Digital Media Adapters Part 5 – Western Digital TV Live Hub

This is part 5 in a multi-part series on digital media adapters for the living room. This time I explore Western Digital’s TV Live Hub. So far I have explored the Apple TVLogitech Revue with Google TV, and the Boxee Box. Each one of these devices has great benefits, but also has drawbacks as well. Is the WD TV Live Hub a perfect 10?  Let’s see.

Western Digital has had a lot of experience in the digital media adapter (DMA) space and it’s apparent it has invested that know how into the Live Hub. The Live Hub is very interesting in that it is the first one I have looked at with onboard storage and legacy video out ports. In fact, it has a ton of storage, one terabyte! I guess I should have expected that from Western Digital. The storage enables movie purchases from Blockbuster, downloadable rentals, and the ability to have local personal content, so less worrying about home network OR broadband issues.

Storage

As I said above, the Live Hub comes with a 1 TB drive and therefore can load a ton of videos, photos, and music on the drive which must be copied over a network. It does not act like a standard USB drive, a slight drawback, but comes with an easy program to automatically mount a Windows drive. I could even set it to synch with another network drive. The system would also let me synch external USB storage and even network drives with the unit’s internal hard drive. Very cool, although the kind of functionality expected from WD.

Video

WD’s Live Hub offers a lot of video options. Not as many as the Boxee Box, the Swiss army knife of video, but close. The Live Hub offers video services from AccuWeather, BlockBuster, MediaFly video RSS, Netflix, and YouTube. Video RSS allows you to access virtually any video feed that publishes RSS, which is most.

The Live Hub played most local video I threw at it with some exceptions, some major ones. I had some audio synchronization issues with some 1080p files from a camcorder, MTS, and movie trailers downloaded off web sites. These were in standard formats, not exotic ones. Looking through the WD forums, I am not the only one with the issue. I cannot imagine this issue not being fixed with a future firmware patch.

I wanted better quality of on-line video. It seemed regardless of which on-line service I used, the quality wasn’t where I wanted it to be. Netflix, Blockbuster, YouTube, it didn’t matter. On YouTube, it was like I was using the SD feed, not the HD feed. It could possibly have been my cable operator and bandwidth switching, I don’t know, but I tried it at all times of the day with the same result. The exception was BlockBuster which is a download and play service. Its video looked really good.

Blockbuster video was a very unique experience. Most services are streaming. Blockbuster is download and play. That, in a sense, helps buffer network congestion at peak times. Most interestingly is that it let me pick where I wanted to download content. I added an external USB hard drive and it was going to let me save it there… that really got my propeller whirring about the possibilities here of portable, DRM-encrypted content. The video looked great, too.

One thing I really appreciated was the proper handling of VOB menus. When I do pay to have horse shows videotaped, I get a DVD in this file format.

The Live Hub had the most complete array of video outputs of any DMA I have used. It had HDMI, component, and composite. You might say every TV has HDMI, which is close to the truth, but how many are there and are they filled?  Many TVs I have seen sold in the previous few years have 2 HDMI ports, one filled with a set top box and one with a Blu-ray player. That’s why component video is important. Also in a media room where you have a projector with just ONE HDMI cable input.

Finally, unlike all the DMAs I have explored so far, because I had a local hard drive, I didn’t need the Internet or a PC to access video, albeit needing the PC to get the content on the device.

Music and Audio

The device handled my favorite streaming site, Pandora, so I was very happy. Live Hub also comes with Live365 Radio and of course with MediaFly RSS, it can pick audio as well.

Local music and audio off a networked PC was handled like Google TV and Boxee, via UPnP. Just authorize your music folder to be shared, have your PC on, and Live Hub automatically detects it. Unlike the Apple TV, I didn’t have to have my media player open as I was streaming from the PC.

As with video, with my audio on the local hard drive I didn’t need access to network bandwidth or a PC to get to music.

Photo

Live Hub supports Flickr photo online services. Given that I use Picasa by Google, this didn’t help me a whole lot but to those who use Flickr it does.

Photos on a networked PC were handled like local music, via UPnP. Local photos on the Live TV Hub didn’t require a PC or bandwidth.

Games

Games are not available on the WD Live TV Hub.

Web

There is no “browser” and therefore no support for the “web”. Why does this matter?  It depends on each person’s preferred content. For me, it meant no Picasa photos, no Amazon VOD, no games, no CNN, and no ESPN scores.

Social Media

The Live TV Hub supports Facebook, but not very efficiently. I got to see two entries on my 60″ TV. If anyone out there knows how to increase this, let me know. Also, because there isn’t a QWERTY keyboard, “commenting” is harder than texting on a cellphone in the 90s. Links to websites cannot be displayed, either….

Communications

Chat, instant messaging or video chat is not available.

Networking

Like the Apple TV, Google TV, and Boxee, the WD TV Live Hub supports 100 Mbps hard wired Ethernet and WiFi N.

Simplicity

Setting up the WD TV Live Hub was relatively straightforward for the online services. To enable the hard drive sharing capability from the PC, I had to run a program which mounted the drive without having to go through Windows networking. It worked and was simple. Getting content on the Hub was a very different story. While I like the ability to just copy files over the network, I would have also liked to do a first time copy via USB at 480 Mbps. I have gigabit routers but unfortunately my home cabling is CAT 5e, maxed at 100 Mbps. It took me almost a day to fill up the drive from my PC.

Things got easier when I did get the content on the drive. WD has built a very attractive user interface (UI) called Mochi, very straightforward and upscale. The only issue I had was with the speed of drilling into folders. It crawled when I would click into a local or networked folder. Much slower than the other devices.

One UI feature I’d like to see added is a smartphone controller app. Every device has had this so far. It would make logging in, adding RSS feeds, finding the right YouTube feeds, etc. all the easier.

Home Connectivity

With HDMI, component, and composite video out, the Live Hub was very connectable to virtually any TV. Also, USB, network, and networked PC storage was very connectable and synchronized in an incredible variety of ways.

Most impressive is that the Live Hub is officially DLNA certified to the latest 1.5 level. That’s nice to know given it should stream content to other DLNA devices.

Price

The Western Digital Live TV Hub can be purchased for $199 which, remember, includes a 1TB hard drive, which is worth around $100.

Conclusion

The WD Live TV Hub is the box for sophisticated users who see value in the on-board storage of their content. The Live TV Hub has some incredible features like 1TB of on-board storage for content which eliminates the multiple failure points that could bring down other DMAs, namely the cable network, cable modem, router, and network. The storage capability with mounted network drives and synchronization and indexing of all other storage was awesome as well. It’s flat out the only device that allows for saving DRM-encrypted onto other storage devices, in this case via Blockbuster. It’s the only device I have tested so far that is DLNA certified as well.

I’d like to better understand why basic video streaming didn’t look as good as the other units I tested. I hope it was just my unit and not others. I’d also like to see a fix for the issue where some 1080p content had audio synch issues. The Mochi interface was simple and sexy, but at times was very laggy for me. I don’t know if this was inherent to the UI or content indexing, but it definitely had lag when clicking into folders. Finally, I would really like to see a smartphone-based controller to specifically help with text entry.

Next up, I will take a look at the Roku XD S.