A Brief Review of WD TV Live Streaming Media Player

With the amount of products available in the market today, it's as important as ever to make an educated decision before purchasing a product. Media players, such as the Ubuntu-powered Xstreamer Sidewinder, Apple TV, and the Roku 3 each have their own unique features but they're generally very subtle for buyers not inclined to doing their research. More mainstream products such as the ASUS O!Play Series of media players and Western Digital's own set of players may seem somewhat out of place in an Internet-obsessed market obsessed more with getting media on to their tablets and smartphones than sitting down or watching video on their HD displays. However, I'm fairly confident there is a market out there - which includes me.
The WD TV Live Streaming Media Player is great for traveling and for expatriates living in places like China. Finding bootlegged DVDs and downloading videos are fairly easy and tablets, netbooks, and notebooks make media consumption on the run extremely convenient. However, there's something to be said about watching Downton Abbey or Young Justice on a huge display in your rented apartment or business hotel room without worrying about the lack of HDMI or using a laptop as an alternative. For foreigners living in China and Africa, getting HBO or Cinemax can be very difficult (if not impossible in Shanghai). The WD TV Live is small and can fit in a laptop backpack. It supports HDMI and the more obsolete composite/component connections. Like the previously mentioned media players, WD TV Live can support a bevy of codecs and video containers - codec support is not an issue any longer for today's newer media players.

The WD TV Live is smaller than a Cisco TV set-top-box. The media player is connected to a 500GB Toshiba portable HDD in the photo.

I needed a device that could play my videos stored in my portable and desktop hard drives. As a Linux user, I'd love to have a full-blown media center with XBMC installed, but considering how often I move around, it just isn't practical to lug around a powerful server (much less a Blu-Ray player). Small media players work with cheap Changhong flatscreens or the more expensive Samsung LED panels you find in pricey boutique rooms in Bangkok. One of the more admirable standard inclusions of the WD TV Live is a plug adapter to circumvent the occasionally annoying sockets one encounters while visiting Asia or Europe (an HDMI cable isn't included however).

All things considered, the WD TV Live isn't for everyone, as this brief review will prove in the next sections. For my part, the WD TV Live media player is cheap, easily available, and fits my simple needs. For caveats and additional considerations, read on.

Somewhat a No-Brainer - Update the Firmware

The WD TV Live doesn't come with much documentation, which is a shame since users will be disappointed if they encounter some of the issues I hit upon on running it the first time. For one thing, the WD TV Live's firmware needs to be updated immediately before you start playing your videos. As of this writing, the current firmware for the WD TV Live is 1.14.09, which was released on February 2013. My newly bought media player had 1.04.12. The firmware version can be found on the About screen on the Setup page.

The firmware will correct a glitch that delays remote control response and odd pauses in video playback while the media player indexes your local storage for the first time. When you plug a hard drive (such as my 1TB Buffalo or my 2TB Seagate), the WD TV Live undergoes a fairly lengthy and extensive indexing of all supported media files for your WD TV Live media library. This doesn't prevent you from playing videos (I immediately played an episode of Coupling on my first run), but performance while navigating the interface is incredibly slow and there were moments when the video just stopped. To be fair, most media players don't have the option to "kill" a video that has stopped working (sorry, Linux term), but it was disconcerting having to encounter long pauses while watching the Korean movie Hello, Schoolgirl.

The message "Compiling Media Library..." appears on the main page and affects performance.

You can disable the Media Library feature by going to Setup then System, but it's fairly useful if you want to organize your media and improve the overall navigation experience. As mentioned earlier, I'm working with just a plugged in local storage so I was satisfied scrolling through my folders and playing my Norah Jones and Duke Ellington MP3s. Disabling the Media Library feature definitely improves performance especially if you switch to the Preview View while scrolling through your list of videos.

When I encountered the performance issue, I guessed it was probably due to a pokey processor or the "huge" storage size of my hard drives. However, a quick visit to the WD support site proved otherwise. Updating the firmware to correct this issue is fairly straightforward and should be done before you enjoy your legal and illegal media collections. The download is a hefty 148MB, but is worth the hassle of downloading.

Rename Filenames and Subtitles

The second task a user must do before plugging in storage drives and enjoying ripped or downloaded videos is to rename files. The WD TV Live interface has four views for folders and filenames. However, you can't view the whole filename if it's too long. It doesn't matter how big your LED/LCD display is, the filename will be displayed like a ticker tape if the characters exceed the limit allotted. So, if your filename is "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles - Season 1 Episode 4 Heavy Metal.avi" then you're only going to see "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles - Season 1 Episode . . ." and you'll have to wait till the text crawls to the rest of the title.

The aforementioned Preview View where a small window will display your video when you select a file on the list is useful but it can be slow especially if you enabled Media Library and the media player hasn't finished processing all your files. Renaming is a pain, but it's a necessity if you want to enjoy your videos without constantly playing and then skipping files.

Preview View

In fairness to Western Digital, truncated text occurs with other media players such as the ASUS O!Play HD and Xstreamer Sidewinder so it's more of a user issue than anything else.

I also encourage users who have downloaded subtitles to rename them to match the name of the video file and store the subtitles on the same folder. Browsing and selecting subtitles using VLC or SMPlayer on your Linux desktop is easy, but media players, including WD TV Live, can't detect .srt and .sub files unless they are hard coded to the video (as in .mkv files) or they have the exact name of the parent video file. For example, if you ripped a VCD and named it "Chungking_Express.avi" then the subtitles you downloaded from Opensubtitles.org should have the name "Chungking_Express.srt" and should be located on the same folder. Otherwise, pressing the Subtitle button on the remote really doesn't do anything.

MKVs with subtitles work fine. Clip from El-Hazard: The Wanderers

If, however, all your ripped files were encoded properly along with the correct subtitles or the subtitles were embedded, then you're not going to encounter any issues. I have a collection of ripped and downloaded Asian movies and often keep several subtitles of each film due to differences in translation or frame rate so I have to be more vigilant about keeping track of video and subtitle filenames when I rip VCDs or DVDs using Handbrake or K3B for Linux.


  1. Great article Brian. For those who live outside US like me, you can access Netflix, Hulu and similar media stations on your WD TV Live by using UnoTelly or similar tools.


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