There've been a number of reports about the new Western Digital WD TV Live media server going on sale this week, but I think most of these reports missed the point. I got a chance to play with one, and I think I get it now.
The $150 WD TV Live is the latest in a growing number of cheap gateways that bring Web video and PC media to a TV. Another is the recently unveiled $100 Asus O!Play HDP-R1. (I haven't played with the Asus, but assuming it performs similarly to the WD TV Live, I can only hope Western Digital adjusts its price disparity appropriately.)
Unlike most all-in-one media servers, WD TV Live is more of a component system. It's relatively cheap because it doesn't include any onboard media storage memory.
Why this is a good thing after the jump.
WD's theory is: We are storing gig after gig of music, HD video and pictures, so much so that typical media servers with built-in memory might soon run out of space. With memory so cheap these days and getting cheaper every day (it's easy to find 500GB drives for less than $100) WD figures you'll spend less with the combination of this cheap gateway and a separate hard drive or two, plus it'll be easier and cheaper to add on more later on by daisy-chaining USB drives.
By comparison, the Netgear Digital Entertainer Elite EVA9150 media server with 500GB built in is $400. The small WD TV Live box connected to multiple drives don't look pretty, but it makes fiscal sense.
To accommodate memory, the WD TV Live, aside from the now de rigueur HDMI and Ethernet jacks, has two USB jacks, on on the rear and another on the side. More impressive is its Apple TV-lite GUI interface, which uses simple up-down/left right navigation to guide you through the system and your files. WD TV Live can handle full 1080p video and most video CODECs (although I got no audio from some .MOV files, mostly footage shot with DXG pocket cams). You also get live video previews of files. It also doesn't play old DRM'd iTunes tracks. It does connect to YouTube and Flickr.
Network-wise, you connect either via Ethernet cable or Wi-Fi, but you have to get a third-party Wi-Fi dongle for the latter. WD TV Live can access content on Windows PCs (you'll need to input your PC's name and password). On a Mac, you can drag-and-drop files to connected hard drives via Bonjour but, quite frankly, Mac users are probably better off with an Apple TV.
WD TV Live may not be the most elegant media server choice, but it may be the most future-perfect.