The SageTV HD Theater is akin to Western Digital’s WD TV HD Media Player in that it can stream music and video to your television independent of a computer—that means you don’t need a computer at all. Like that device, it’s outfitted with HDMI, composite, component, and S-video outputs, and analog and S/PDIF audio outputs. Also similar to the WD TV, the HD Theater delivers video resolution up to 1080p. But if you’re the type who expects to plug something in and have it just work, the SageTV HD Theater probably isn’t the right media extender for you. That’s not to say that the device is extremely buggy or poorly designed; it’s just most appropriate for people who like to tinker and share their experience on online forums.
Features and Design
SageTV’s box is twice as expensive as Western Digital’s, but it offers more than twice the functionality. And if you do connect it to a PC or a server (over a hard-wired Ethernet network only—it doesn’t support Wi-Fi) and add optional hardware and software to the mix, you can assemble a media system with all the features of a TiVO and a Slingbox rolled into one.
Considering the SageTV HD Theater’s plethora of options, especially when used in conjunction with SageTV Media Center, it’s unfortunate that the manufacturer provides only a skimpy 12-page user manual to help users figure out how to use it. If you buy one, expect to not only encounter a learning curve, but plan to spend some time perusing SageTV’s online user forms in order to take full advantage of all that it’s capable of.
We first tested the SageTV HD Theater as a standalone device, since that’s what you get for its $199.95 purchase price. The small enclosure is manufactured from heavy-gauge steel, a nice departure from the more typical plastic box. Despite the welcome absence of a fan (which enables the box to operate in complete silence), the device remained surprisingly cool; it shouldn’t have any issues with being tucked into an entertainment center cabinet. We connected it via HDMI to a 42-inch ViewSonic N4290p HDTV and via S/PDIF to an Onkyo TX-SR701 A/V receiver.
Connect the HD Theater to your home-entertainment system, plug a portable hard drive into the front or rear USB port and you can play your own media (e.g. music and movies ripped from disc, or digital movies or photographs captured with your own camera). Incorporate it into your home network and you can use your broadband Internet connection to pipe all sorts of free Internet video into your TV.
Supported Media Formats
The device supports most of the media codecs, container types, and file formats that a ripper might need (including MPEG, FLAC, H.264, QuickTime, and Matroska – please refer to the specifications page following this review for a complete list).
It does not, however, support any forms of DRM-protected media (such as you might encounter with Rhapsody, the Zune Marketplace or iTunes). It also does not support the WMA Lossless codec (we understand this is a hardware limitation, so support can’t be added via a patch or update). It also doesn’t support the MJPEG codec, which some still cameras use to encode videos while encapsulating them with audio in QuickTime. We’ll discuss this in more detail later. The HD Theater’s support for various photo formats is also disappointingly limited: It will display JPEG, PNG, and GIF files, but not BMP, TIF, or RAW files.
Hard Drive Support
We found that the HD Theater’s two USB ports deliver more than the typical amount of power over USB, but neither port could provide enough juice on its own to run every portable hard drive we tried. An old 20GB SmartDisk FireFly drive worked, for instance, but a newer 100GB Seagate drive didn’t (not surprising, since that drive is shipped with a two-headed USB cable to provide additional power by tapping two USB ports). A much newer 250GB Western Digital Passport drive also wouldn’t work (disappointing, but we also had problems with that drive requiring more power than can be delivered from a single USB port on some notebook PCs). Both the Seagate and the Western Digital drives worked fine when we used that two-headed cable to draw power from both of the device’s USB ports. Search the web for “USB cable dual power” if you need one of these.
Lacking only mass storage, the SageTV HD Theater is otherwise completely self-contained. It has its own operating system, its own couch-friendly and very responsive graphical user interface, and its own media player. A full-featured remote control is also provided. Connect the box to your networked broadband Internet connection and you can access a pre-populated list of online video sites, including YouTube, the Discovery Channel, Comedy Central, broadcast network news, and many others. When it comes to network and premium cable content, however, most of the entertainment programming is limited to abbreviated clips and promotional videos—commercials, basically.
