Accuweather). In order to compete better with the many other media boxes, Western Digital is going to have to work on some new partnerships.
Getting the system going initially takes a matter of minutes. I plugged it into my TV via the HDMI port then connected an Ethernet cable for network access. Immediately I had access to most of the apps. Some, like Netflix and Pandora require a sign-in or configuration step. Browsing the online apps was effortless, and the interface of the unit doesn’t require any study of the manual to understand. Incidentally, there is no manual, just a brief Ikea-style quick-start guide. To get a real manual, owners are directed to download it from Western Digital’s web site.
The tricky part of setup is in getting your own files onto the system hard drive. It includes two USB ports, which I used to connect a Seagate drive, but the Hub apparently doesn’t play well with Seagate. Another way is to transfer files over your home network. This method is actually easier than a direct connection. To do this, I first had to download an application from Western Digital. Once installed, the program located and connected to the Hub, so moving files was just a matter of drag-and-drop. The process is easy enough, but slow, especially if you have a lot of files. Also, I found, at least in my house, that the process works better when the computer is connected via Ethernet rather than Wi-Fi because wireless can be rather moody. There were occasional hiccups which required me to restart a few file copies.
Once loaded, the Hub sorts your files into the appropriate category, uses album art if available, and generally lets you tool around the files with ease from a sofa. The Hub can also act as a multi-room server when connected through the network to another WD Live media player or other DLNA-compliant device (many TVs and game consoles are DLNA compliant). When I turned on a PS3 in a separate room, an icon for the Hub showed up without me having to do anything. Clicking on the icon gave me access to all my own files from the Hub, but not the apps.
So far my favorite uses for the device are accessing Netflix and Pandora; however those apps are hardly unique in this category. It’s the hard drive that sets Western Digital apart, that and the ability to turn it into a multi-room server. My own music files sounded great. Some of my videos, particularly the Flip camera videos edited with Flip’s software, would not play. My still pictures all looked good on my 56-inch TV, but I found navigation to be a bit slow—especially compared to the easy picture navigation on Sony’s PS3.
As a simple and inexpensive media server, the WD TV Live Hub is impressive. It was just a few years ago that an Escient 80 GB Fireball went for almost $1,000 and didn’t include some of the functionality of this product.
1 TB hard drive
Composite A/V and component video
Digital Optical ouput
2 USB ports
Large storage for media
Access to streaming content
Not enough apps
No built-in Wi-Fi
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Grant Clauser has been covering home electronics for more than 10 years with editorial roles in several consumer and trade magazines. He's done ISF-level damage to hundreds of reviewed products and has had training from THX, the Home Acoustics Alliance, Control4 and Sencore. His latest book is Necessary Myths
. Follow him on Twitter @geclauser.