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BW Businessworld

More Than The Soaps

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For decades, the television has been the centrepiece of the Indian middle-class home. Golden oldie Bollywood delights, saas-bahu serials, un-missable cricket and, of course, the high drama that passes for news — all of it has been the fabric of family quality-time.

It was only a matter of time before the television smartened up to keep pace with the always-online, media-rich, information-filled world of today. It can get smarter and become Internet-enabled via several technology routes. For one, the television itself can house a system to take itself online. Set-top boxes and services can also Web-enable it. But there is also one little product that can let you do a whole lot more on your television set at relatively little cost. It's a slim, unobtrusive black box that can make your television even more central to your home.

The box — called the WD TV Live Hub —has been around for a while, but it has not got the attention it deserves. It is made by the storage experts, California-based Western Digital. Now in its fourth generation, the Live Hub comes from a confusing category of products called media centres. Or media players. Or media servers. It all depends on what they do the most.

Call it what you like, but I tend to think of the Live Hub as a big hard disk (1 terabyte), which is also clever enough to get your television online. The reason it's a hub is because it can house your movies, videos, photos and files in its roomy interiors and stream them to your television. Not only that, the quality of videos and movies upscales to hi definition — and does so very well, according to reviewers.

Here's how it works: you connect the box to your television, plugging it in with an HDMI (high-definition multimedia interface) cable or, in the case of an older television, with the regular composite and component video cable. And then you can access your files, photos and videos and even stream them to the television from the PC via free media- server apps such as PS3 Media Server or TVersity — compatible with the WD Live Hub. You can attach an additional hard drive or computer to get at more media — or access your home network drive (also a product available from WD) or stream from the Live Hub to other devices via the home network. The rear of the device also has almost all the connections including an Ethernet port, audio out and USB. There is one USB input on the front panel, for easy frequent access.

But the best part is that the Live Hub upscales your videos to high definition, and plays back almost any video format and audio container you throw at it. The maximum upscale goes up to 1920x1080p, what we currently know as Full HD. And, according to reviewers, does a pretty good job of it too.

When you hook this box up to your television set, you get a neat tiled interface. I think everyone has figured out that human beings love square tiles — the more colourful, the better. The Live Hub's interface is named Mochi, for some inexplicable reasons. That could be because someone at WD is either fond of Japanese rice cakes or Indian cobblers. Anyway, it's neither here nor there. But the interface can be customised with your own pictures and leads you to your videos, music, files, etc., apart from the usual setup stuff. Even though the name of the user interface may be a bit tacky, it is visually the best out there across all high-definition media players, by far.

The smart part now comes in when you attach an Ethernet cable to the mix. Now, you have access to the Internet and various television apps and services including the weather from AccuWeather, Facebook, Twitter, radio and other apps, depending on where you live.

In the US, Netflix and Pandora have been big draws on the Live Hub, but neither of these, of course, is available to India. The Internet capabilities also allow you to download movie information (also known as scraping) complete with posters and fan art.

To input text to the apps, you need to attach a keyboard (wireless or USB) or use the onscreen keyboard via the remote. The virtual keyboard is fine to navigate, but more than a few moments on Facebook or anything else where you type full sentences will get too fiddly. WD TV Live Hub has a few companion devices that help you set up a whole network with fairly seamless movement of media files.

The Live Hub costs just under Rs 12,000, which is a lot if you think of it as just a big a hard disk, but very little if you consider that it enables you to do so much more on your television screen.

mala(at)pobox(dot)com, @malabhargava on Twitter

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 01-08-2011)