These days, everyone wants to be able to view all of their media easily. And of course why not, with media coming from so many places … digital cameras, video cameras, cell phones, and of course the internet. You also don’t want to have to physically swap your DVDs or Blu-Rays because that would be, well, not American! 750-odd donuts a year, Canadians eat. It has to take its toll somewhere.
But in all seriousness, playing all the different media you might have is never an easy task. Let’s look at the options that some of us might have.
XBOX 360 – Somewhat capable, but suffers from codec incompatibility, no built-in WiFi, volume, and other issues. Surprisingly, the 360 is reported to be able to read HFS + partitions (Mac) which I like for various reasons, while the PS3, a product from a non-Apple competitor, cannot read HFS + or NTFS. Even more surprising, the 360 cannot read NTFS. I’d love to know what happened behind the scenes … was there any disgruntled employee who said, “Let’s get on with the MS man, baby! HFS but not NTFS! HAHA! There!” The menu, sorry, Dashboard works quite well for a console, but not as much in my opinion as a media center. Finally, the 360 just uses too much power.
Sony PlayStation 3 – Many consider it a good media player, but it doesn’t get the same kind of fanfare around my house. It can’t handle MKV, although the files inside that container are generally fine for the PS3, it can’t take files larger than 4GB, it can’t stream these kinds of videos from a PC (and even if it could, its 802.11g speeds would make it slow down). It can also be loud / hot like the 360, and requires a lot of power. Other than that, the PS3 that has a Blu-Ray player is its saving grace. That, its Blu-Ray boot speed, and the fact that it can decode the formats without loss internally make it a decent player. I even like the XMB to a point where I don’t mind using it to organize pictures and music, but since it can’t handle my MKV video collection, it should also be given a thumbs down unfortunately.
Wii – Hah. Next, I’ll talk about the 1080p media center capabilities of my original Game Boy.
Popcorn Time: This was one of the first things suitable for a media center that had all the necessary features on paper. Hard drive included, along with WiFi, RSS Bit Torrenting abilities, and the ability to play MKV and high bit rate 1080p video. The only problem is, he didn’t get it right. First-hand reports abound that the gamer stutters, freezes, and generally sucks when playing 1080p video.
Various other network media streamers – they all work decently well for pictures, music, and even SD videos, but so do 360 and PS3 with TVersity. No, the real test is full-bandwidth 1080p video, and I’m afraid both gamers and their meager wireless connections aren’t up to the job.
HTPC – This would be the only real solution for a long time. I even have posts detailing what they do and how to combine them. Why do these work? Because they are just computers connected to televisions. Dual-core CPUs, lots of RAM, and fancy videos should cut down on the work of anything you can throw at them, in theory at least. Having had HTPC since I was able to connect an S-video cable to my Radeon 9700 Pro in the past, I can tell you that the experience is not as smooth as it should be. Why? Because we are using Windows! XP Media Center Edition was just XP, and Vista has Media Center built in, so Media Center is just an application that runs on top. BSODs, freezes, slowdowns, and other issues will keep happening, especially if you use the box for other purposes, like downloading in the background. That, and the incredibly complex setup procedure, was very annoying. Of course you have to install Vista, but then the codecs, and make sure things are converted and handled correctly, the sound is output through the coaxial or toslink or HDMI cable the way it should, and then finally the calibration of the video output was a chore and something else. Most of these problems disappear when using Plex with a Mac as your HTPC. It’s one of the best media center interfaces I’ve seen, and it’s incredibly efficient with its rendering, playing videos smoothly that they don’t in VLC or Quicktime with Perian. Still, it’s a great investment (well, it’s actually a depreciating asset, but let’s not get our hair cut) to buy a full PC, and that too a Mac. Your only aesthetically acceptable option would be a Mac Mini, and its price-performance ratio is unheard of (in a bad way).
WD TV HD Media Player – Finally, that brings us to the subject of this review, the Western Digital TV HD Media Player. No one expected this, at all, at this price, and certainly not from WD. But none of that is important.
We’ve been led to believe that good things come in small packages, and it seems this little device may be a proponent of that idea. It is incredibly small, at least to my eyes, who are used to seeing acceptable 1080p reproduction from large boxes containing massive coolers on top of multi-core CPUS breathing in hot air, absorbing electricity and adding to the racket and the suffocating heat produced by the others. components. inside that (usually) ugly box. This thing has no fans, it’s pretty green and it’s panting … it actually does what it’s supposed to do! Setup couldn’t be easier, and I think no AV device in history has been easier to physically configure. The power cord, the HDMI cable … and voila. Yes, this is also the case with many other HDMI devices, but this thing is small and only has a few jacks, so it is very difficult to screw it up. There are no physical buttons on the unit, so it is turned on with the remote control. A whiter than blue LED lights to power on, and if you have a USB device plugged in, it will blink or light, depending on whether you are scanning the drive or ready to go. I encountered a problem at the beginning. After setting up the easy cabling and getting into the menu, I found that it wouldn’t recognize my 1TB external hard drive. Alarmed, I immediately copied a 720p TV show onto my Patriot Xporter flash drive and plugged it in. After a few seconds of inactivity, it started flashing and the videos appeared. Still, if it couldn’t read 1TB hard drives, now it’s not really an effective 1080p media center, right? I updated the firmware and finally saw the drive. I also noticed improvements in speed! Hopefully this will get better and better with each firmware update.
This baby will reproduce just about anything digital you can find. From old school DivX encodings to the latest super high bitrate 1080p MKVs, this will handle them all. More surprisingly, it seems that you have no problem playing them. They are not signs of struggle! I put a specially ripped version of the Godfather, barely compressed from the original, taking up about 20GB. It started playing right away, faster than my gaming computer could start playing (and that has a 4GHz Yorkfield and 8GB of RAM). VLC and other players sometimes have a lot of visual imperfections when playing high-resolution, high-bit-rate videos, but there was no such macro-blocking apart from those present by compression. If you haven’t compressed your Blu-Ray copies much, or you’ve just copied the streaming file from a Blu-Ray disc (which will play!), The video will look great. The sound is as good as the Dolby Digital or DTS standard (if connected via composite it won’t decode DTS), but currently, as far as I know, it doesn’t work with DTS-MA or TrueHD.
The interface is a bit like a simplified Sony PS3 XMB vertical color scrolling Windows XP interface. Sounds a bit like Windows Media Center, right? Actually, it is no different from him. Although the menus are a bit simplistic, they get the job done and I can’t complain too much. The only problem I have with the interface is that each icon should have the corresponding text near it, not down in the lower right corner. A little complaint, really. The appliance has the ability to create libraries for you, but I disabled this feature because I have my own org structure on the drive, and also it seems like it takes forever to index a 1TB drive. One more caveat here is that you can’t do this for HFS + formatted drives, and I think it’s because you can read them, but can’t write to them.
After using the device for a few hours, I can say that I am very satisfied with it. Easily switch between videos, pick up where you left off, and never crash during playback, no matter how demanding the video file is. At this point, I just have one drawback … the remote is too small for adult male hands, and the buttons take a lot of effort to press. It sounds like a small problem, which can be easily solved using other types of remote controls (programmable, Harmony, etc.). At $ 139 Canadian, this is a great deal, as you can do what HTPCs can’t do as reliably or quickly, for hundreds less. It also outperforms all other media solutions on the market, including consoles.
I give it a 9 out of 10.