It’s been obvious for the past five or more years that networked storage devices were going to become increasingly important in the digital media world — too much power and built-in hard drive capacity are wasted by keeping all of your videos, photos, and music on a computer that’s constantly turned on so that other devices can load files from it. A much better alternative is to have a standalone storage unit that sits on your home Wi-Fi network, consuming less power, while streaming files only as requested by your devices. But creating a truly great network storage device has proved to be challenging for a variety of reasons, and Apple hasn’t made it easy for such accessories to communicate with its digital media products. Even Time Capsule, Apple’s own wireless hard drive, doesn’t automatically share its files with iTunes, Apple TVs, or other iOS devices, a feature that seemed like a “must” when Time Capsule was announced, yet hasn’t been added.
On paper, Western Digital’s new My Book Live (1TB/$150, 2TB/$200, 3TB/$250) comes closer than Time Capsule to our vision of the ideal network storage device. To start with the positives, even the lowest-capacity version has enough room to store plenty of music, video, and photos for access from multiple devices, and Western Digital advertises two ways to stream files from the drive: first, iOS devices can access its music, photo, and video contents with a free WD 2go application, and second, WD claims that iTunes can automatically see My Book Live as a shared volume for music and videos. Note that neither of these features is supported by Apple’s Time Capsule. Additionally, My Book Live can serve as a backup drive for Mac OS X’s Time Machine and Windows equivalents, which in theory would make it seem decidedly superior to a Time Capsule—you get all of the backup functionality, plus media serving functionality, at much lower prices than Apple’s.
Perhaps not surprisingly, there are some hitches. Unlike Time Capsule and many other networked storage units, My Book Live does not actually have Wi-Fi hardware built in.
Instead, you need to connect it to your existing router via an included Ethernet cable and the drive’s rear Gigabit Ethernet port. Thankfully, this wasn’t a serious issue during our testing, and probably won’t be a problem for most users, either; because of the high-speed wired connection and 100MB/second read speeds, it can simultaneously stream videos or other content to multiple devices without a problem, and Ethernet is a fast way to make your initial deposit of media content onto the drive. Another small hitch is My Book Live’s dependence upon a computer with an optical drive for initial setup—if you’re planning on using it solely with a MacBook Air, a recent model Mac mini, or iOS devices without having first set it up on your network using the included CD-ROM, you may find the process somewhat challenging. Our gut feeling is that most users still have optical drives in their machines and won’t be troubled by this, but a solution without dependence on a separate disc for setup would be even better.
When My Book Live is connected to iOS devices, the overall user experience is pretty solid. Load up the free WD 2go application for the first time and setup is relatively painless, with each device requiring one-time registration with the drive so that unauthorized users can’t access your shared media. Once that’s done, you’re quickly given a list of folders stored on the drive, including separate Shared Music, Pictures, and Videos folders that very quickly start to perform whatever you want to play through your iOS device, albeit without support for background music playback, album art, or related frills. The beige interface is nice enough, with separate iPad and iPhone/iPod touch interfaces, and fades away as desired when you want to bring a video into full-screen mode. Though you’ll have to do streaming on a per-item basis, selecting one video, song, or picture before manually selecting the next—a solution that’s more practical for videos than music—it does work.
Apple’s Home Sharing feature in iTunes is nicer, but then, it requires a computer to be turned on, and My Book Live does not.
iOS users will only be modestly annoyed to discover that Western Digital tries to sell a “WD 2go Pro” application for $3, so that it has an opportunity to make a few extra bucks off of “pro” features such as e-mailing files, sharing files as links, and automatic syncing of files and folders from the drive to your iOS device. While most of these features are in fact unnecessary for mainstream use of a network storage device, there really isn’t any great reason to put them in a separate application; once you’ve paid $150-$250 for the drive, the experience of getting nickel and dimed for an extra $3 feels unseemly.
Unfortunately, the iTunes side of the equation is currently more problematic. When we first began to test My Book Live on our wireless network, we were pleased—iTunes instantly recognized My Book Live, and displayed it as a Shared volume right below our list of Devices, offering access to music we’d placed on it. But after the iTunes 10.5 update, the software displayed a constantly spinning gear when attempting to load MyBookLive—a problem that didn’t exist until then. Western Digital’s Knowledge Base now explains that iTunes was able to stream videos up until version 10.3, and music up until 10.5, but is now not able to stream either because of Apple changes to iTunes. Worse yet, “there is currently no solution available,” and when we followed user guides that were online before iTunes 10.5 came out, we opened up a Pandora’s Box of other issues with the drive. While users can still access the drive’s contents with just a couple of clicks through Mac OS X or Windows, but media won’t play through iTunes; videos loaded instead through QuickTime.