Western Digital's WD TV devices are among the best media streamers we've ever tested. They're simple to the point that anyone could use them, and powerful enough to play even demanding 1080p video files. That's a recipe for success in our book.
Now Western Digital has launched the WD TV Live Hub. We think it has a slightly ambiguous name, but, once you get using it, you'll see the thinking behind the moniker. It's designed to let you watch video from your networked computers and USB drives, as well as from the machine's built-in 1TB hard drive.
It's a clever idea, so how does it stack up? We spent a good chunk of time playing with this £170 box of tricks to find out.
Two become one
The Live Hub is really two things in one deceptively slim box. If you plug it in to your home network, it shows up in exactly the same way as Western Digital's network-attached storage devices do. But, plug it into a telly, and you'll see it has a TV interface that does everything the older WD TV boxes do, but with an entirely new look and feel.
If you're looking for a way to save electricity, the Live Hub will certainly deliver many of the benefits of a NAS device, or a permanently switched-on PC, but it will consume a fraction of the power.
The Live Hub offers an HDMI 1.4 output, which could mean support for 3D at a later date, and Ethernet, composite, component and optical digital audio sockets. Out of the box, the Live Hub supports only wired network access. But there's also the option to use an approved Wi-Fi dongle. Happily, the list of compatible dongles is quite extensive.
From the moment we extracted the Live Hub from its box, we pretty much fell in love with it. It's small and will fit into any lounge easily. Its design doesn't really indicate how much it can do.
The Live Hub comes with a good remote control too. Its styling means it fits beautifully into your hand and the important buttons are within easy reach. It might sound silly, but a bad remote can really ruin the user experience. As much as we liked the older WD TV models, their mini controllers made them feel like toys rather than serious video streamers.
Stunning user interface
Media streamers and network players like this machine started out as geek tools. Back when they first started to appear, no emphasis was put on the user interface's design, because the enthusiasts using the hardware didn't care. They just wanted to play cat videos and watch Xvids they'd nicked off the Internet.
Now, though, needs have changed. Media streamers are being used by the parents of those geeks to enjoy music and family photos on their large TVs. To make that possible, a good user interface is essential. Fortunately, the Live Hub has a beautiful, colourful and tastefully animated menu system that's a joy to use.
While we like its appearance, we have a few minor gripes with how the system works. For example, switching from a local drive to the network isn't as easy as on a Popcorn Hour machine, which lets you make the switch with two button presses. On the Live Hub, you have to endure several clicks, and there are some confusing choices to make about whether you want a network share, local drive or media share. The distinction between the two network options might well confuse some people.
It's all very usable overall, though, especially if you opt to use USB devices and the built-in hard drive. On the average home network, there are unlikely to be a huge number of servers to wade through either.
Fantastic picture quality
The Live Hub genuinely surprised us with its picture quality. We weren't sure what to expect from this little machine, but we were pleased to see that the image quality was just as impressive as that of our reference player, the Popcorn Hour C-200.
We had none of the concerns that we had with the D-Link Boxee Box over its handling of standard-definition video in the form of Xvid files. They look awful on the Boxee and superb on the Live Hub. Hi-def material in both 720p and 1080p blew us away with its clarity. We watched clips from Star Trek, and found the detail levels superb and colours natural, which made us happy.
The Live Hub offers some online video options, like YouTube access, but sadly no BBC iPlayer, or anything of that kind. US users get a better deal, with several music- and video-streaming services available to view online. They also have movie rentals from Netflix and Blockbuster. It's a shame that British users have been short-changed slightly, with no UK-focused services currently available.
If Western Digital had included on-demand TV catch-up services from the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel Five, it would have had a killer product on its hands. Of course, years of negotiation would have been required before that could happen, and, with the UK being a niche market, we aren't surprised it hasn't occurred. That's not to say we aren't disappointed, because we are, but perhaps there's hope for the future.
The box will also display the current temperature in your region, via AccuWeather, and there's a bespoke app that allows you to check on the forecast. It's one of the best we've seen on a device of this type. There's also integrated Facebook support, which is reasonable, but we can't honestly see many people plugging away on the remote to update their status every few hours or so. Still, it's a good feature to have, and the machine can upload your photos to Facebook too, once you've tied your account to the box.
Superb codec support
As with most modern streamers, the Live Hub can play virtually anything. The usual suspects like MPEG-4 (H.264 and its less legitimate half-brother x264) and MPEG-2 are supported. We couldn't find anything that wouldn't play, but we didn't manage to check every video type on the planet, or every different type of codec or software setting.
The chances are, though, that, if you have video, the Live Hub will play it. Audio is even less of a lottery, and we happily listened to our large music library with no problems. It was actually easier to track down music on our network with the Live Hub than it was in stupid Windows Media Player.
Turn that PC off
With other media streamers, you really need to keep your PC switched on to get the best out of them. Alternatively, you can run a NAS device so you can stream video when your computer is off. Because the Live Hub has a built-in 1TB hard drive, you'll have plenty of room for any video, photos or music you might want to store.
That's not the end of the Live Hub's flexibility, though, because it can take content from a USB device and automatically copy it to the built-in hard drive. It can also read video off several different types of camcorder. If you're looking to watch your home movies without firing up a PC or messing about connecting things to your TV's rear sockets, the Live Hub will certainly appeal.
The Western Digital WD TV Live Hub is a wonderful piece of kit. Its user interface is slick, and its image quality is exceptionally good. It could do with more Internet video features, but it's not a huge issue. In short, we love this machine, and we're happy to give it an Editors' Choice award.
Edited by Charles Kloet