The time where home theatre computers and expensive media boxes were the only ways of getting content onto your TV is over, and the market is filled with cheap solutions that will let you play music, photos and videos on your TV. One of the cheapest and most popular such device is the Western Digital TV HD player which retails at around $80 these days. But is it any good?
In the box
The WD TV HD comes with an AC adapter, AV cables, remote control with batteries and a software CD that you don’t really need. I was disappointed to find no plastic stand for a WD My Passport portable hard drive in the box as that was mentioned online but is now apparently an extra accessory. The box also doesn’t come with a HDMI cable or optic audio cable, though that isn’t really surprising as nothing comes with those bundled.
Concept and format support
The WD TV HD is a media player box that aims to provide access to media files easily and cheaply on a TV or home theater setup. You plug it in, plug in an external hard drive or USB key, and play files. It does music, photos and videos with an impressive format support.
For audio it supports MP3, WAV/PCM/LPCM, WMA, AAC, FLAC, MKA, AIF/AIFF and OGG. For photos, JPEG, GIF, TIF/TIFF, BMP and PNG. For video, AVI (Xvid, AVC, MPEG1/2/4), MPG/MPEG, VOB, MKV (h.264, x.264, AVC, MPEG1/2/4, VC-1), TS/TP/M2T (MPEG1/2/4, AVC, VC-1), MP4/MOV (MPEG4, h.264), M2TS, WMV9. For playlists, PLS, M3U and WPL and for subtitles SRT, ASS, SSA, SUB and SMI.
Real life format support is never as straight forward as on paper, and if you have files with strange formats you might run into trouble. Some of the codecs listed above are only supported under some circumstances, so make sure to check the specifications if you have any “special” files, but in general it’s supposed to support close to everything that’s a common format and up to 1080p. The big “but” here is DTS audio – digital multi-channel audio- which it can’t decode internally. This means that you have to connect to a receiver with a digital decoder through the optical output to get DTS audio to play at all, so no luck if you have files where that’s the only audio track available and don’t have a digital decoder. This is by far the biggest drawback of the device as far as I can see, and it’s only an issue if you have files like that. It has played everything else I have thrown at it, although I tend to stick with sane formats for my video files. Many people have reported formats not working, again that’s the “special” formats that foe instance anime often comes in. The bottom line is that it will support most common file types, but if you have anything that can’t be described as such you should Google around to see if that specific format will work.
The box itself is very small and looks like a WD My Book external hard drive. It has status lights on the front, a USB port on the side, and another USB port along with AC in, HDMI out, S/PDIF optical audio out and AV out on the back. There are air vents on the sides, but no fan inside the box so it’s dead quiet. USB is the only way to get content onto the device as there is no internal storage. It hasn’t had any issues with anything I’ve tried including power-needy 2.5” drives (though it’s made to work with those so that’s not a surprise), flash drives and card readers. It annoys me slightly that if you use a card reader it won’t detect you removing or re-inserting the card without also taking out the card reader and so it won’t refresh the media list before you re-insert the entire card reader. It’s also a bit (a lot) slow with larger hard drives with a lot of content as it has to scan the drives before presenting the list of media to you (obviously). It does save a file on the drive which I take is an index, but if the device has been unplugged it needs to check if that is still valid.
The WD TV HD is very easy to set up, just plug it in and insert some sort of USB storage device and that’s it. It will scan the drive and let you browse files through the menu system. The menus look nice, but there’s a weird issue with the background image (at least on mine) where it looks like a bad GIF with bad color representation and blocky artefacts. This is only on the wallpaper, so I don’t know what the deal is, but it’s a tad annoying on a big TV.
Pictures and video can be browsed either by “recent”, “date” or “folders” (as well as “all”) while music can be browsed by artist/album etc. The device is often a bit slow when moving through the browsing menus and I often find myself clicking the remote twice (it’s a bit short range) because it didn’t appear to register the first time, just to have it skip through two menus a couple of second later. I guess this is because it accesses the indexes of files, but it still shouldn’t be happening- especially not when moving around th
e menu in general. Another issue when browsing media is the poor handling of thumbnails and album art. If you browse music by anything but titles, you won’t see the album art- even if you browse by album- not until you’re on the single track level. For videos, thumbnails didn’t show on any of my videos as it can’t get thumbs from the files as many devices do- it needs a dedicated picture file with the same name as the video file to work. If you have myvideo.avi, you need myvideo.jpg. There is an online third party thumbnailcreator but it’s still a hassle to do. There is also no way to specify folders to ignore, which is an issue with the photo viewer in particular- it picked up 800 album art photos located in an iTunes backup folder on the 320GB hard drive I had connected and there was no way to tell it to ignore low resolution photos or specify to ignore that folder. Sure you can browse by folder, but that’s an annoyance too if you have actual photos spread about.
All in all the browsing experience isn’t the best, with slow movement and bad thumbnail handling all over- but it works. Unless you’re playing music you won’t be using the menus that much anyways but it could definitely need an update. Firmware version on my device is 1.02.07 and there are newer versions out there but none that had a change log that said to be fixing any of the issues I’ve pointed out
Photo “playback” is pretty basic with a slideshow feature that can be set to variable speed and so on. The music playback feature is also rather basic, but it does provide what most people need; album art and metadata, progress bar, repeat/shuffle and a little note about that song is next. No equalizer, visualizer or anything fancy like that so I doubt any music enthusiasts will ever use this as their main music system, but it should do for parents, grandparents and other people who just wan sound. You can also multitask music and photos so slideshows with music in the background is no problem.
As for video playback, you get a progress bar on-screen as well as a settings bar on top if you press the options button. The settings will let you change the audio channel (if multiple), select subtitles (if any), zoom in and out, move the picture around (for use when zooming I guess), select repeat modes and bring up the progress bar (which you can do by pressing a button anyways so I don’t see why this is in the settings menu). You can fast forward and rewind up to 16x, and pressing the next/previous track buttons while fast forwarding or rewinding skips 10 minutes at a time- useful to quickly get to where you need without fast forwarding the entire way.
As far as I have seen, video playback either works or it doesn’t. No freezing crashes or anything like that, but as I said I don’t have that many peculiar video files to test with. The playback “simply works” when it works at all, which makes the device easy to use for anyone.
The WD TV HD is somewhat limit out of the box and as with any device that is hackable someone has made custom firmwares for it. Most of these aim mainly to expand the abilities of the USB ports from just accepting storage media to also accepting and using USB network adapters and USB DVD-ROMs, turning the device into a network device or a DVD player. There are also firmwares allowing you to install applications such as torrent clients, FTP servers and so on and turning the device into something even more useful. I haven’t tried any of these myself as I don’t need any of the features, but there are plenty of options to choose from if you want to turn your device into something more than a straight forward media player. Considering the low price of the WD TV HD and the awesome features you can get from custom firmware, this is where the true usefulness of the device lies for media enthusiasts.
Out of the box, the WD TV HD is an annoyingly slow but still functional media player that will play close to all common formats with the exception of DTS audio decoding. The low price makes it an excellent device for people who simply want to get some media onto their TV, and the device is also being marketed as a USB port for your TV- which is a fair statement. I bought mine to take the load off my laptop for playing HD video and it does that very well, but if you have a very high end setup with a lot of different formats, DTS audio etc you might want to check out a more expensive device. This is as I said a USB port for your TV, not a tiny media center- although the custom firmwares available increase the usefulness of the device drastically (as well as voiding your warranty, of course). The WD TV HD is currently $90 on Amazon which makes it a very affordable media player as long as you’re aware of its limitations.