The rise of HD content, be it from your camcorder, digital camera or downloaded from the Internet, has lead to a rise in options for storing and conveying this media to your television for optimal viewing. Some of these solutions have fallen far short of the expected mark; some provide a great offering assuming you meet a range of stringent, often impractical, parameters. Western Digital think they have the answer with their WD TV HD Media Player.
With a slightly cumbersome title, it is not immediately clear what WD TV (as we’ll call it) is. Coming from Western Digital, you may expect a fairly staid HDMI equipped hard drive in the vein of other "media" drives from rival companies. In this sense you’d be wrong. The WD TV unit is actually just an interface allowing you to connect your content to your TV, but perhaps not how you’d expect.
Adopting the typical WD book design, the rear of the features the DC power input, USB, HDMI, optical audio and standard analogue AV connections. There is a second USB on the side of the device which we’ll come to later. There is in fact no onboard storage at all, which is either a relief or an oddity depending on how you look at it.
Connecting to your TV through HDMI is a simple case of connecting the (not supplied) cable. You then have to connect up your content, which is where the USB comes in to play. Plug in a USB hard drive and the WD TV unit has content to access and play – it is all very simple. Our test unit came with a WD My Passport Essential, but there is nothing to stop you hooking up any other USB device. We also tried standard USB sticks, an iPod and a Maxtor 750GB external hard drive, with no problems.
WD TV has a slick intuitive interface divided into your main content types: video, music, photos and settings. Attach a USB device and it will scan for content that it can read; the time taken varies on the amount of content and the size of the drive. A small thumb drive will be indexed in a flash, the Maxtor drive (containing complete file backups of two systems) took considerably longer. However, you can access the content whilst it is still indexing.
Navigation is based around a small supplied remote that varies in responsiveness, but is generally very apt. The thing that WD have taken time to do is make the interface icons and menus live up to the HD expectation, so when hooked up to your large TV it looks slick, which is commendable.
You can navigate your files through the menus, either through "all files", or browsing by folders, which is great if you want to look at a particular set of images, and also recent files or by date. In music you get album options, as well as genre, which depends on this sort of organisation being present in your music collection. You can opt to play an album and also navigate to images for the compete slideshow effect. Setting up a slideshow is simply a case of navigating to the folder you want (or all images) and pressing play on the remote.
The remote also gives you controls to skip back and forth through tracks, pull up options for your files (rotate, repeat, select audio channel and so on). There is also the option to eject a drive - there are two USB slots remember - so you can remove a drive without causing the thing to fall over. A home key means the main menu is only ever a button press away, which makes navigation a breeze.
The two USB slots mean it is easy to leave one drive static and then slot in an occasional drive, perhaps photos from a visiting family member. However, the main drive can’t stay too static, because you still have to load on the content. Ok, so you don’t have to mess around with your TV connections once the WD TV is installed, but you will have to move your drive back and forth to your computer. The biggest omission here is the lack of an Ethernet connection, which would have allowed you to pick up content over the network and this seems to be a limitation to the device. Some may also complain that there is no memory card support, although you can plug in your camera via USB.
File format support is, however, fairly comprehensive. Music gives you MP3, WMA, OGG, WAV/PCM/LPCM, AAC, FLAC, Dolby Digital, AIF/AIFF, MKA. Video support gives you MPEG1/2/4, WMV9, AVI (MPEG4, Xvid, AVC), H.264, MKV, and MOV (MPEG4, H.264). For photos you can use JPEG, GIF, TIF/TIFF, BMP and PNG, whilst PLS, M3U and WPL playlists are also supported. You can also play DVD by copying across the Video_TS folder.
In terms of file support this looks fairly comprehensive and the inclusion of MKV will be of interest to those downloading HD content as this is rapidly becoming a dominant format, although you’ll need a TV or AV receiver that can decode multi-channel DTS if the audio is in this format; WD TV will support DTS pass though via the digital optical out. AVI, MPEG and MOV all seemed to work with no problems making this one of the simplest media solutions we’ve seen.
Bundled with WD TV you’ll find ArcSoft MediaConverter 2.5, however this doesn’t support all the file formats that the drive does, so is perhaps of little practical use. Within the various documents that come with the WD TV you’ll find mention of firmware updates, which perhaps suggests that wider format support could come in the future and gives a degree of future proofing.
We found that playback looked good, taking advantage of the 1080p support on offer here: of course you need to consider the quality of the source you are playing back, as well as where you get it from, as "HD" doesn't always mean it will be fantastic. But generally we found we had smooth playback, free from too much judder and only occasional audio sync problems.
Our initial reaction to the WD TV was disappointment at the lack of Ethernet support, meaning you can’t just pick-up files from a network drive. However, the set-up that WD has chosen makes this much more convenient than other non-network media drives. The ability to connect up a number of devices gives you plenty of options, but at nearly £80, some may think this is a little expensive once they add the cost of a hard drive.
The HDMI and AV connections give it wide appeal for those wanting HD support and those still waiting to upgrade their home TV. We found that music, photos and movies played back smoothly and the WD TV was a pleasure to use. Combined with a discreet slick design, and a simple to use interface, for some it will be a real winner.