There’s currently no out-of-the-box support for streaming content from the major online entertainment hubs like Hulu or Joost, so you can’t use it download recent episodes of network TV shows. Netflix subscribers can’t use the box alone to stream movies from that subscription service, either. In both cases, the limitations can be attributed to licensing issues, rather than any particular shortcoming of the hardware. A SageTV representative told us the company is working on integrating those services.
There is something of a work-around, however; purchase MediaMall Technologies’ PlayOn software ($30) and install it on a PC or server on your network, and you’ll gain access to both your Netflix and Hulu accounts. But you should be aware of two significant caveats: First, PlayOn is still in beta (there’s a 14-day free trial available). Second, the software does not “officially” support the SageTV HD Theater, so you’re unlikely to get much help from the folks at MediaMall if you have problems.
Our experience logging into our Netflix account was problematic, at best. You must add videos to your “watch instantly” queue on a computer—you can’t do this using the HD Theater. We were able to stream some TV episodes with no problems, but the HD Theater showed only the playlist files for the movies in our queue—not the movie files themselves. Netflix considers PlayOn an unauthorized client, so you won’t get any support from them, either. We had a better experience accessing network television content, including CBS and Hulu.
Image and Audio Quality
The SageTV HD Theater delivers excellent video quality and it has a very good onboard audio DAC (although most people will likely use one of its digital audio outputs). But crappy, low-res Internet video doesn’t look much better when it’s scaled up on a big screen—the box can’t put back what’s not there in the first place.
The device won’t function as a Windows Media Center extender either, so we also tested it in conjunction the company’s own SageTV Media Center for Windows running on an HP TouchSmart IQ506 PC, which has an integrated AVerMedia A327 TV tuner. And just to be thorough, we tested the SageTV Media Center add-in for Windows Home Server, too. We did not, however, test the Macintosh version of the software (all three versions sell for $79.95 each). Pairing the HD Theater with any version of SageTV Media Center and a TV tuner in a PC or server on your network creates a very powerful personal video recorder; adding SageTV’s Placeshifter software to the mix ($29.95 per client PC) lets you watch live or prerecorded TV on any PC anywhere you have Internet access. Placeshifter supports the Windows, Macintosh, and Linux operating systems. Unlike the similar Slingbox and Hava devices, however, SageTV doesn’t offer streaming clients for any handheld devices.
Using the SageTV HD Theater in conjunction with SageTV Media Center should have enabled us to watch QuickTime files encoded with MJEPG (which we’d created using a digital still camera). The server software is capable of harnessing a host PC’s processing power to convert files that the HD Theater can’t handle on its own, transcoding them in real time into a format that the HD Theater can deal with. All we got was a black scree, though. A representative from SageTV tells us the audio in our QuickTime files was encoded at a very low bit rate (8 Kb/sec), and that the current version of their software can’t work with it. They also tell us this is the first time they’ve encountered the problem and that a fix is in the works (unverified as of press time).
The SageTV HD Theater is a solid value if you’re the type of person who likes to do things for yourself, doesn’t mind dealing with a few rough edges and keeps an eye peeled for firmware updates, patches and upgrades. SageTV’s user forums offer a mother lode of useful information, but mining for the particular nugget you need can be an arduous experience—forums are certainly no substitute for thorough “official” documentation, even if it’s in the form of an online PDF. We’re also disappointed by the lack of support for Hollywood-backed online video services such as Hulu, and the absence of support for image file formats such as RAW and TIF.
If you don’t enjoy figuring things out on your own, you might find this device frustrating to set up. On the other hand, when you combine the HD Theater with SageTV’s other software products, you wind up with a very complete PC-based, networked entertainment ecosystem at a very reasonable cost. Add a few features, put on a couple coats of polish, and SageTV will have a killer product.
- Doesn’t rely on a computer
- Functionality can be extended with software that’s compatible with the Windows, Macintosh, Linux, and Windows Home
- Server operating systems
- Actively supported by a large user base
- Lacks in-depth documentation
- A little rough around the edges
- Missing support for some important file formats