The Western Digital TV player is a great concept for under $100. But, is it well executed? For one thing, this little box packs a lot of features. The “WDTV” plays HD movies, music, picture slideshows, and more right on your TV. Firmware updates (of which there are already several) add even more features. Easy setup and it’s own remote control are some of it’s biggest selling points. And, compared to similar items on the market, the price is unbelievably low. But, there are glaring faults which may turn most people away.

This device has no storage on its own. It needs an external drive to function. However, the device was apparently designed with only thumb drives in mind. I don’t know how many people regularly end up with a single movie on a thumb drive they need to watch, but that is what the system is optimized for. The unit comes with two USB ports in an odd configuration- one in back and one on the side (for thumb drives?). Once you opt for something larger, trouble ensues. Plugging in a HDD enclosure gives you greater capacity, but the system has no 110v switched power port. Most desktop enclosures must be turned-off and on manually, and many don’t have switches. This forces you to plug-in the power the desktop enclosure each time you use it. Few enclosures have power switches on the back, fewer yet have firmware that sense USB power and shut themselves down when needed. All these are still rare.

Ahhh, you say. But what if you use a portable enclosure (2.5″ drive) that only requires USB power? Problem solved! Not quite. Most 2.5 enclosures use 2 usb ports- one for data, the other for additional power. Some ports can supply enough power through one port to drive a portable enclosure. Not the WDTV- You need both. But, remember the USB configuration of the WDTV- one port is on the side. The distance between the two ports is farther apart than most USB dongles can handle (by about 5″). Believe me, I stretched that thing until it almost ripped. How did that get missed in the design session?

If you hadn’t already noticed, these are just power concerns. I haven’t even mentioned the CONTENT. The thumb drive-centered design plays-out in another area. The stock firmware includes a horribly-designed media library feature. A thumb drive with only a couple of files is easily handled by the system. But, a 100gb+ drive with tons movies and even more songs and photos makes the system cryptic, slow, and useless. Luckily, you can NOW turn it off (thanks to one of the aforementioned firmware updates) and list everything by directory, but then you lose some functionality.

You might be wondering, who needs an external HDD when we have networks? Guess what, WDTV has no Ethernet ports. It has no wireless access. Even if you solved the HDD storage and power problems, you’ll still end up unplugging your HDD’s and carrying them over to the computer to load new movies. A complete lack of network functionality really hampers this unit. Considering the only easy fix is to buy a hybrid NAS drive..

(an external HDD the has both Ethernet an d USB ports and can act as a bridge between two devices- many have USB ports that can’t be configured that way)

..or an auto USB switch within 15 ft of a computer..

(AutoUSB Switches or “Printer” switches are rare devices that can automatically switch between 2 USB inputs allowing, in this case, a HDD to either be connected to a nearby computer or the WDTV unit, whichever is currently on)

..you just blew all that extra cash on something that would be obsolete but simply buying one of the slightly more expensive media center options (“Popcorn” system comes to mind).

The only bright light here is the extensive hacker community that has developed around this device.  Hackers have integrated some network functionality on the unit using USB-to-Ethernet dongles and Hacked firmware. Unfortunately, to make this work, you’ll need extensive experience in Unix, minor Unix programming, and training in setting-up Windows servers for Unix. Windows-only access is supposedly possible, but the WDTV hacking community can’t provide instructions for that trick. Some people have even got the unit to connect to the internet and stream online content. Though limited out of the box, this hardware seems to exhibit amazing potential. Oddly, even without these advanced features, much of the hacked firmware is actually better than the stock versions with the basic functions. I’m happy with the hacked firmware on my unit, and I don’t even use most of it’s so-called features. Also, they have discovered an un-built USB port inside the unit. It can be activated with a jumper and a soldered cable. Western digital could have chosen to solve many of this unit’s problems right out of the factory. Looks like western Digital had a good design, just DIDN’T WANT to build it. Odd.

My personal solution to the storage problem was a USB AutoSwitch and a long USB cable to my PC on the other side of the room for loading new movies. The computer can access the drive when it needs to, and WDTV can access the drive when the computer is off. My 500gb external HDD and the WDTV are connected to a single tiny power switch glued to the side of my TV. One button, and everything turns-on. I’ll just ignore the networking capabilities for now, or until a better solution is hacked.

The bottom line:

Unless you’re in a very specialized community of people that want to only load one movie at a time, the extra cash and time you’re going to have to spend to get the WDTV working properly could be better spent on something more robust. It’s a shame, really. This platform and design truly has a lot of potential. Maybe someday we’ll see a second version with ethernet and better USB setup.