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Video

The WD TV did well with music and photo display. But displaying video is a much harder task since there are so many formats, file types and resolutions in use. Western Digital advertises support for the following list of containers and codecs: MKV, OGM, AVI, DivX, WMV, QuickTime, Real, MPEG-1, MPEG-2, MPEG-4, DVD (VOB) (Codecs: DivX, XviD, MSMPEG4, ASP, H.264, AVC). That's a fairly impressive list, and HD resolutions up to 1080p are also advertised as supported.

So how well did the box do in my testing? Not too badly, actually. Most of my video collection played, but I did have some failures. This has been a common experience for me when working with media players. I've yet to find a box that will play every thing I throw at it. Luckily, most of the failures were on older files. But I was a bit disappointed to find that the box couldn't handle motion-JPEG videos from a recent digital camera capture.

Video selection is similar to that for music and photos. Figure 10 shows where individual videos can be selected.

WD Video Selection

Figure 10: WD Video Selection

In this display, you can see that some videos have thumbnail and some don't. As noted above, when thumbnails are missing, you can create your own by adding an appropriately-named JPGE file.

Most media players have some issue with "trick" modes such as fast-forward, reverse, etc. The WD TV has support for trick modes, too. But don't expect to get the same type of smooth behavior you see on your DVD player. Up to 16-times fast-forward worked. But at anything higher than 4X, the video would jump ahead rather than just play faster. And pressing the reverse button would always cause the video to skip back rather than play backward.

Most of my movies have been ripped using Handbrake and all of these played back fine. But I found that with the more recent rips, the WD TV didn't support trick modes. Any attempt to use the fast-forward or reverse button would result in a "not supported" icon on the display. Odd.

And how about the HD support? I don't have a large collection of HD videos to test with. But there were a few files on the included documentation CD and I downloaded some more 1080p HD trailers from Apple. All played fine, looked great and supported the trick modes.

In general the WD TV worked well. But I'll note that I was able to get the player into a state where it refused to play any media until I power cycled it. This only happened one time and I wasn't able to reproduce it.

Under The Covers

Figure 11 shows the main board of the WD TV.

WD TV Main Board
Click to enlarge image

Figure 11: WD TV Main Board

The main device is completely covered by the heat sink, which I was a bit hesitant to remove. But various sources report it to be the Sigma Designs SMP8635LF, a popular choice for this class of player as well as set-top boxes and Blu-ray players.

For software, it's clear that the box runs Linux. You can find a number of different alternate firmwares available where people have greatly extended the capabilities of the WDTV. New capabilities include support for both USB to Ethernet adaptors and USB to wireless adaptors.

Once you get networking going, you'll be able to run a HTTP, FTP , SSH and other servers and stream your multimedia across the network to the device rather than storing it locally. And what if you want a new look and feel? Figure 12 shows what you movie-selection looks like in one of the alternate firmwares.

WD TV Alternate Firmware

Figure 12: WD TV Movie selection in an alternate firmware

Very nice. Along with the nice graphics on the display, you can also see a lot of movie metadata fetched from IMDB. Of course if you install an alternate firmware, you'll be on your own as far as Western Digital support. But the capabilities look pretty enticing! You get a better look-and-feel, metadata, and you get the ability to stream your content from other computers on your home network.

Closing Thoughts

I liked this little player. It had a few issues, but it handled most of my multimedia files without problem. And its high-def capabilities mean that as my HD library grows, it has the ability to handle it. The ability to customize the menus with my own thumbnails means I can create a user-friendly interface that will make the WD TV easier and more pleasant to use.

Nearly everything I've recently reviewed has had network capabilities. So competitive comparison isn't exactly apples-to-apples. But the closest is the DragonTech ioBox. The ioBox used a similar Sigma Designs chip for processing, had comparable video handling capabilities and had network support. But its user-interface was weaker and it costs around $220, $90 more than the WD TV.

In my own home setup, I currently stream all my content across the network. But in reality, all my content is already on USB drives plugged in to a Network Attached Storage device. It wouldn't be a big stretch to plug them directly into something like the WD TV. But you are limited to only two drives, so depending on the size of your library, this could be a factor.

Since I'm a bit of a hacker, the ability to heavily customize the box is a biggie for me. I'd like to update the WD TV with fancy displays and metadata and add that missing network capability back in. But I'm willing to take the warranty-voiding risk that many people won't.

So is the WD TV right for you? If you're looking for a multimedia player with a nice interface, HD capabilities and with easy setup, you won't go to far wrong with the WD TV. But if you need an HD-capable player that can play content from your NAS or other networked files, you'll need to either hack it or perhaps spend $20 more and move up to the WD TV Live.

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