The term "multimedia" has been around since the sixties, but with the advent of the world wide web it's come to mean a mix of different forms of digital media: for example, web pages and video.
With this new form has come an explosion of audio and video files that are easily accessible via a computer, but they are not as easy to watch in a more comfortable and suitable setting — ie, on your television.
To aid this transition has come a series of media streamers or "media centres", which are designed to play pretty much any format the web can spit out via your TV.
When it comes to these devices Western Digital has a great track record, and its bleeding-edge WD TV series now has a new flagship, the WD TV Live Hub. It's a media streamer with its own on-board storage.
Design and features
The WD TV Live Hub is the most advanced media streamer we've seen yet: it incorporates a 1TB hard drive, and is designed to replace a separate storage device or NAS. In addition, you can plug your external hard drives into it and use it to centralise all of your media.
The other significant change singular to the Hub is the development of a new interface. It's perhaps the most friendly we've seen on any media player and makes it quick to browse through your entire media collection. There's no acceleration as such, but the WD allows you to skip through 16 names at a time. Some devices only allow one name at a time, which is quite laborious.
Unlike pretenders such as the Apple TV, the WD supports a lot of different files, including most notably lossless FLAC and high-def format MKV. You also get MP3, WAV and AAC on the audio side, DivX, MPEG-1/2/4 and MOV on the video side and JPEG, GIF, TIFF for the picture part. Missing are Apple Lossless and WMA Lossless, plus DRM purchases from the iTunes store (protected AAC) or similar.
In addition to DLNA support, the Live Hub also allows you to access several internet platforms including YouTube, Flickr, Facebook, Mediafly (podcasts) and weather. At present there are no movie-on-demand services, though Western Digital says it is in talks with local providers.
The Live Hub includes lots of different connection types including HDMI, component, S/PDIF and AV-out. On the data side you get two USB connectors (front and back), which will also accept a wireless network adapter, plus gigabit Ethernet.
The WD ships with a full-size remote where in the past the company has only provided credit-card-style models. The wand feels comfortable in your hand, even if the buttons are a little squishy feeling. It's fairly straightforward to use, though.
As a budget media streamer we didn't expect much in terms of performance. There are no fancy DACs or image processors here — the WD TV Live Hub simply plays back the files you have. That said, playback quality was generally excellent, and we never experienced any stutters even over a 100-megabit connection.
Audio quality was actually quite good via the analog outs, with plenty of low-end heft and treble detail. Connecting up the digital HDMI output to the Pioneer VSX-1020 receiver was able to deliver a touch of refinement, and WD suggests hooking the Hub digitally to take advantage of files with surround sound encoding. Initial testing with 5.1-channel material was presented in stereo but on further investigation we found that surround was set in the audio menu to "Stereo" by default. Changing this to "Digital Passthrough on HDMI gave us back Dolby Digital.
As a humorous aside, while the player supports WAV files, we found it doesn't particularly know what to do with them. Initially believing the WD didn't support the file format at all, we discovered about 100 WAV files quite by accident when we were browsing through the C's — it had placed them all under Charlton Heston!
The WD does give you the option of renaming your files if it gets it wrong, as long as the files are on the drive itself — they can't be on a network server. Even so, we had problems trying to rename a WAV collection from the newest Superchunk album Majesty Shredding. While the device let us attach the band name, it couldn't find the album in its online database and then simply failed. It would be better if it could let you change the artist and album names independently.
Another more important problem we encountered was that the Hub doesn't list the video file type in the video browser. While it supposedly covers most files, we found that when clicking on a video it wouldn't play it. It was a matter of hit and miss then to click on each file to see if it would work or not; very time consuming.
The internet features were mostly good. The YouTube interface is friendly and mimics the left-to-right mechanic of the rest of the player and playback is swift. Facebook integration is as good as you can expect it to be on your television, though you can connect a USB keyboard for quick text entry.
Using the bundled WD Discovery Tool you can set the Live Hub up on your network to act as a NAS. It will map the device to a drive letter on your PC and you can quickly drag files to and from it. Of course, it can't replace a dedicated NAS, as it's only a single drive (which means no redundancy in the case of drive failure) and the drive isn't user replaceable. But for AU$300 it's an excellent option.
Additionally, you can "play to" the Hub from a Windows 7 PC or other compliant DLNA device. You can also set the Hub to monitor network servers and sync media from them as well — in a similar way to the Linksys Media Hub, but without the clunky web interface. Lastly, plug a USB disk in and it gives you the option of uploading its media to your device.
The WD TV Live Hub is a definite step up from the previous models: it offers on-board storage, NAS functionality, a fantastic interface and a host of connectivity. It would suit beginner to intermediate users very well. The only thing that gives us pause is its cagey support for video files, and so if you want a device that will support everything, we'd still suggest the original multimedia player: the PC.