Western Digital pushes into living room with WD TV

Western Digital may have uncovered the trick to getting into your living room: simplicity. Today, the company is launching its WD TV HD Media Player, a box that makes it very easy to listen to music or watch movies, home videos, and pictures on your TV.

The box isn’t hooked up to the Internet. You simply connect one of Western Digital’s MyPassport portable backup hard drives to a computer. You transfer everything you want to watch to the portable drive. Then you plug the backup drive into the WD TV. After that the WD TV can play the media on your TV screen via a standard TV cable or an HDMI high-speed wire. The WD TV box can play almost any multimedia file.

For consumers, this means it’s easier than every to watch home movies or view pictures of the family on a big-screen TV in full high-definition color. The need for this kind of solution will grow as we take more digital photos and home movies. According to research firm IDC, nearly 334 million GB of photos and more than 3.1 billion GB of video will be stored on consumer desktop and laptop computers in 2008. And that’ll grow dramatically by 2010, IDC says. Most of that data is trapped on the computer, says Scott Rader, product marketing manager at Western Digital.

It’s safe to say that there’s a lot of value in moving the stuff on your computer to your TV. That’s why there are so many contenders among living room boxes. The names include Vudu, Roku, Sezmi, the Xbox 360, the PlayStation 3, and Apple TV. But nobody has figured out how to do it perfectly. Steve Jobs, chief executive of Apple, said that the market for Apple TV still remains a hobbyist’s segment.

The problem is that many of these solutions are still too difficult to use. Part of the problem with Windows Media Center Extenders is that they rely on wireless Internet or wired Ethernet cables to move video from the PC to the TV. That makes it difficult to use and unreliable.

But the WD TV solution can play video at 1080p and play slide shows of pictures in just about any format, including H.264, Divx, or MPEG-2 in full 1080p resolution. The box costs just $129, not including the WD MyPassport or WD My Book backup hard drives. The box has two universal serial bus (USB) connectors so that you can attach hard drives, flash drives, and even Flip video players.

The box is a little slow at booting up and bringing up your content on the TV. But it’s easy to do. It collects the meta data, or identifying information, such as the name of a video or who made a particular song. If you have two hard drives connected to the box, you don’t have to look through multiple folders to find everything. The WD TV box aggregates the videos into the same folder. You can use a remote control to initiate a slide show or otherwise browse through your collection.

However, there are reasons why Lake Forest, Calif.-based Western Digital might fail in the living room. The company’s brand is known in the storage business, but it isn’t a household name. Seagate has the same problem and as a result has begun advertising its backup storage solutions on television this fall. But Western Digital isn’t going that far in putting its brand name in front of the consumer. Without such help, WD TV could be stillborn.

There are also failures among others who tried to grab a foothold. Hewlett-Packard created “digital media adapters,” which could take multimedia on a PC and wirelessly send it to a TV set. But WiFi wireless networking is still pretty unreliable at transferring HD video from one part of the house to another. Amid all the noise in the market, HP pulled the plug on the division making the adapters.

Another failure that’s much closer to Western Digital’s approach was SanDisk’s Sansa TV. That solution used flash memory to store data. You could transfer movies and other data to the PC by putting it on the flash memory drive. But SanDisk shut down the experiment. The drawbacks included limited 4-gigabyte storage and a lack of support for a wide number of playback formats.

WD TV goes on sale today on Western Digital’s web site. It will also be in Best Buy stores. The software for the box comes with ArcSoft Media Convert 2.5 software.


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