Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Media Players: Western Digital WDTV HD Media Player v. Freecom WLAN 450

Western Digital vs. Freecom in a straight fight

I’ve owned a Freecom 450 WLAN media player for a year or more now, and it’s brought us much joy. With a 1TB drive installed, it’s been storing and playing all the family’s photos, music and movies since it was bought. However, there are things I didn’t like about it:

1. When showing photos, the HDMI signal flicks on and off, which is pretty annoying when it’s happening all the time;
2. The formats for playing video are limited;
3. It’s a chunky box, not too portable and a little whirry despite the fanless SATA drive configuration.
4. The GUI’s a bit bobbins. You can download new skins but I wasn’t risking that – I’ve seen some of the skins designed by hapless enthusiasts!

Also, updating the drive via USB was becoming a bit of a chore. I didn’t use the WLAN capability as I didn’t want to leave PCs switched on throughout the house to stream media through. I began thinking about getting myself something new a couple of months ago. Something simpler, shinier, cheaper...?

Then out of the blue, someone (Joby actually) put the Western Digital WDTV into the frame. I viewed the videos online, checked out the price and took the leap.

I bought from good old Amazon, using the free “deliver it when we feel like it” option and waited for 4 days. Then on Monday this arrived!

I was at work, so all I could do was excitedly post a picture of the box on twitter  and wait until I got home...

.. At home, we had a trip to Ikea planned but the temporary disappearance of our cat out paid to that (thank you Socks, oh and we’re glad you came back at bedtime, of course) so I could play with my new toy.

Firmware upgrade. I didn’t know how long my box had been in storage at Amazon, so I’d downloaded the latest firmware from the WD site to the root directory of my WD Passport. The WDTV doesn’t have any internal drives, you just hook up any USB drive and away you go. The player saw the upgrade it automatically and asked for an “ok” confirmation to install. The process took a while and seemed to have hung at 47%. I was just about to phone the freephone helpdesk when the bar inched along a little and finished it’s doings. The player rebooted itself and off I went!

Size. In size, the box is much smaller than I was expecting. This is a good thing. The transformer is built into the plug top so you don’t have an extra box to lug around, which is great. The main box is palm-sized, then you have your USB drive to think about, but it sits so nicely in the smallest of gaps. The photo on the left shows it behind the Freecom box, with my WD Passport attached.  On the right you can hardly see it, tucked sneakily in on the bottom shelf next to our 5.1 home cinema kit.

Playing. It seems to play all the media I have. The slideshows are great, with jerk-free transitions, if you discount some of the jerks in my photos :o) 
Video plays very well, including mp4 which my Freecom box couldn’t cope with. I’m really impressed with the music quality and the way it’s presented on screen. The GUI is intuitive and my only misgiving is that it doesn’t play music while there are pictures showing, which was my favourite bit about the Freecom unit.

***Edit! Actually this is wrong, it was user error, and I'm the inept user.  Thanks to a comment by Brian (thanks, Brian!), I now set the music playing and then view the photos, and all is good.  Just remember to put the music on "Shuffle, Repeat" to make sure it doesn't finish before you've finished looking at photos.  I use this with the slideshow view of pics when we have guests round, it's lovely moving wallpaper. ***

In short, for about £70 delivered I love this new shiny black toy. If I were you, I’d buy it if you have any media stored on a USB drive. It’s quick to set up, easy to use, excellent quality to play and looks the business with your other AV gear.

Tell ‘em Phill sent you!

Friday, 21 August 2009

Getting My Kicks on Route 66

Getting My Kicks on Route 66

I first spotted our house on a ride with my kids, when my son pointed out the nice new houses that were being built on the other side of the canal, along our ride to Hollingworth Lake. Six months later we’d moved in!

I now know, to my delight, that we live on Route 66 (Sustrans, not the trans-American highway). You can get from Manchester to Kingston-Upon-Hull on Route 66, but last night I used about 3 miles of the Route along Rochdale Canal as the start of my loop.

After leaving the canal I headed uphill to Hollingworth Lake and my timing was perfect. Dusk was falling so I sauntered around the Lake with my little LEDs blinking, admiring the sunset before peeling off along Wildhouse Lane between the rolling fields and into a bugger of a headwind. Never mind though, the views were lovely.

To avoid a steep downhill road in the dark, I hung a left near The Gallows pub and meandered gently through the back streets of Milnrow before joining the main road and heading back home.

It’s only an 8 mile loop, well maybe a little more, but it’s a lovely one on a warm (if windy!) evening. And it’s one I’ll be doing again!

View Hollingworth Lake Milnrow Loop in a larger map