Hands on with Seagate FreeAgent Theater HD media player

Still playing catch-up from CES. You usually find Seagate inside devices that store media in your living room, but the hard drive giant is making a bid for more visibility with a player of its own.

Still playing catch-up from CES. You usually find Seagate inside devices that store media in your living room, but the hard drive giant is making a bid for more visibility with a player of its own. Its new FreeAgent Theater HD media player, due for release in March, is a bit different than competing units like Netgear's Digital Entertainer Elite EVA9150 and Internet TV Player (ITV2000), however.

Seagate FreeAgent Theater HD media player
For starters, it doesn't come with any built-in storage, as it's essentially a dock for Seagate's line of FreeAgent Go portable hard drives. (If you don't already own one, Seagate will be offering a FreeAgent Theater HD bundled with a FreeAgent Go drive.) Of course, it also offers a USB port to attach any kind of external storage to the unit. In other words, this isn't a media streamer, as it doesn't come with any wired or wireless networking support. And unlike many of those streaming devices, the player doesn't come with HDMI output, which provides the highest-quality digital connection between a video component and an HDTV. The Seagate rep I spoke with told me that this was a cost consideration, and that the component-video output the FreeAgent Theater HD provides will be fine for the mainstream consumers the device is intended for. There will be some people who will see there's no HDMI support and move on, but apparently the company isn't marketing to them. For older TV sets, the FreeAgent Theater HD sports S-Video and composite-video ports as well.

The player does do the usual playback of digital images, music, and video via the on-screen interface and included remote. Slide shows seem to be easy enough to create, with built-in transitions and the ability to add music to them. Audio support includes MP3, OGG, and WMA files, while the device can play video encoded in DivX, MPEG-1, MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 formats. My biggest concern with the FreeAgent Theater HD is file navigation, as the interface is presented more like the traditional folder-and-file structure found on a PC, without some of the spit-and-polish that competing devices present (particularly nice is the Linksys by Cisco Wireless Home Audio system's ability to show all of an album's tracks together even if they're located on separate computers). I also had trouble moving around the interface with the remote for the few moments I got to play with it.

The Seagate rep pointed out that one of the reasons the interface was presented this way is how people organize media on their computers, especially digital photos. Most people leave the file names that their digital cameras assign to images, which can make it tough to wade through them. The FreeAgent Theater HD does include a thumbnail preview of images, and even the Linksys system had to resort to a similar file-and-folder view for images. Still, I'm not sure the interface's semi-clunkiness is the best fit given the middle-of-the-road audience Seagate claims it's trying to appeal to.

Seagate will be offering the FreeAgent Theater HD media player for $129.99 or bundled with a 250GB FreeAgent Go for $229.99 or a 500GB drive for $299.99. If you need a portable drive and want the ability to display your digital media on your TV, it may not be a bad deal, but the price for the dock itself may be a little high considering its lack of networking support. Western Digital has created a similar (and similarly priced) system in its WD TV HD Media Player, so it will be interesting to see if either of these approaches will catch on compared to streaming players instead. What do you think?

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