Last year we reviewed Seagate's FreeAgent Theater+ Media Player and generally liked what we saw, particularly the device's ability to play back most file formats. For 2010, Seagate has put out an updated version of that product that offers very similar features but has a more compact design and a built-in slot for the company's GoFlex external USB hard drives, which conveniently work with both Windows and Mac computers.
A USB media player allows you to view on your TV multimedia files that are stored on your computer, without much fuss. Of course, game consoles such as the PS3 and Xbox 360 offer similar functionality as part of their extensive repertoire (as do some Blu-ray players), but products like Seagate's FreeAgent GoFlex TV HD are targeting a more price-conscious consumer who doesn't want--or need--to deal with a full-fledged console.
Like the FreeAgent Theater+, this model offers a component video connection, HDMI with 1080p output (for easier hookup to an HDTV and higher maximum resolution), an Ethernet connection (for streaming digital media files over a network), and excellent file support (it reads a lot of files). Currently, this model comes in only a bare-bones "bring your own drive" version. The built-in slot will accommodate Seagate's standard GoFlex drives (320GB and 500GB), but models with capacities of 750GB and 1TB are physically larger, so you'll need to plug them (and non-Seagate drives) into the USB port.
Design and setup
Capacities aside, that integrated slot is actually one of the strong points of the Seagate media player, which now has a smaller footprint and isn't much bigger than a cable or DSL modem. The idea is that you connect your FreeAgent GoFlex drive to your computer, drag various image, music, and video files onto it, then slide it into the slot on the GoFlex TV HD, which remains connected to your TV (the drive does stick out a little from the front of the bay). Alternatively, Seagate includes some software that puts an easy-to-use interface on the transfer and file organization process that makes things easier for less tech-savvy folks.
As with all these types of USB media players, you can connect other storage devices, whether they be hard-drive-based or flash-memory-based (a thumbdrive) via a separate USB port (two USB ports are available--one on the back of the device and one on the side). In other words, virtually any USB storage will work, not just Seagate GoFlex drives, though you lose the ability to hide your drive if you don't go with the GoFlex brand (at 500GB and smaller, anyway). The FreeAgent GoFlex TV lets you connect your digital camera to that same USB port and view photos--and videos--straight off the camera. It's also worth noting that this model plays back video from Flip Video pocket camcorders.
Whatever content is on the attached USB drives or devices will show up in an onscreen menu system or graphical user interface that we found fairly easy to use, though it lacks the slick design we've come to expect from Apple or Microsoft media player devices. If there's a small knock against all these types of players, it's that it takes a little while for the unit to initially recognize and load all the media files. It's not a huge delay, but you're not looking at the same kind of zippiness you've probably come to expect from connecting a drive to your PC or laptop and having the files show up in a few seconds (so long as everything is connected via USB 2.0).
You have a couple of options for connecting the FreeAgent GoFlex TV to your TV. For the best quality--and to view HD-resolution video of 720p, 1080i, or 1080p--you need to go with component video (a breakout cable is included) or HDMI connection. If you've got an older, non-HD set, you can opt for a composite video connection (cable also included).
For digital audio, you'll want to stick with HDMI or use the optical digital output. Both let you run Dolby Digital surround sound (if it's available as part of your video file) from the black box to an AV receiver, home theater in a box, or TV. A small remote control is included that gives you DVD-like playback options for your videos with increments of 2x, 4x, 8x, 16x, and 32x for forward/reverse and a slow-motion option.
Media playback and compatibility
Like the FreeAgent Theater HD+, this model supports playback of a wide variety of file formats. We loaded a variety of files--video, JPEG and PNG still images, and MP3 and WMA music--onto a 500GB FreeAgent GoFlex drive and a separate 8GB thumbdrive. The system had no problem identifying the files we had on both drives, and--except for one video file that had no sound--everything played back smoothly. That included at least four files that generally cause problems for most devices. Furthermore, video files in a variety of resolutions (including full 1080p) worked perfectly.
There's support for H.264 and AVC, which have become increasingly popular, as well as AAC audio, which is what you'll get from any iTunes purchase. (Note that current, DRM-free iTunes audio will play fine, but older, FairPlay-encoded iTunes files would first have to be upgraded to the newer, open format.) The previous model did a good job with images and the GoFlex TV also acquits itself well. It accesses even large files quickly and it has a nice selection of slideshow transitions (you can also play music in the background by putting MP3 files in the same folder as your slideshow images).