The set-top media box is becoming a ubiquitous add-on in many households to store and view digital content in a convenient and quiet manner in the living room. While Apple and Google TV are going more for the walled garden approach, taking you by the hand to the experiences they think you should have, Western Digital‘s approach to their new Live Hub is to hand you a Swiss army knife and push you out into the woods to MacGyver your own entertainment experience. Featuring virtually every codec known to man, a 1TB hard drive, and NAS capability, the Live Hub aims to be the new heart of the home entertainment network for those looking for a more flexible digital media experience.
The Western Digital Live Hub comes pre-equipped to deal with virtually every popular container and codec commonly used on the internet today. AVI, MKV, MP3, and even FLAC are fully supported by the Live Hub’s bag of tricks. TS/TP/M2T support guarantees that your DVR’d shows play back natively without transcoding, and support for the popular subtitle formats ensures that adding translations to your favorite foreign films is an easy process. If streaming’s your thing, Western Digital has you covered with support for Netflix, Blockbuster, Pandora, YouTube, Facebook and other services to make sure that you never run out of new things to watch.
Out of the box, the Western Digital Live Hub is surprisingly small, and a snap to hook up. Two minutes after coming out of the box, it was nestled underneath my television, unobtrusively blending in with its surroundings. Once the big bright WD logo light was disabled in the menu, I’d never even know it was there if it wasn’t for the constant light hum of the hard drive. From the time you hit the power button on the remote, load time to the home screen is about 10 seconds, faster than most of the competition. Once dumped into the thankfully high-definition interface (uncommon on media boxes until recently), dawn breaks over the simple and clean interface. From here it’s just a couple of clicks to get anywhere you need to go, and the colored buttons on the remote control let you quickly and easily categorize and sort your media to find what you want.
While accessing the Hub over the multitude of Windows machines around the house proved no trouble at all, the device does trouble reading shared folders on a Windows 7 machine due to a change in the authentication system by Microsoft. While the internet provided many potential workarounds to this problem, it’s probably something that will be addressed in a later firmware update. I really didn’t find this little hiccup to be too much of an issue, because once I set my software to push everything to the hub when downloads or transcoding is completed, the entire experience became transparent. Once on the hard drive, media playback begins virtually instantly regardless of source, and looks and feels as clean as it does on a computer or from a dedicated playback device.
Subtitle files are especially nice, rendered in a high resolution font comparable to what you see on Blu-ray discs. Those who elect to bitstream their audio beware; even over the HDMI 1.4 interface, the Live Hub will not send out decoded multichannel PCM audio. Internal decoding is handy for the odd audio format that your receiver doesn’t support, as well as future proofing, because as we all know, popular codecs and containers tend to change suddenly and without much reason in the fast moving world of the internet. If your receiver doesn’t support a wide variety of audio formats I would leave your audio selection on the stereo option and bump it to bitstream as appropriate. About the only significant audio hiccup I experienced in my time torture testing the box was with the 1080p Tron Legacy Trailer 3 available on iTunes. The use of “integer audio,” something that even Google doesn’t know much about, let the beautiful visuals through, but they’re nowhere near as fun stuck in a world of Daft Punk-less silence.
The built-in Netflix client is the same one I’ve experienced in my Panasonic Blu-ray players, with access to instant queue and highlighted movies only. It’s just a shame that with the Hub’s USB keyboard support that we don’t have a next-generation client with the search function enabled built-in
For many users who lack Ethernet near their house, or whose spousal units are intensely allergic to anything containing wires, the lack of built-in WiFi would initially seem to be a no-go. A multitude of USB WiFi adapters that will work with the Live Hub can be found here, though . Many of these can be found used or refurbished on Amazon.com for around $25 shipped, a far cry from the $60 or more many proprietary dongles run on other devices. Wireless performance is entirely up to the equipment you have at hand. Dual-band Wireless N is definitely the way to go for shuffling HD media around, and having dedicated send/receive transceivers will increase file copying speed by up to 5 times over the network.
With so many people using noisy, power hungry game systems to play back their digital media, it’s not surprising that media boxes have gotten so popular. With 1TB of Network Attached Storage built in, not only is the Western Digital Live Hub great for serving up your media around the home, but also beyond. I had no trouble accessing the box from my hotel room hundreds of miles away and snagging some relief from the boredom of basic cable. Unfortunately the built-in browser-based interface is not accessible outside of the local home network (no Slingbox-style fun of changing the channel to Skinamax while your buddy is watching with the wife), but you can access the media on the Live Hub just like you would any other network drive, via Remote Access or FTP.
While the box isn’t perfect — it could use some noise dampening, and the non-user accessible hard drive is a big minus in my book — the utility of a single box that plugs into everything, reads everything, and ships it everywhere can’t be denied. If Western Digital continues to evolve the Live Hub, adding more and improved streaming services (where’s Amazon On Demand or Hulu Plus?), and improves internal decoding support, they’ll have the perfect toy for just about any room in the house. For the frequent traveler, being able to access all of one’s media from anywhere with an internet connection is a blessing, and I give this little box, quirks aside, my highest recommendation.
Product Page: Western Digital Live Hub
File Formats Supported
Video: AVI (Xvid, AVC, MPEG1/2/4), MPG/MPEG, VOB, MKV (h.264, x.264, AVC, MPEG1/2/4, VC-1), TS/TP/M2T (MPEG1/2/4, AVC, VC-1), MP4/MOV (MPEG4, h.264), M2TS, WMV9
Photo: JPEG, GIF, TIF/TIFF, BMP, PNG
Audio: MP3, WAV/PCM/LPCM, WMA, AAC, FLAC, MKA, AIF/AIFF, OGG, Dolby Digital, DTS
Playlist: PLS, M3U, WPL
Subtitle: SRT, ASS, SSA, SUB, SMI
- MPEG2 MP@HL up to 1920x1080p24, 1920x1080i30 or 1280x720p60 resolution.
- MPEG4.2 ASP@L5 up to 1280x720p30 resolution and no support for global motion compensation.
- WMV9/VC-1 MP@HL up to 1280x720p60 or 1920x1080p24 resolution. VC-1 AP@L3 up to 1920x1080i30, 1920x1080p24 or 1280x720p60 resolution.
- H.264 BP@L3 up to 720x480p30 or 720x576p25 resolution.
- H.264 MP@L4.1 and HP@4.1 up to 1920x1080p24, 1920x1080i30, or 1280x720p60 resolution.
- An audio receiver is required for multi-channel surround sound digital output.
- Compressed RGB JPEG formats only and progressive JPEG up to 2048×2048.
- Single layer TIFF files only.
- Uncompressed BMP only.