The WD TV Mini Is Just Not Mighty

wd_tv_miniWhen I first saw the teensy-tiny WD TV Mini, I thought I was in love. This small multimedia player — slightly bigger than a man’s wallet — was the set-top box for me, I thought. I pictured it sitting, almost unnoticed, next to my TV, playing my video, music and photos back on my big screen. But once I actually started using the product, that dream came to a crashing halt.

Let’s start with what’s good about Western Digital’s (s WDC) TV Mini: It’s cheap (only $99.99) and easy to use. You plug it into a power outlet and then connect it to your TV using one of the included cords (composite A/V or component Y Pb Pr; no HDMI connection is offered). It has no built-in storage and does not connect to your home network to transmit content; instead, it has a USB port on the back for connecting your own drive. You can connect a USB-based hard drive, a small thumb drive, or even a camcorder with a USB connection.

The WD TV Mini’s on-screen menu is a bit bland (it’s all black and white), but very easy to browse. You’ll see folders for videos, music and photos, and your content is automatically placed in the right folder when you connect your drive. Navigating through the folders and playing back content are also a breeze, thanks to the well-designed remote.

Western Digital touts the TV Mini’s ability to play back “many popular file formats” including Real Video files, but this is where the product stumbled in my tests. It won’t play back WMV and high-resolution H.264 files. It does support a range of other formats, though, including Xvid, MPEG 1/2/4, VOB, MP4 and RM files.

My second complaint about the WD TV Mini is its video quality. Western Digital says the product can upconvert content to 1080i, and I tested it on a 720p TV. When using the composite A/V connection, the picture was pretty bad. I wouldn’t say that the video was unwatchable, but it certainly wasn’t enjoyable. I tried adjusting the settings using the player’s settings menu, but was unable to improve the video quality until I switched to the component connection. Here, I was able to adjust the settings to a 720p display, and the picture looked much better.

To be fair, the WD TV Mini is designed to be something of a “lite” version of the company’s two more capable WD TV products. The $130 WD TV includes support for both WMV and H.264 files, while the $150 WD TV Live adds the ability to connect to your home network for streaming files and to the Internet, for accessing sites like YouTube. Both of these are a bit bigger than the WD TV Mini, but they also are full HD 1080p players with HDMI connections. Personally, I’d happily pay the $30 or $50 premium to get their full range of HD features.

The WD TV Mini proves that Western Digital makes easy-to-use and affordable products. In fact, if you can live without WMV and H.264 files, you’ll probably love this device. But, for me, those omissions are deal breakers.