Western Digital WD TV Live Hub ($229.99 wdc.com)
As you'd expect from Western Digital, their DMR has a built-in hard drive — a novelty in this group, since the others sport just enough flash memory to buffer the streams from their various online providers. The Live Hub’s 1 terabyte drive is generous, offering enough space to store music and video to satisfy a decent-sized family.
The box itself is the widest of this bunch, though it's still smaller than most products you attach to your TV. I'd say it's a little over twice as large as the tiny Apple TV. The softly textured remote isn’t backlit, but it's laid out well enough, and its old-school, buttons are big enough that using it in the dark isn't overly difficult. Like the Roku XD|S, the Live Hub is the only DMR here with component outputs in addition to HDMI, so if you need that flexibility, your choices are narrow a bit.
Interestingly, the Live Hub doesn’t have built-in wireless — USB Wi-Fi dongles are available, but this adds $30-$50 to the price of the unit (and you'll have to use one of the unit's two USB ports — those connections can also accept another hard drive (thumb or otherwise), a keyboard, or a camera so you can display pictures on your TV). Without a dongle, you’ll have to use a wired Ethernet connection to get at your streaming content.
HD Netflix videos are available in 1080p. The Live Hub is likely upconverting the 720p feed, similar to what other devices are doing right now. Upconverting SD content to 1080p is decent, though more detail can be had from a decent Blu-ray player doing the same conversion from Netflix. Blockbuster and CinemaNow don't seem to offer HD, so personally I don't find them useful.
The main interface of the WD TV Live Hub is slick and by far the most attractive in this group. And file playback using your computer as a source is much faster than other DLNA products I've used, including the Boxee. The interface makes it a little hard to find what you're looking for, but I've used worse. Transferring files to the device’s onboard drive is simple: drag and drop from your computer, and from your PC (or Mac) you can use an intuitive web browser interface to access settings, modify what the remote's buttons do, and play music from the hub's hard drive on your computer. The only thing it doesn't do is let you control music playing on the hub (as you'd be able to do with iTunes and an Apple TV, via AirPlay).
Compared to the Boxee — which shares its price point — the Live Hub has vastly less access to streaming content. Where the Boxee looks outwards and pulls in, the Live Hub looks inwards, and streams out. If you have a big family with lots of different music, being able to back it all up in one place is great. If you already have a backup for all your data, then the Boxee's extensive streaming options sure win out.
If you don't already have a backup solution for your digital content, the Live Hub’s 1TB drive and network streaming abilities make it an extremely compelling choice. As the adage goes: there are only two types of hard drives, those that have failed, and those that will fail. With everyone's pictures, music, and — increasingly — video existing only in digital form, not backing everything up is just foolish. The Live Hub makes that simple, adds in the ability to stream that content, and lets you get new content from the Web. Yes, it's more expensive than an Apple TV, but if it fits your needs I still highly recommend it.
Main Streaming Content Sources: Netflix, Blockbuster, CinemaNow, YouTube, Pandora, Deezer, SD card, USB, your computer.
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