The timing was right when Tim asked if I wanted to compare a couple of inexpensive home multimedia players. For the last several years, I've been using a hacked first-generation Apple TV that has fit my needs well. But, it's four years old now and I know it won't last forever.
My Apple TV handles most standard-def content I throw at it and it has a great user-interface with full IMDB-based metadata support for my movie collection. But it doesn't do so hot with online content and its ability to handle HD content is non-existent. If I want to start using HD and access online content, I need to start looking for a replacement.
In this article, I'll try out two well-reviewed boxes that can stream full high-definition content from the Internet, play local content and retail for around $100. Which one is the better box? Let's dig in.
Box number one in my comparison is the latest version of the WD TV Live that I last looked at in February of 2010. Box number two is the Roku 2 XS, the latest generation of Tim's go-to Netflix and HuluPlus player. Both players can play an array of online services including Netflix, HuluPlus, YouTube and more. And if you'd rather use your own media, they can play that too.
This article won't be a complete review of these products, as we've covered them before and the basic features haven't changed much. Instead, I'll give a just a brief overview and then focus on how they do with respect to handling video content using their latest software builds. I also can't cover all the online services that these products support since both have a very large set. So I'll just concentrate on the most popular content providers for movies.
WD TV Live
The first box up is the WD TV Live. WD recently released an updated version of its entry-level streaming media player. The company has also trimmed the product line down to just the Live and its diskful sibling, the WD TV Live Hub.
The new TV Live has a more up-to-date squared-off look vs. looking like a WD MyBook NAS lying on its side. Figure 1 shows the back panel where you can see the connectors you'll use to hook it up.
Figure 1 : WD TV Live Back Panel
Along with the power, there's optical audio out, Ethernet, HDMI, USB 2.0 and a jack for composite AV. You'll find no vent, as the box runs silently without a fan and draws a paltry 5 W in use and 4 W when idle. An additional USB 2.0 port is located on the front panel. If you're looking to use one of the USB ports, supported disk formats include FAT32, NTFS and non-journaled HFS+.
If you're not prepared to use Ethernet for getting online, the box also has built-in 802.11b/g/n (2.4 GHz only). But, as usual for HD streaming, I'd recommend using the Ethernet connection. Contrary to this advice, I ran a quick wireless test that had no problems playing 720p content from the Internet. But that's because 720p from the Internet is coded so that it has a much lower bitrate.
Figure 2 shows the 38-button(!) remote used for the WD TV Live.
Figure 2: WD TV Live Remote
As far as supported services, check out the product page for the complete list. But in general, you'll find music, movies, and photo services along with weather and Facebook support. For access to local content, the Live is DLNA certified, allowing you to stream videos, photos and music from local servers on your network.
Roku 2 XS
Next up is the Roku 2 XS. Figure 3 shows the connectors available on the back panel of the Roku 2 XS.
Figure 3: Roku 2 XS Back Panel
There's a bit of a difference here between the Roku and the WD TV Live. For starters, the Roku only has a single USB 2.0 port and it's located on the side instead of on the back. But similarly to the WD TV Live, there's HDMI, Ethernet and composite AV jacks.
Also like the WD TV Live, the Roku runs fanless and has internal 802.11b/g/n support for those who don't have Ethernet handy at their entertainment center. I didn't do extensive testing with wireless use, but a quick test showed a few Netflix buffering pauses when displaying HD content vs. none seen when using Ethernet.
A unique feature on the Roku is a slot for a micro SD card, which can be used to expand the internal channel/app storage. But unlike drives plugged into the USB port, you can't play content from the card.
As far as power draw, I initially suspected that I was measuring wrong as my Kill-a-Watt meter was showing only 1 W both active and idle. But a Google search turned up others reporting the same draw, so this box is efficient!
One oddity that struck me with the Roku is boot time. I originally thought that something was broken because after it was powered on, it took nearly 2 1/2 minutes before it was usable. Luckily, since it draws so little power, you'll likely just leave it on all the time. If you're going to plug in an external USB drive, FAT, FAT32, NTFS, and HFS+ disk formats are all supported.
For content support on the Roku, check out the product page where you'll find a more extensive set of channels than the WD TV Live. Along with content channels, games such as Angry Birds are also available. The remote for the Roku 2 XS (Figure 4) even has gyroscopic capabilities for game playing.
Figure 4: Roku 2 XS Remote
One big upcoming channel announced recently for the Roku is HBO Go. But you have to be an HBO subscriber on your cable or satellite service to get it. Unlike the WD TV Live, the Roku doesn't support DLNA, so you won't be streaming content on your local LAN.
Average user rating from: 4 user(s)
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|User Rating [Back to Top]||Overall:||3.8||Features :||3.5||Performance :||3.8||Reliability :||4.3|
February 10, 2013
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I bought the unit refurbished from E-Bay. The first time I tried to use it it required a software update and using the wireless connection with my linksys It would fail and show a code 011 or 014. I found the only way I could do a software update was to connect to my Modem direct and then the update took fine . I then returned to the wireless setting and everything work as expected. once I got past the start up problem the unit works very well and I am very satisfied with the Roku 2xs.
December 08, 2012
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i had the roku and you just need to install Plex server on your computer and Plex client on roku, you can watch what you want and where you want with this setup.
comment on seamless integration
May 15, 2012
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Just a comment on the menus (do you want to quit) and " You get the feeling that each source is its own little island and you have to mentally change gears to move from source to source."
I don't find this as a problem at all. Each content source IS essentially it's own little island, and while it would be cool to have all your content mashed up into one simple interface, that's not something I really expect as long as the content is being offered via different companies. White kind of company would want to forgo all of their branding, and give up control of how their content is served to their customers (not just the content, but their ability to serve ads or anything else for that matter). There's just no way that's going to happen, and that makes complete sense to me. When I leave their service to go back to my Roku menu, the idea that I'm 'quitting' also makes sense... This is pretty much how it is on every device I've ever seen that lets you use these services (roku, wd tv, ps3 etc).
I can concede that maybe those concepts are more intuitive to people who are more 'techie', and maybe not to the mainstream consumer, but until we have one service to rule them all I think that's something people are going to have to get used to... not really a fault of the devices themselves as they have no control over that.
A few corrections...
November 29, 2011
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I have both of these players and just want to correct a few things in this article:
-Games ARE supported on WD TV Live. Also, The Roku HD/XD both support games if you buy the gaming remote for an additional cost, not just the XD and aside from that, there are games that don't utilize the gaming remote. The Roku's gaming remote is a neat idea, but the Bluetooth connection runs through batteries very quickly, even when just using it for streaming videos.
-On the WD TV Live, it will pull cover art, backdrops, and movie information for your local video files if they are named appropriately. Plex is a free app for Roku that will transcode and stream video files to your Roku, it even pulls movie covers and information for them just like the WD TV Live does. It doesn't play everything, but greatly broadens file support and opens enables network streaming.
-You can fast-forward and rewind just fine. It doesn't jump to different scenes. You use the ARROW buttons for small steps and the FF/RW buttons for large jumps in video. Maybe this is what you meant and your wording was confusing.
-This article goes into detail about the UI of streaming services, but doesn't even mention the actual system menus and doesn't show any screenshots of the actual user interface of either product. I personally think this is pretty important and personally prefer the WD TV Live UI, as I find the Roku's too static and simple, lacking the animation, theming, weather widget, etc.
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