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9/26/2010


Why I’m Annoyed with Western Digital and Others

Filed under: General — Charlie Summers @ 2:05 pm

As some of you know, I used to be the proud owner of the Western Digital TV set-top box (wonder why we still call ‘em “set-top” when nothing can sit on top of a flatscreen television?), but after my owning the device for less than a year, and Western Digital actually selling the device for less than two years, they “end-of-life’d” the first-generation WDTV. I was, understandably, unhappy.

So let me spend a moment talking about rapid EOL cycles, and why they are a bad idea. I strongly believe companies should support their devices for the expected life of the hardware, not whatever happens to be financially convenient for them. Understand, I am not suggesting perpetual feature improvements, although if early in the life-cycle of the product a company wanted to add something I wouldn’t be adverse. But I’m solely talking about bug-fixes here, repairs to problems in the software (usually called “firmware”) that operates the machine caused by the programmers making a mistake. Mistakes happen, of course, but we are all getting way too comfortable with software not working properly.

Why? Well, let’s take the first-generation WD player as an example. Among the many bugs in the machine is the well-publicized Matroska compressed header bug; basically, for years the MKV specifications included support for “compressed headers;” the ability to include information repeated in each frame to be placed within the header once, theoretically saving space within the file. This wasn’t actually used until relatively recently, when the mkvmerge application defaulted to it. If this is used in the audio track, the audio will not play in the WDTV (although it does in computer-based players like VLC), and if the compression is in the video track the WDTV will literally lose its mind trying to play the file as an audio file, failing, and refusing to play anything else until you perform a hard-reset on the device, resetting all of your options to default values.

Western Digital sold the device on its ability to play Matroska files, and it can’t. This isn’t a change to the Matroska specifications, it’s been there for years. Therefore, there is an obvious bug in the playback software that should be fixed.

And this isn’t expensive; there are a couple of programmers who maintain the entire line. Any fixes applied to later players could relatively easily be back-ported to the first-gen machines. And once again, I am not asking for anything Western Digital didn’t promise before I bought the device! I am merely expecting them to fix the obvious bugs in their device. And there are other documented issues with these devices…MP4 sync issues, etc., etc. - check out WD’s own forums to see the number of reproducible problems with the first-gen WDTVs.

It all comes down to, “Hey, we’ll fix the new player, and the customers can shell out for a new one.” This is, to me, an unacceptable attitude to have. And since the only way consumers have any power is how we spend our money, I have no intention of purchasing another WDTV again…ever. And I’m unlikely to purchase a Western Digital hard drive, either, since I don’t trust the company to stand behind anything they manufacture. I realize some of you find this harsh, but perhaps if we stop purchasing from companies who refuse to fix problems with their equipment, the whole EOL-as-quickly-as-possible mentality will disappear. Well, hey, one can hope, anyway.

Stick around, though…to replace the bug-riddled and never-to-be-fixed WDTV, I’ve purchased a Patriot Box Office, and will be writing a comprehensive review of this machine as soon as I can.

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