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from the L.A. Times

Western Digital beefs up its streaming media player

WDTVLiveHub crop It's been almost 15 years since WebTV brought the (dial-up) Internet to the (analog) TV screen, yet gadget makers are still trying to figure out how to make the concept compelling to the masses. The latest trend, epitomized by what Apple and Roku are doing, is lower-priced set-tops that rely largely on content stored on the Web (and, in Apple's case, your home computer). Hard-drive maker Western Digital, however, is going in the opposite direction. It's releasing a new version of its streaming-media set-top that has a built-in hard drive, which is intended to be used as a home media server.

The $200 WD TV Live Hub, which goes on sale Tuesday at Best Buy, is a logical extension of what Western Digital has been doing in the market. Its first set-top worked as sort of an external USB port for a digital TV, enabling people to display content from a thumb drive, camera or camcorder on the TV screen. It then added an Ethernet port to the box so it could connect to a home network and the Internet, bringing an increasing number of websites into the living room (e.g., Pandora and Netflix). The latest step was to add a 1 terabyte hard drive and software that lets the box stream media across the network.

Hard drives are Western Digital's core business, so maybe the real surprise here is that it took the company so long to add one to its WD TV products. But Dale Pistilli, a marketing vice president at the company, said the drive helps improve the box in at least two ways.

First, high definition content looks better when it's coming directly off the box rather than streaming from the Internet, Pistilli said. And second, a built-in hard drive looks better than an external one plugged into the back.

No argument on either of those points. I've been playing with the WD TV Live Hub for a few days and found much to like about it, particularly the ease of installation -- it automatically recognized my home network, despite being connected through a finicky Ethernet switch -- and its ability to serve music and video effortlessly to other devices on the network. I have a Mac and a PC, and both recognized the WD TV box and the content on it instantly. The device also boasts the ability to copy music, photos and video automatically when they're added to other devices on the network or plugged in through a USB drive, although I wasn't able to make the former feature work. (Here's hoping the real units come with better documentation than my review unit did.)

The online services integrated into the box -- Netflix, Blockbuster video on demand, YouTube, Flickr and Pandora, primarily -- make it more attractive than a plain-vanilla home media server or network-attached storage box. It's also a better value than the original Apple TV, which was more expensive and offered a much more limited set of online options. But I'm not sure how much the hard drive and media-serving capabilities make the box more attractive to the masses than a less expensive Internet-on-TV set-top that has no built-in storage.

A real problem for every device maker in this market is that the major Hollywood studios don't want free online TV shows moving from the PC to the TV. That means you can't use a set-top to bring advertiser-supported TV sites such as Hulu to the big screen in the living room (although Roku has announced plans to offer Hulu Plus as a channel).

Nor have the studios been enthusiastic supporters of media servers that can stream a family's movie collection to any connected TV in the home. They've fought companies like RealNetworks and Kaleidescape that helped people convert their DVDs into digital files, and they've insisted that downloadable movie files be locked in digital rights management software that poses compatibility problems for many home networks. As a result, the Western Digital box can do more with bootlegged movie files that have no DRM than with files legally acquired from the likes of Blockbuster.com.

Both of those issues will be resolved eventually. In the meantime, the WD TV Live Hub is best suited for people who want to stream movies and clips from the Internet and play their digital music, photos and home movies on multiple screens around their home. 

Updated, 7:12 a.m.: Just to be clear, the new version of the box is well suited for those who like to download movies too -- the hard drive comes in particularly handy for high-definition files. But if online TV is your thing, the current version of the box isn't the right solution. Said, Pistilli, "This is a platform, and we’re going to be continuing to add more and more content," focusing on the most commercial and mainstream stuff and not "long-tail" material. "But we’re also going to continue to focus on people who have a lot of personal content as well. I don’t think we’re going to be the first one to get people to cut the [cable TV] cord."

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division.

 
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