Media Made Easy
Perhaps the easiest way of all to get your media to your TV is with the help of a device like the WD TV HD. Devices like this could be called “media adapters” because they lack the complexity of an extender. All they do is take photos, videos, and audio files on a USB drive from the flash or hard drive’s USB port and convert them for your viewing and listening pleasure on a TV. Provided the device is backed with a newbie-proof user interface, as WD’s model is, such adapters are an excellent fit for anyone, even extreme novices.
The WD TV HD measures just under 5" (W) x 5" (L) x 1.6" (D), making it easy to tuck into a bookshelf or a space between your existing home-theater components. The back side provides S-Video, HDMI, optical SPDIF, composite video, and RCA audio ports, so you should be able to plug it into any TV, regardless of its age. Format support is impressive for such a humble gadget, including not only the main media formats but also secondary types like OGG and MKA for audio, TIFF (single-layer) in photo, and AVI and H.264 for video. Supported resolution maxes out at 1080i (30 FPS) and 1080p (24 FPS).
Connect It Up (Making Use of USB)
The WD TV HD also features two USB ports for plugging in external storage devices. Note that the WD TV HD contains no internal storage, nor even any way to connect with a network. The idea is that you copy media from your PC to USB storage, then plug the USB drive into the WD unit for playback on your TV.
If you have a Western Digital MyBook to plug into one of the WD TV HD’s two USB ports, you’ll like that the look of both devices is very similar, although the WD TV HD works with any USB storage source. We tested our unit with a 2 GB SanDisk Cruzer flash drive and WD’s own 320 GB My Passport.
Plug, Press, Play
There’s hardly any setup involved with the WD TV HD, which makes it very convenient for taking on the road to visit friends and family. Simply plug in the power cord, connect audio and video lines to your home theater, plug in one or two USB storage devices, and hit the Power button on the remote. You don’t hear much about remotes with these devices, but we liked WD’s quite a bit. The layout is intuitive, and while the size is very compact, it’s comfortable to hold and operate.
Media Browsing Starts Here
After powering up, you’ll land at the All Photos icon within the Photos area. Western Digital organizes its user interface vertically with areas for Photos, Music, Video, and Settings, then horizontally into sub-division icons within each of those areas. For example, within the Photos bar there are icons for All Photos, Date, Folders, and Recent. Music contains All Music, Artist, Genre, Album, Date, Folders, Recent, and Playlist. Obviously, if you don’t supply metadata tags with your media files when creating them (or after the fact with something like an ID3 tag editor), then these media filters won’t be as effective. Metadata includes things like song title, date and time of an image capture, audio bit rate, and so on. If you’re new to metadata, it can be your best friend when trying to sort through media collections. We recommend including as much metadata as possible when you create media files.
Being long-time media collectors, we’ve gotten in the habit of organizing media into endless trees of folders and sub-folders, dividing photos by dates, movies by genre, and so on. For small media collections, filtering by metadata tags is fine, but once you get into hundreds or thousands of items, additional organization is often necessary. Thus the sub-folder habit evolves, and maybe this is why we kept finding ourselves turning to the Folders icon within WD’s three media areas. For us, it was just easier to find specific files this way. Actually, this holds true across most media devices. The alternative is usually to browse through screen after screen of thumbnail icons, but again, this gets very cumbersome with larger, unorganized collections.
As you can see in this shot of the Photos/Folders area, WD presents you with sub-folders first, then any images (shown as thumbnails) present in your current folder. We wish WD provided advanced options for changing thumbnail size and the number of thumbnails shown on screen. This would have allowed for a quicker browsing experience, but it would have added to the device’s complexity.
You Have Options
Of course, WD does give you a little flexibility with its interface. Most options are contained in the Settings area. Click on the Audio/Video icon and you’ll access options for things like TV aspect ratio, audio output (stereo or digital), and display resolution. Note that while the WD TV HD will auto-detect based on what devices you have attached, it won’t save any settings you manually change after powering down. You can change subtitle font size within the Settings Video icon, set music to shuffle or repeat in Music, and alter some slide show details in Photos. If you prefer text to thumbnails, dip into the System icon and change the Browser display option.
Just Press Play
That’s about it for the WD TV HD. Western Digital’s support for modern, digital ports, and codecs like H.264 make the unit an affordable but capable media option. We wish the device were smart enough to do things like play VOB files from a ripped DVD in sequence so you wouldn’t have to play each one manually. But let’s put it in perspective: the WD TV HD plays VOBs. Check out the still image from the “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” trailer above.
Just the Basics
This is a basic device meant for basic media needs. Processing limitations won’t let the WD TV HD cross-fade songs or photos. You won’t find any fancy visualizations during song playback. There is no Internet connectivity—for that matter, there isn’t even a port for it. And WD seems a bit spotty on whether it will provide thumbnail images for albums and videos, even when the artwork for a thumbnail is present.
But aside from such nitpicks, this a great choice for anyone who doesn’t mind two-stepping the media sharing process from PC to TV through a USB drive rather than having an unbroken link between the two. The WD TV HD retails for $129.99, which makes it one of the lowest-priced options for getting media to your TV. Here at Tom’s Guide, we’re pretty knowledgeable about technology and multimedia, but we even prefer the WD solution over more feature-rich extenders for everyday photo and music use. The only thing easier would be if you could plug a USB drive straight into the TV. (Come to think of it...why doesn’t anyone enable this yet?)
For video, the WD TV HD may strain. Sure, for the little MPEG movies your camera spits out, it’s fine. And if you’re in the habit of using a video editor (even the free Windows Movie Maker) or a video conversion tool like Badaboom or AMD’s free ATI Video Transcoder to drop files into handy WMV or MPEG-4 formats, then this device delivers. However, for more complex video work, including playing entire ripped DVDs, this system may not be the best bet.
Who needs the WD TV HD? Most everybody who wants to share media, especially outside the home. Next to a set-top box-based tool like Verizon Media Manager, this is the easiest, friendliest product we’ve seen yet for taking your multimedia files to the TV. We handed the remote to a six-year-old, and he had no trouble grasping its basic use. The WD TV HD is good for power users, great for parents and grandparents, and affordable enough for just about anyone.