WD TV Live Hub: The Best of Both Personal and Web Streaming
At a Glance
The media-streamer hits keep coming from Western Digital. Hot on the heels of the capable WD TV Live Plus (which streams media from the Internet, your local network, and a connected USB drive), the WD TV Live Hub adds a 1TB internal hard drive that can double as network storage and a media server; support for more Web streaming media services; a major user interface overhaul; and improved search and filtering features. While a tad pricey at $200 (price as of December 5, 2010), its strong feature set and first-rate user interface should appeal to people who have a lot of their own high-def media to stream to multiple rooms--and who also want easy access to top commercial Web services.
The WD TV Live Hub has a bigger footprint than its smallish, square, and boxy predecessors (it's about the size of a small Wi-Fi router), but is also a lot thinner. It offers the same outputs as its predecessors: HDMI, component and composite video plus digital audio (for use with a home-theater audio system when you're using either component or composite video, whichsupport only plain-vanilla stereo). You once again get a USB port for hooking up a flash or external hard drive, plus a gigabit ethernet port to put the Live Hub on your home network. (As with previous models, the Live Hub does not have integrated Wi-Fi; you could use a USB dongle, but that may introduce streaming issues.)
The user interface, dubbed Mochi, gives the display a whole new look: Instead of the rather bland blue background in previous models, you now get to pick wallpaper from a collection of attractive high-res images. Overlaying the wallpaper in a scrollable horizontal band are six principal menu items: Photos, Video, Music, Services, Files, and Setup. Out-of-the-box, clicking on a media type or the Files icon lets you browse for applicable content on the Live Hub's hard drive; pressing a red button on the simple remote (it's one of four context-sensitive color-coded buttons) brings up a menu of other media sources you can browse--DLNA servers or network shares.
In my tests with a shipping unit, I was easily able to access media server content on various devices throughout my home. However, for whatever reason, the WD TV Live did not see any of my shared network drives, and I was never able to determine why with the company. Since I was able to access all my media on DLNA-compliant computers and storage devices, this wasn't a problem in terms of media streaming. But some file management functions work only with content found on network shares. At this writing I was still trying to figure out the problem with Western Digital.
The color-coded buttons are new to the remote, and this remote, while still shorter than most and quite comfortable to hold, is slightly taller and significantly wider than its predecessors, so as to accommodate several other new controls. Other color-coded buttons, for example, let you access content based on filters that look at file metadata, but only where such data is accessible--for example, for files stored on the Live Hub's internal hard drive, or a drive connected to the Live Hub's USB port.
One way to move content onto the WD TV Live Hub's hard drive is by activating a feature in the settings that will automatically sync content from a network share that you designate. So, for example, you can set up the Live Hub to copy any new content that you add to a Windows Video or Music folder. Besides enabling the aforementioned filtering and search features, this can make for smoother media playback--sometimes streaming over a network subjects the media to interference.
Other WD TV Live Hub settings (reachable either from the on-display menu or a dedicated button on the remote) let you designate its hard drive as a DLNA server, network share, or even an iTunes server, thereby making its content available to other network devices. I was able, for example, to use a Wi-Fi connected notebook in my upstairs bedroom to play iTunes music stored on the WD TV Live Hub in the TV room downstairs.
The Services menu icon is where you go to access media from Websites ranging from Netflix (with software that lets you choose content on the fly without having to put it in your on-demand queue) and Flickr to YouTube, Pandora, and Mediafly (a podcast aggregation service). New offerings with the Live Hub are Blockbuster's on-demand service, Facebook, and Accuweather. Western Digital's selection of media-streaming Web support still lags behind the likes of Roku--or, for that matter, many connected TVs--but it has some big guns, which may be all some users want.
Overall, the WD TV Live Hub shapes up as a versatile and (with the exception of the problem of accessing network shares) user-friendly media streamer and storage device, both for streaming media to a connected HDTV and serving it throughout the home. For people who want to access media in multiple locations in a home, it's worth the $200 cost.