Western Digital WDTV media player

The Western Digital WDTV (US$110 as of March 5, 2009) marks the hard-drive maker’s first foray into the field of media players, but the move makes sense as an extension of the company’s existing hard-disk products. The WDTV box lets your HDTV play media transferred from any USB storage device (flash drive or external hard drive), without any need for a streaming network device to bridge the distance from your storage drive or PC to the TV. Western Digital’s first-generation WDTV accomplishes its core task fairly well, but its menu system is slow.

The WDTV can connect to any standard-definition or high-definition television; it has composite audio/video connectors and HDMI, as well as optical audio output. HDMI is actually missing from its competitor, the Seagate FreeAgent Theater player.

The WDTV’s two USB ports–one at front, one at back–let you keep two storage devices connected to the player simultaneously.

The WDTV ships on its own, without a hard drive, but it will work with any hard drive, not just Western Digital models (the dock that ships with the drive will perfectly fit a Western Digital Passport portable drive, however). One bonus for multiplatform households: The device can read disks formatted for either Windows (FAT-32, NTFS) or Mac OS X (HFS+ without journaling), so you’ll be able to view media files from every computer in your home even if you have a mix of Macs and Windows PCs.

The WDTV outputs video at resolutions of up to 1080p. It can play a wide array of popular media formats, including MPEG-4, WMV9, H.264,and AVI (various codecs) video; MP3, WMA, AAC, and WAV audio; and JPEG, GIF, PNG, and BMP images. In my informal, hands-on testing, the unit handled everything I threw at it. Western Digital continues to add functionality via a firmware upgrade (for example, it added 1080p 24Hz support, and EXIF orientation flag functionality for automatically rotating pictures) since the product first launched.

Setup is minimal: You hook the WDTV up to your TV, power it up, plug in a USB storage device, and you’re set. The device finds your content in real time, and displays it in specific categories. The WDTV displays media in a grid layout with a thumbnail icon (or album art for music) and the title at the bottom. Navigating items is simple and works as expected, though I would have liked the option to view items in a list instead. The WDTV does offer a few playback options. When viewing photos, for example, you can zoom in on photos and pan around, and you can create slideshows. Pressing the option key during playback will bring up these image controls, or similar controls for music or video playback (such as a shuffle mode for music, and subtitles for video playback).

The included remote makes navigating the intuitive menu system easy. Use the up and down arrows to move between media types (music, photos, and videos), and use the left and right arrows to select browsing modes (such as for viewing photos by date or by folder). My one gripe involves the menu system’s sluggishness: The lag was just annoying enough to make my experience with the WDTV distinctly less enjoyable than it otherwise would have been.

Some similar players–notably Seagate’s–include a simple software program for syncing media from your computer to a hard drive for easy transfer and playback, but the WDTV lacks media transfer software. While dragging and dropping files isn’t difficult, an application for syncing media would streamline the process somewhat. That said, Western Digital includes ArcSoft Media Converter software for converting your media files into formats that the WDTV can play.

Overall, if you want to skip the home networking approach and connect a media-filled hard drive up to your television, the WDTV is a good bet. Full 1080p support and HDMI connectivity makes it an especially viable option for home-theater users.

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