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Seagate FreeAgent Theater HD Media Player Review


The FreeAgent Theater HD Media Player is a pretty unique product, and in some ways it’s the first of its kind. There are an assortment of multimedia hard drives out there that are designed to carry multimedia content like videos and music from your computer that will play on to your TV. However, with these types of products you are locked in to that specific hard drive. The FreeAgent Theater on the other hand is just a hub. In a way you can think of it as a DVD or VHS player with its own built in software that plays movies off of a medium. In this case, the medium’s format is actually the popular Seagate FreeAgent Go Harddrives.

The FreeAgent Theater hooks up to your TV to play video, photo and audio files off of a docked FreeAgent Go Hard Drive. So lets say you downloaded some videos (torrents, cough) that you would like to watch on your TV instead of being constrained to your computer, all you have to do is sync the video or photo or audio file on to your FreeAgent Go hard drive and then dock the hard drive in to the FreeAgent Theater which in turn connects to your TV. If you have several FreeAgent Hard drives, you can easily swap them out. Want to set a side one FreeAgent Go hard drive for photos, while another one just for your Dr. Who collection? You can keep it organized in that way too and when you’re ready to play the files, just plop it in to the FreeAgent Theater. You can even rip DVDs on to the hard drive so that you can essentially play DVDs on the FreeAgent Theater, complete with menus and subtitles. The FreeAgent Theater also sports an impressive amount of support for different file formats. Here are the specs from Seagate themselves.

Supported Formats:
Video: MPEG-1, MPEG-2 (AVI/VOB/ISO), MPEG-4 (AVI/DivX /Xvid)
Subtitles: SAMI(smi), SRT and SUB
Video resolutions: NTSC 480i/480p; PAL 576i/576p, supports video (HD and upscaling) up to 720p/1080i*
Audio: MP3, AC3 (5.1 audio – Dolby® Digital) WMA, WAV, OGG
Photo: JPEG files up to 20 megapixels
* supports MPEG-4, Xvid up to 1280 x 720 60fps and supports MPEG-2 and photos up to 1920 x 1080i 30 fps

The FreeAgent Theater itself is easily portable, and pretty lightweight. It’s got a glossy black exterior that wlll blend in well with most home theater systems, yet it’s much smaller than your average home theater component – size-wise it’s on par with that of a portable DVD player. You can easily transport it to a friend’s house and share your videos and multimedia, by just hooking it up to their TV. A small black remote is also included with the FreeAgent Theater.

The FreeAgent theater comes with simple fold out set up guide and a software disc containing Windows-only software. The FreeAgent Theater software lets you manage the different FreeAgent Go drives you may be using with the FreeAgent Theater. It also enables you to easily sync your media files on to a FreeAgent Go Drive, automatically or manually. The software is straightforward and easy to use. However, Mac users are out of luck. Also, even though the device supports VOB files from DVDs, the system does not come with DVD ripping software, so you’ll be left to your own resourcefulness if you want to transfer the contents of a DVD on to the FreeAgent Theater.

The interface is clean and very easy to use. It is designed much like other Media Center software, though not quite as sleek as something like Windows Media Center. Even novice users will be able to get up and running with the interface right away.

Video Quality:
The device has the ability to playback HD videos up to 720p/1080i via upscaling. In practice, video files and photos – especially HD video, looked good on my 42″ 720P Samsung Plasma. We played back a 720P AVI file that had been filmed on a digital camera and also tested a HD DIVX movie file. Both played back without a hitch and were pleasant to watch on screen. Photos looked good on screen as well. The FreeAgent Theater will automatically turn your photos into a slideshow.

You can connect the FreeAgent Theater to your TV via Composite, S-video, or Component video connections, and for audio – the FreeAgent Theater provides Stereo, and coaxial S/PDIF connections. AV Cables are included to connect the FreeAgent Theater to your TV. However, if you have an HDTV – you’re gonna want to use component cables if you really want to experience the best image possible.

Another notable feature of the FreeAgent Theater to its credit, is that it can connect to other drives via a USB connection. However, one aspect of this system that does concern us is that while the FreeAgent Go Hard drives do have a solid shelf life, eventually the FreeAgent Go hard drives will be updated with new models. So our question is, what will happen when you want to buy additional hard drives to use with the FreeAgent Theater for docking? We hope that Seagate has the foresight to make future hard drive models compatible with the system as well.

The FreeAgent Theater HD Media Player delivers an easy to use home theater experience for those who want to easily playback their multimedia files on their Televisions. It’s a great affordable alternative to complex media center PCs and other wireless solutions. The device is easy to set up and to use, and it also is conveniently portable. Unfortunately we’re disappointed in the lack of Mac support and we long for at-least a native resolution of 720p and an HDMI port so that users could really appreciate the advantages of bringing their multimedia files on to the big HDTV screen in their living room. That said, we imagine that the FreeAgent Theater will be popular with pack rats who have a lot of saved and downloaded media that they’d like to unlock off of their PCs and experience on the big screen. Also, in a way, the FreeAgent Theater is the answer to a modern day projector. Thus, it should also be popular with families who want to easily share and present movies, photos, etc without too much expense and complication involved. The FreeAGent Theater HD Media Player retails for $129.99 without a FreeAgent Go hard drive. Packages with a 250GB drive and a complimenting FreeAgent Go dock are available for $229.99 and a version with a 500GB hard drive retails for $279.99 .

The good:
Very easy to use, Solid amounts of files supported including Divx support, can play off ripped DVD files, portable, good video quality, good user interface

The Bad:

Software not available for Mac, would have liked to see HDMI included.

Update 03/09/09: While the FreeAgent Theater does not support MOV formats out-of-the-box, third-party software is available to convert MOV (H.264) video to either MPEG-2, Xvid or DivX format which can then be viewed using FreeAgent Theater. The FreeAgent Theater media player also supports MPEG-1, MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 formats, and DIVX files with video resolutions for NTSC, PAL and HD up to 1080i and even provides support for subtitles.

Update 03/17/09: It turns out that Mac users are not totally left out in the cold if they want to use the FreeAgent Theater. If someone wants to use their Mac with the FreeAgent Theater – they must connect a hard drive to it that is a FAT 32 formatted drive. In which case they could connect an external hard drive via the USB port on the FreeAgent Theater, or they could reformat a FreeAGent Go drive to Fat32 and then be able to use their Mac to drag and drop files on to it.