One of the big draws for the hub is its ability to play back high-definition video. As with Western Digital's previous models, my tests showed that the Hub didn't even break a sweat when dealing with 1080p video. Of course there are a lot of different variations around and your results may vary depending on your file.
I tried out a mixture of different containers and codecs: mpeg1, mpeg2, mpeg4, DivX, XviD, AVI, MOV, H.264, etc. and the box had no issue except with some older files that I can't guarantee were even encoded properly to start with. Trick-modes such as fast-forward and reverse also worked fairly well even when streaming across the network. But beware if you pause a movie and have a TV susceptible to burn-in. I found that the screensaver would not kick in.
One issue I've had with most media-streaming players that I've tested is metadata. Typically there is none for movies. The "normal" way these boxes present your movies to you is in a great big spouse-unfriendly list of filenames. I ripped hundreds of my DVDs a while back, so I have an extensive collection. Trying to locate any one movie using a sometimes cryptic filename can be a deal-breaker as far as acceptance of a player into the family entertainment center.
Fortunately, Western Digital is starting to address this issue. Figure 12 shows a movie selection menu after I navigated into a subset of my movie collection.
Figure 12: WD TV Live HUB Movie Selection
There's a lot going on this menu. On the bottom you can see a scrolling list of movies. In this case I've paused on Casablanca. While I'm paused, a rotating set of promo images from the movie displays as the background. On the left, a redundant movie-poster image is displayed. Next to that you can almost read a description of the movie along with actors, director, year of release etc. It's very slick except for the "almost read" part.
I really liked this menu and it makes navigation a lot of fun. But most of the time, the background image makes the textual description impossible to read. If Western Digital adds a background to the text, and removes the redundant movie poster, this menu will be great. With good metadata for a movie, you can then sort by genre and movie name instead of just filename or folder. There is no option to sort by actor, director, year, etc.
But all's not rosy in the metadata department. In the center of the menu, you can see a little green camera icon that indicates that no metadata was found even after I manually entered the name of a little-known movie entitled Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is currently number 22 on the IMDB list of the top 250 movies of all time. I'm very impressed that Western Digital is trying, but right now their database is lacking.
In addition, the metadata import process often had problems with my filenames and I had to manually search by entering names using an on-screen keyboard. USB keyboards are supported and would be a wise choice if you've got a lot of movies. There is no "do it all" option for fetching metadata, so an actual keyboard will make the process a little easier. But it's still going to be a long one-by-one process.
I was also unable to find a way to remove the metadata associated with a file if a mistake was made. Finally I was disappointed to find that associating metadata to a file is an option for local media only. If you're accessing media via a DLNA server, there's no option to load metadata for it. WD has made great progress in metadata handling, but plenty of work remains.
A final feature I wanted to mention was customization of the user interface. Right now, it appears as if there is only one main UI "theme" available. But support is actually in place for loading additional ones. On the main display, you can change the background image to a number of very nice provided images, or you can choose your own. Figure 13 shows the main menu after I customized it using one of my images.
Figure 13: WD TV Live HUB Personalized background
Also note in this screenshot the Now Playing banner on top. When music is playing, this banner always partially covers the time and temperature display in the upper right (Compare to Figure 2). Not a major problem, but something WD needs to fix.
Finally, I'll touch on some of the remote features. The remote itself is larger than the previous WD TV models and has a nice solid feel. It also has four programmable buttons so if you find yourself using a function often, you can assign it to a special button. Like most remotes bundled with these players, the Hub's remote is not backlit. So if you want to use it in a darkened room, you may have issues.
There is also a web interface that has mockup of the remote. So if you want to control the box from your web browser you're set. I tried it out from both my laptop and the browser on my cell phone. Fun and useful!
Under the Covers
This little bugger foiled my attempts to cleanly get the case off since it uses no external screws and I couldn't locate a rumored hidden plastic tab on the back panel. So, to avoid marring the case by prying it open, I had to rely on some documented components.
The primary processor on the Hub is a Sigma SMP8654AD-CBE3, which is the same as used on the WD Live Plus. Ethernet is provided by a Realtek RTL8110SC and there's 256 MB of RAM. As far as software, just like the previous models, the WD TV Live Hub runs Linux internally.
There's an active hacking community that produces alternative firmware for previous WD TV models, so I suspect that this one will be on the radar soon. A quick network scan of the Hub turned up the standard ports for the file server, UPnP server, iTunes server and configuration web servers for both the box itself as well as the UPnP multimedia server.
Updated 11/30/2010: Added file transfer performance data.
For a quick check of file transfer performance, I connected the Hub directly up to my MacBook Pro via Gigabit Ethernet and mounted the device using a SMB share. Copying a 1.2 GB file to the Hub (write) gave me a rate of about 9.4 MB/Sec. Copying the same file back to my Mac (read) gave me quite a bit slower performance, 6.1 MB/Sec.
Even though I found a few issues, I liked the WD TV Live Hub a lot. It handles 1080p HD content with ease, supports a wide range of video codecs and has a full set of features including extensive online support, file serving capabilities and local storage. The fact that Western Digital is starting to support downloaded metadata means selecting movies from a long list of cryptic filenames is looking like a "feature" of the past.
There's room for improvement with metadata handling, though, and I hope that Western digital will continue to work on it. But even in the current state, the Hub is a big step up from most media streamers I've seen.
If you're trying to decide whether to spend the extra $100 on the Hub vs. the Live Plus, I'd go with the Hub. And definitely if you're stuck with a wireless connection between your entertainment center and media server. You not only get a good-sized chunk of storage for the money, but with the network sync feature, you can finally watch 1080p HD in peace!