Sunday, January 9, 2011

Western Digital TV Live Plus, first impressions

I recently picked up a $100 device that I understand is being called a "Digital Media Receiver". I'm not sure that's a great name since it's very different than a home theater "receiver," but it does receive and play digital media, so I guess it's not too bad. There are lots of reviews of these types of devices on the web, but the basic features are:
  • Plays music, video, and photos
  • May be able to access data on a locally attached hard drive or a network share
  • Access to a number of internet services through plugins
    • Most noticeably this device connects to Netflix, Pandora, Blockbuster, and Facebook
My aim is to replace a Linux based media PC that I've had in one form or another for 3-4 years. At one point I had a really nice setup on the Linux box with remote control and an LCD display of what was playing. After a catastrophic failure of the power supply, I eventually rebuilt the hardware, but stopped messing with the software when I reconstructed the ability to do HD output and digital audio. Getting the rest working again was just too much work.

So anyhow, seeing little boxes like this made me think maybe I could get rid of the big PC with something roughly 1% of the volume. I read a few reviews and the consensus was that the WD box was pretty good, but not as good as a similar device from ViewSonic. The Boxee Box looks pretty cool too and I played with the software on my Mac. But unfortunately both these devices require an HDMI output and I have an old TV without only component inputs. An Apple TV is more limited, requiring me to run iTunes somewhere else in the house. So WD it was for me.

So here are my initial thoughts:

First, the music interface is really not that great. I was hoping for something as good as iTunes on a real computer. It's not even close. And iTunes isn't as good for me as my beloved Amarok 1.4 on a linux box. (Amarok 2 was junk when it came out and version 2.3 is getting to the point I might consider it).

Second, while it can access data by a network share (I use a samba server), it's less functional than a directly attached hard drive (which I've only been able to test with a USB thumb drive). Basically the interface on a network share is just slightly glorified file interface so it really has no knowledge of my extensive music collection until I drill down into the folders. I think I can organize my way out of this though.

Third, ocassionally accessing my network share doesn't work and you've got to try again.

Fourth, Pandora, Netflix, and Mediafly (a podcast aggregator as best I can tell) access is pretty cool. Netflix doesn't deliver 5.1 sound yet, from what I understand. But an upgrade to a new API for their service is in the works.

The interface to get to all of this is pretty nice though and uses a very simple remote control. The device also works well with a USB keyboard.

So, I'm going to keep it and play around with ways of working around it's issues. It doesn't do the one thing I used to use my media PC for, playing music, as well or flexibly. But it does a lot more. And at $100, it's the kind of thing I replace every couple of years as I need to.

I just wish I'd found this before I spent all the time, effort, and money to repair my media PC after the blow-up.

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