Western Digital enters crowded digital living room with new device

October 26, 2010

This holiday season, technology companies are singing a familiar refrain: “Everybody gather around the TV.” With Apple Inc and Google Inc already rolling out their devices to plug into the home television, the connected living room just got more crowded, as hard drive maker Western Digital Corp has updated its television media player just in time to compete with the likes of Apple TV and Google TV for the almighty holiday shopping dollar.WD TV Live Hub

Western Digital’s latest offering, the WD TV Live Hub at a price point of $199, is an update to the Lake Forest, California-based company’s  last media player. A key difference is this one comes with a 1 terabyte hard drive built-in, while the previous version had to be connected to an external hard drive for stored movies, music and photos. Western Digital also upgraded the interface on the device and gave it  a wireless keyboard made it compatible with wireless keyboards, which users can wield from the couch. Like the previous version of WD TV, this device has Internet connectivity. It can stream movies from Netflix, download films from Blockbuster, access a user’s Facebook page and more.

While Apple TV is priced lower at $99, that device is mostly geared toward streaming rented TV shows and movies over the Web, whereas Western Digital is taking a bet that users will want to download movies and TV shows, not just stream them. Hence that 1 terabyte of storage.

“While the whole industry is zagging toward streaming, we still think the hard drive has a place,” said Dale Pistilli, vice president of marketing for Western Digital, at an event at a studio loft in Hollywood, California, to unveil the device on Tuesday night.  

On another front, while Google TV is geared toward making almost the entire Web search-able and playable on a user’s TV,  WD TV Live Hub does not go that far — even though it does come with a keyboard. That search function makes U.S. broadcasters nervous out of a fear that users will migrate toward Web content and away from the shows that make up the meat and potatoes of the usual cable TV diet. Three of the biggest broadcasters have blocked their shows from Google TV. Western Digital is not seeking to rattle the cages of Hollywood with its WD TV Live Hub, and with its ability to store large amounts of downloaded movies (up to 120 hours of high definition video and 1,500 hours of video in standard definition) that users would pay for, the device is arguably more friendly to Hollywood than Google TV.

From a price perspective, WD TV Live Hub is cheaper than Google TV. Sony Corp this month unveiled a line of Google-enhanced sets that  cost between $600 and $1,400. Sony also unveiled a Google-enabled set-top box that costs $400.

Wired magazine took a lukewarm view of Western Digital’s last offering, the WD  TV Live Plus, faulting it in a review for having a “chunky remote that recalls the sophistication of your finer motel television set clicker” and adding that “video quality was hit-and-miss” for movies streamed over the Web.

But Wired seemed to be more impressed with the latest WD TV Live Hub, with writer Tim Carmody saying in an articlethat it offers a “compelling” model for storing and sharing content and playing it on the TV. Carmody did point out that he has not had a chance to try out the device to see how well its interface works.

That question will be up to consumers this holiday season. Will WD TV Live Hub be able to steal some of the thunder from Apple and Google, or will Western Digital get crowded out from the connected living room by its bigger rivals?

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