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Hands-on with the WD TV Live, a $99 Roku-challenger

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For most users, a Roku set-top box is a way to access Netflix or Hulu Plus on their TV and nothing more. While the company has been expanding in different areas (custom channels, Angry Birds), it's still a Netflix box for those without a connected TV or game console.

So what if a competitor could take that same accessibility and low price and add in one more feature: easy access to files stored on networked computers? Then you'd have a dramatically more useful device, and Roku would be in trouble.

That's what WD has done with the WD TV Live Streaming Media Player, which was released on Thursday. For $99, it delivers popular streaming services plus networked files. That's a trick Roku hasn't learned yet. It's also more flexible with USB drives. Unfortunately, it doesn't work as smoothly as expected.

Setting up the WD TV Live

The WD TV Live is a compact device measuring 4.9- by 3.9- by 1.2-inches. It's just slightly larger than the latest line of Roku boxes. While it has an HDMI port, it doesn't ship with an HDMI cord. Instead, it comes with a composite AV cable that plugs into a set's analog ports. It's disappointing, but, to be fair, HDMI-enabled Roku boxes come with the same cable.

Basic setup is simple: select your home network and input the password, then do the same with your Netflix or Hulu Plus accounts. The WD TV Live works with Spotify accounts, which should endear it to that music service's subscribers. Roku doesn't yet work with Spotify.

The WD TV Live also comes with a remote that's comfortable to hold, but jam-packed with 37 buttons. Apparently, there's no one at WD with an eye for editing.

Interface

The home screen for the WD TV Live shows a lovely outdoor scene displaying your current weather, with content areas scrolled along the bottom. Users can open their videos, listen to their songs, subscribe to RSS feeds, or play a game. Online services are tucked into the Services screen. Since this is what users will want most often, we wished it was surfaced a little better.

Online content played back smoothly, whether video or audio. Navigating with the 37-button remote, however, is a chore.

Local Media

We had mixed results when playing back our own local media. We loaded a few video tracks on a USB drive, and found it simple to access the files. Okay, one MP4 video made the WD reset itself, but after a minute it was able to play the file. We love that the WD can play all popular unprotected video, audio, and photo formats. Roku boxes require video to be in one format only.

Accessing files on networked home computers, however, wasn't as simple. There are no on-screen instructions for setting it connections. That's a baffling omission, since this is one of the product's key features. The only written instructions in the box instruct users to download a 224-page PDF user manual.

The manual doesn't include instructions for Mac OS 10.7, and as that's what this writer's home computers run, that was a problem. A call to tech support (buyers get 30-days of free phone support) found this Knowledge Base entry for OS 10.7 users. It involves using Terminal and is only for advanced users.

At this point, we stopped trying. Home network sharing would be a great addition, but WD isn't able to make it simple enough. Even users running other operating systems will have to wade through the giant manual. Certainly, many will give up in frustration. Without that competitive distinction, we say stick with Roku, which is easy to use and also gives users Angry Birds.

The WD TV Live streaming media player lists for $99.99. The WD TV Live Hub, which includes 1TB of storage, goes for $199.99.

Note: We received the following response from WD public relations: "I just wanted to clarify that network share with WD TV Live is typically simple and intuitive but that with OS X Lion specifically, Apple unfortunately removed support for the open source SMB server. We are working on a fix for this, but there is currently a way for expert users to manually enable NFS share to make it work."

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