Media PCs and their place in our living rooms are a controversial topic here in the office. While they can offer enormous flexibility through the use of a conventional operating system, for many they’re expensive, noisy and needlessly complex, especially if all you want to do is play a bunch of .AVI files.
As our digital libraries continue to expand though there’s a greater and greater demand for easy ways to get our digital content from our PCs to our TVs which is where devices such as the WDTV Live come in. It packs an amazing amount of the media playback capabilities of a media PC into a competitively tiny set-top box.
The WDTV Live is Western Digital’s second generation HD Media player. It follows the original WDTV and offers a huge array of improvements in comparison to its predecessor, not least of which is support for a much wider range of files. Along with the usual suspects of MPEG 1/2/4, .AVi and WMV there’s full support for popular HD codecs such as h.264, .MKV as well as .ISO files (although menus and BluRay .ISOs aren’t supported). There’s also an equally impressive list of audio formats supported including AAC, FLAC, OGG and AC3 and, finally, support for Dolby Digital and DTS audio as well as multi-channel down-mixing for those without surround sound speakers.
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Needless to say with such a fantastic array of formats out of the box we were pushed to find files that wouldn’t play on the WDTV and its incredibly capable chipset certainly helped. Faced with a 60MB/s uncompressed 1080p video file the WDTV Live didn’t even flinch, an act that comparable media players (such as the Xstreamer, which we'll be reviewing soon) just can’t match. It’s not all perfect though; DRM laden content such as that purchased from iTunes won’t play and neither will files encoded using RealMedia Variable Bitrate or WMA-Pro. These are fairly niche markets though and for the vast amount of users with digital video collections the WDTV Live will deliver perfectly – even anime fans are catered for with support for a variety of subtitle standards.
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Video quality will depend entirely on the files you’re playing though– the WDTV Live lacks any sort of video post-processing or dedicated upscaler technology that you’d find in high end blu-ray players. That’s not to say the output video quality is poor; the Serenity trailer in 1080p looked stunning on a top quality display but you won’t get any actual improvement to the video files for your money.