Western Digital had been rather quiet on the media streaming/jukebox market until it turned up with the barnstorming WD TV late last year; a device that offered the support, usability and performance the market was screaming for and only lacked the ability to stream media across a network and view online content.
It seems only logical then, that WD take another crack at this sector with the benefit of this missing functionality, the product of which is the WD TV Live. Fans of the original will be familiar with the compact, minimalist design, which still offers two USB ports for connecting external media (since there's no internal hard drive), HDMI, Composite and Optical connections along with a new Component interface.
An Ethernet port at the back offers access to a home network but while the device is capable of streaming wirelessly, sadly there's no built-in support. This can be achieved by picking up a compatible wireless dongle (which will set you back an additional £20-30) and if it weren't for the fact that the WD TV Live were so cheap, we'd be rather irritated by this omission. As it stands you'll still look to make significant savings over most rivals with similar features, though bear in mind that removing one of the two external device connections does make the box a little less versatile.
Thankfully setting up a network is extremely straightforward and during our tests the box successfully auto-detected a connection, requiring little or no interaction during this process. Windows' SAMBA folder sharing opens up folders on a connected drive for access, and though these must be browsed by location, any connected media is automatically sorted to allow you to view by genre/artist/album for audio, in addition to "date", "recently added" and "folder", which also applies to video and photo content.
At this point we'll mention that those who are yet to experience (or read about) the excellent WD TV can be assured that this device is extremely rewarding to use. Everything from the tidy interface to the range of viewing options available for media, format support and playback is up there with the best on the market. This impressive form has been continued for the most part with the WDTV Live, and streaming performance was admirable here up to the maximum 1080p resolution. Even though at this stage a wired connection is necessary in order to avoid buffer delays it doesn't lose much ground to far more expensive alternatives and in this light it should be commended.
Unfortunately, it's not all good news. As mentioned the WD TV Live also offers access to online content, though in reality the only source that would be of genuine use to UK users is YouTube. This is no mean feat and offers some obvious advantages, but while media streamed very smoothly once a video initiated playback, it's awkward to search for clips using the basic remote control and on-screen keyboard, and for some reason it's not possible to scroll back and forth through a video while it's being played.
Western Digital has suggested that it will be offering firmware updates to improve and refine both the range of content available and the features of the player, so we'll be keeping an eye out to see what crops up in this area in the near future.
Despite a few (mostly) minor drawbacks, the WD TV Live succeeds overall by offering a solid product and gets an extra point for the low price. Key areas such as format support, performance and usability offer distinct appeal and if future firmware updates can resolve some of the issues we had, it'll be up there with the WD TV as one of the most desirable devices of its type on the market.