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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. FreeAgent Theater HD Media Player currently comes in three versions--two include FreeAgent Go storage drives (either 250GB or 500GB) as part of the package, while a third model is a "bring your own drive" version that retails for substantially less.
Previously we reviewed the Western Digital WD TV HD Media Player and the Iomega ScreenPlay TV Link, both of which are little black boxes that attach to your TV and read a variety of audio, photo, and video files from USB hard drives. Both are designed to be paired with portable hard drives that are loaded with media files. Unlike the Seagate FreeAgent Theater, however, neither Western Digital nor Iomega integrated slots for their own respective USB hard-drive products.
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 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 a user-friendly interface on the transfer and file organization process that makes things easier for less tech-savvy folks.
As with the Western Digital player, you can connect other storage devices, whether they be hard-drive-based or flash-memory-based (a thumbdrive) via a separate USB port. Seagate also makes it a point to note that you can connect your digital camera to that same USB port and view photos--and videos--straight off the camera (however, video from Flip Video camcorders is not supported natively).
Whatever content is on those drives or devices will show up in an onscreen menu system or GUI (graphical user interface) that we found fairly easy to use. If there's a small knock against all these types of media 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).
On a positive note, we liked how the Seagate displays a preview of the file on the right side of the screen when you highlight that file in the menu. All in all, we felt the Seagate's GUI was slightly snazzier than the Western Digital's.
You have a few options for connecting the FreeAgent Theater to your TV. For the best quality--and to view HD-resolution video of 720p or 1080i--you need to go with component video connection (unfortunately, no cable is included). On top of that, there are also options for an S-Video hookup (no bundled cable) or you can go with the included composite AV cables that are also used to pass analog stereo audio. For digital audio, there's a coaxial connection onboard that allows you to run Dolby Digital surround sound (if it's available as part of your video file) from the black box to an AV receiver or home theater in a box. 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.
The big question we had for Seagate is why it chose to go with a component video connection rather than the HDMI connection found on Western Digital and Iomega systems. Apparently, it involves the type of chipset the company chose to use (Seagate reps told us there are currently two options available to manufacturers). Seagate went with a chipset that allows for faster and better support for image viewing.
Part of the reason Seagate chose to go with the solution it did is because the company sees itself marketing the media player to average consumers who have a lot of pictures on their hard drives. If you fall into this camp--and intend on using the FreeAgent Theater as a way to display lots of photos on your TV--then you'll be pleased to hear that the player indeed does a good job with images. 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).
All that said, we should note that the PlayStation 3 does an even better job with images--and it has DivX support for playing back video files. Yes, it costs almost twice as much as this, but it also plays games, offers Blu-ray and DVD playback, and can access PC-based media files over a network.
The FreeAgent Theater also plays back DivX files and had no trouble with any of the AVI files we threw at it. We played a number of video file formats on both a small 17-inch TV and a larger 50-inch TV. 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, though component 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.
As noted, we loaded a variety of files--video, JPEG still images, and MP3 music--onto the 250GB FreeAgent drive that came with our review sample and a separate 4GB thumbdrive that we provided. Except for one video file that remained hidden, the system had no problem revealing what we had on the external drive and the thumbdrive.
One small issue: Like the Western Digital (and other media players of this ilk), you do have to point the small remote directly at the 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.
A more significant problem: The Seagate simply doesn't decode as many file formats as the Western Digital does.
Here's the list of supported file formats:
MPEG-1, MPEG-2 (AVI/VOB/ISO/MKV), MPEG-4 (AVI/DivX/Xvid)
JPEG files up to 20 megapixels
MP3, WMA, OGG, AC3 (Dolby Digital), WAV, WMA, M3U
As part of our tests for these products, we throw a few hard-to-read file formats at these players, and of the four files we loaded, the Seagate wasn't able to recognize any of them. Most notably, there's no support for H.264 and AVC, which have become increasingly popular. Nor does it support AAC audio, which is what you'll get from any iTunes purchase. And note that the "container" doesn't always imply support for the underlying format--for instance, one MKV file we had didn't play, because the underlying file used H.264 encoding. True, you can use a converter to make most video formats compatible with the FreeAgent Theater, but we're comparing native support to native support.
In the final analysis, before you purchase any of these types of media players, you'll have to ask yourself what you plan on using it for. This Seagate has some nice things going for it, including an attractive design and generally good performance (particularly when it comes to photo viewing). However, the Western Digital is more versatile in terms of file formats supported. And in our book, that trumps the Seagate's pluses.
Of course, if you already have a FreeAgent Go drive and are fine with the supported file formats in the list above, the bare-bones version of the FreeAgent Theater HD is definitely worth considering.