If you're new to the whole USB media player category, it goes something like this: storage brands like Western Digital, Seagate, and Iomega are looking for ways to tap into the growing number of consumers who have multimedia files stored on their computers and want to bring them to their TVs 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 Theater+ Media Player are targeting a more price-conscious consumer who doesn't want--or need--to deal with a full-fledged console.
The model reviewed here is the "plus" version of the Theater HD, and it addresses many of the complaints we had about the early version that was released in April 2009. Instead of just offering a component video connection, the Theater+ adds HDMI with 1080p output (for easier hook-up to an HDTV and higher maximum resolution), an Ethernet connection (for streaming digital media files over a network), and better file support (it reads more file formats). Like its predecessor, this model comes in a bare-bones "bring your own drive" version ($150 list), as well as one that includes a 500GB FreeAgent Go drive that slides into a slot at the front of the unit and lists for $289. Any Free Agent Go drive, regardless of capacity, fits into the unit just fine, and the drive can be formatted for Windows PCs or Macs (NTFS, HFS+ or FAT all work).
Design and setup
That integrated slot is actually one of the strong points of the Seagate media player, which is relatively compact and sleek--it looks like a not-so-curvy mini Sony PlayStation 3 (the older, fat version anyway). The idea is that you connect your FreeAgent Go drive to your computer, drag various image, music, and video files onto it, then slide it into the slot on the FreeAgent Theater+, which remains connected to your TV. 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. In other words, virtually any USB storage will work, not just Seagate hard drives. The FreeAgent Theater+ also 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 new model plays back video from Flip Video pocket camcorders. (Most of these USB media players have trouble with Flip Video files--some, like the Popcorn Hour C200, can play the video but not the sound).
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 Theater+ 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 or HDMI connection (a component video cable is included). 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
In our review of the original FreeAgent Theater HD, we knocked it for not offering as robust file format support as competing models. For the Theater+, we loaded a variety of files--video, JPEG and PNG still images, and MP3 and WMA music--onto a 250GB FreeAgent Go 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 now 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.) The previous model did a good job with images and the Theater+ 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).
Here's the list of file formats supported:
MPEG-1, MPEG-2 (VOB/ISO), MPEG-4 (DivX/Xvid), AVI, XVid HD, MOV, MKV, RMVB, AVC HD, H.264, WMV9, VC-1, M2TS, TS/TP/M2T
SAMI (SMI), SRT, and SUB
NTSC 480i/480p, PAL 576i/576p, 720p, 1080i, 1080p
JPEG (up to 20 megapixels), BMP, GIF, PNG, TIFF
MP3, WMA, OGG, AC3 (Dolby Digital), AAC, ASF, FLAC, LPCM, ADPCM, WAV, as well as M3U and PLS (playlists)
Got something that's not listed here? Use a file converter (such as the freeware Format Factory) to adapt it to a FreeAgent-friendly version.
If you're dealing with a small TV, the picture looks pretty good whether you're connected via the standard composite (yellow) cable or component/HDMI, though component or HDMI will always look better. When you start to step up to bigger TVs and try to blow the picture up, you're limited by the quality of your file. The less compressed, high-resolution files will obviously look better.
Network and Internet features
The previous FreeAgent Theater HD was strictly a USB affair, but the new model adds network connectivity for streaming from PCs or networked-attached storage drives on your home network. The only problem is that the default connection is wired; adding the USB 802.11n Wi-Fi adapter accessory will cost you an additional $70 or so.
In our tests, we used a pair of powerline-to-Ethernet adapters to stream music and video files. We were able to stream from Windows, Macs, and NAS drives--no special software needs to be installed, but you do need to have enough networking knowledge to know how to share folders. And as always, the bandwidth of your LAN will have an impact on whether you can stream higher resolution HD files, particularly 1080p video.
While the FreeAgent Theater+ doesn't have an Internet browser, it currently offers a handful of Web applications that hint at future upgrades for the device. At launch, you'll be met with icons for Picasa, Weather, Finance, and Flickr, when you select the Internet tab in the menu options. They all worked fine, but the product would definitely benefit from additional apps (we expect Seagate to add more in due time via a firmware upgrade).
One small issue: like its predecessor (and other media players of this ilk), you do have to point the small remote directly at the infrared (IR) port on the unit to get the unit to respond. In other words, it's not superstrong IR, and you have to pay attention to where you're pointing.
In terms of value, the big unknown is how much the FreeAgent Theater+ will evolve (with more Internet-based applications). Game consoles such as the Xbox 360 and PS3, with their built-in hard drives, are also able to read and play back a wide assortment of files via USB and network streaming. On top of that, both systems have additional features that this box is missing: the 360 offers DVD playback, Netflix streaming, and online video rentals, while the PS3 has video rentals, excellent slideshow functionality for images, a Web browser, a Blu-ray player, and built-in Wi-Fi. On the other hand, the PS3 currently doesn't play back those Flip Video pocket camcorder files that the Theater+ has no problem playing.
The long and short of it is that the FreeAgent Theater will never be able to measure up to minicomputers like the PS3, but it's half the price of the Sony, and has the appealing traits of being compact and reading the vast majority of AV file formats out there, including a few the PS3 doesn't read. While we wished the Seagate offered Netflix streaming like the Roku box does, overall we liked it a lot, and have no problem recommending it, particularly if you already if own a Seagate Free Agent Go drive.
In the final analysis, Seagate has delivered the product that the FreeAgent Theater HD should have been in the first place. The improved connectivity and file support are big pluses--excuse the pun--and this model is a more robust device that stacks up well against its closest competitors.