WD has put a new device on the market, and it’s called the WD TV HD Media Player. It’s a small box that can connect to a TV via HDMI or Composite output cables, and can take most USB external hard drives as input (it should even read USB flash drives as long as they’re formatted in FAT32). Once a device is connected, the WD TV will read the media from that drive (movies, photos, music) and let you browse through them and play them on your TV. What sets this device apart for me is that it has gone beyond other similar devices like the LaCinema Premier, or Apple TV. I’ll explain below.
The LaCie product, for example, doesn’t play as many formats as WD TV, and can only support NTFS and FAT32 file systems.
You’re limited in the amount of content you can play with LaCinema Premier, since the drive is integrated within the device itself, and because not as many video formats are supported (see the specs on the LaCie website). That means you have to lug the whole thing from your home office to your living room, re-connect it at each place, and copy files onto it when you want to refresh its inventory. The remote also leaves something to be desired (too many buttons).
I know and like Apple TV myself, having bought one and configured it for my parents, but frankly, I find it overpriced and under-featured. The more you use Apple TV, the more limitations you find:
- It has an internal hard drive that syncs with content over a wireless network, which means you have to wait forever to get a movie onto it. The drive can also fill up quickly, depending on which size you pick. (Yes, you can also connect it via a Gigabit network, if you’ve pre-wired your living room and home office with Gigabit wires already — but most people have not.)
- You can stream to it, but then you always have to keep iTunes open, and it’s a hassle to remember that, especially when you’ve just sat down on the living room couch and turned on the TV.
- You also need to be able to troubleshoot WiFi issues in case you’re not getting enough bandwidth and Apple TV playback stutters.
- You have to add every single video clip you want to play on Apple TV to the iTunes library, and I don’t care for that sort of thing. I just want to store my stuff in folders and browse it from a device (like WD TV).
- Apple TV has a USB port on the back, but you can’t use it for anything but “diagnostics” unless you hack the device. This is stupid. I can’t use the port to connect Apple TV to my computer and copy content onto it, I can’t use it to connect an external hard drive to it and have it read the content from it (like WD TV), and it just sits there, unused, unless I pay for a hacking device like aTV Flash.
- It overheats like crazy. It can burn your fingers if you’re not careful.
I love the design of Apple TV and its diminutive remote. I love the fact that I can swap remotes between it and my laptop if I want to. I think the on-screen menus are well done. I also like the fact that it can stream Flickr photos and YouTube videos, but these extra functions are just that: extra-neous. It simply cannot do its basic job well, and that is to play my media conveniently.
I’m not alone in being frustrated with it. Thomas Hawk has written repeatedly against Apple TV, and for the very same reasons I describe in this post. Steve Jobs recently said he’s not sure what to do with Apple TV. He’s treating it like an unwanted step child. It’s not listed in the Mac product lineup on Apple’s website. It sits off to the side in a section of its own, and you have to do a search for “Apple TV” in order to find it. Corrected 11/11/08: It’s listed in the iTunes and More line-up along with the iPods.
For one thing, Mr. Jobs, you can stop being so greedy in your approach to the device and let people use the USB port on the back. Or how about letting people stream Netflix videos with it, so they don’t have to buy a separate device? I’m a Mac user and have a Netflix account. Until Netflix release Roku and opened up its streaming program to Mac users, I was in the dark. You probably don’t want to do these things because it’ll cut into your video rentals and purchases, and you like that extra revenue stream, but the fact remains that sales of the device will always remain low if you insist on hamstringing it.
The WD TV Player, on the other hand, is made to suit most people. It has a USB port where you can connect most external hard drives. It will read NTFS, FAT32, and HFS file systems too. (I found that out from WD Support, because the info isn’t listed among the specs. They pointed me to KB article #2726.) There seems to be an issue with HFS+ file systems, but they’ll still work, only differently. I’ll have to look into that later.
Also not listed among the specs is an Optical Audio port, but when I look at the back of the device, it seems to me I can see one there.
To me, WD TV is the long-awaited answer to my media player needs. At around $99 (street price), this is one device that will make its way to my Christmas stocking pretty soon, because I’ve got a Drobo full of content I’d like to play my way, not to mention that I also have two WD Passport drives.
I may even get one for my parents, to replace their Apple TV. They’ve had to keep their Drobo connected to their iMac in the home office, with iTunes open, all this time, just so they could watch a movie or two from the Drobo. That’s not right. Once I get the WD TV, I can take their Drobo, put it in the living room, and hook it up right there, without worrying about WiFi, streaming, iTunes, and a whole bunch of nonsense. Apple dropped the ball with Apple TV, and WD picked it up and started running with it.
The WD TV supports the following file formats:
- Music: MP3, WMA, OGG, WAV/PCM/LPCM, AAC, FLAC, Dolby Digital, AIF/AIFF, MKA
- Photo: JPEG, GIF, TIF/TIFF, BMP, PNG
- Video: MPEG1/2/4, WMV9, AVI (MPEG4, Xvid, AVC), H.264, MKV, MOV (MPEG4, H.264). It will play MPEG2/4, H.264, and WMV9 videos up to 1920x1080p 24fps, 1920x1080i 30fps, 1280x720p 60fps resolution. That’s awesome.
- Playlist: PLS, M3U, WPL
- Subtitle: SRT (UTF-8)
I plan to get one soon, and I’ll let you know in this post if it lives up to its specs and my expectations. If you’d like to get one too, Amazon lists them. See below.
You can buy the WD TV Player from: