When Western Digital introduced its smart WD TV HD Media Player earlier this year, which is designed to mate portable hard drives with big-screen TVs, we knew it was only a matter of time before rival disk manufacturer Seagate would come up with something similar. Second-to-market products are often better than the ones that create a new niche, so expectations were suitably high around the office. In a strange twist though, Seagate’s FreeAgent Theater unexpectedly takes several steps in the wrong direction, much to our dismay and disappointment.
It’s a digital world, Seagate
The FreeAgent Theater’s biggest shortcoming is that it doesn’t have an HDMI port. It does support high-res video—at 720p and 1080i, but not 1080p resolution, mind you—but it does so using component video cables (it has composite and S-Video connections, too). If you’re the type of consumer who’s interested in streaming media from a portable hard drive, you most likely have a TV and probably an A/V receiver with at least two HDMI inputs. HDMI is rapidly becoming ubiquitous, so its omission on a digital product like this is puzzling at best and annoying at worst—why does Seagate insist on making the video digital-to-analog conversion in its own box? Including an HDMI port would not only give you the choice of using your own outboard gear for this, it would also eliminate at least four cable connections.
The FreeAgent Theater does provide a means of piping digital audio to an A/V receiver or outboard digital-to-analog converter, but only by way of coaxial S/PDIF—it has no optical S/PDIF port. Coax cables are far superior to optical cables in terms of making solid connections between source and destination, so the absence of an optical S/PDIF is less of an issue; unless, of course, all the coax inputs on your A/V receiver are already occupied. In that case, you’ll be stuck with analog stereo.
And where Western Digital’s device is sufficiently compact (3.94 inches wide by 4.94 inches deep) that it can be stashed in a handbag if you want to take it with you, Seagate’s box is nearly twice as wide and deep (7.2 inches by 7.08 inches, respectively). The primary reason for these dimensions is to accommodate Seagate’s line of FreeAgent Go portable USB hard drives, which can dock inside the FreeAgent Theater. Seagate cleverly takes advantage of the extra size by including buttons for navigating the device’s menus and for media transport control (play, pause, and stop). The device can also host any other USB storage device or digital camera with a USB port; the menu buttons will work with those devices, too.
The model we reviewed is street priced at $195 and includes a 250GB FreeAgent hard drive, a USB docking station, and software that’s capable of synchronizing the digital audio, video, and photographs stored on your PC’s hard drive with the portable drive. That’s great if your digital library will fit on a 250GB drive (if it doesn’t, Seagate offers another model bundled with a 500GB FreeAgent Go drive, or you can use multiple drives), but we have two major gripes about the software.
We first tried installing it on our primary benchmarking machine, but it quickly informed us that it’s not compatible with 64-bit versions of Windows (and if your Windows machine has more than 2GB of memory, you’re most likely running a 64-bit version of the OS). We then tried installing it on the desktop-replacement laptop we use for writing and editing, but the software couldn’t make heads or tails of the RAID array (two high-performance hard drives configured to appear to the OS as a single volume) on that machine. We finally had luck with another, more conventional laptop that we use for benchmarking wireless routers. The software defaults to synching all the contents of your My Documents folder, so that both your portable drive and your PC always have the same files, or you can specify other folders.
No Blu-ray for You!
Products like this are supposed to eliminate the need to have a PC connected to your TV, so they should support all the media file formats you’re likely to encounter or use on a regular basis, and this is where the FreeAgent Home Theater disappoints us most of all. The most egregious shortcomings are related to audio and video files. The device supports DivX, Xvid, MPEG-1, and MPEG-2 (including VOB/ISO/IFO files, so you can rip a movie from DVD, store it on a disk, and play it on the FreeAgent Theater menus and all). But MOV, MP4, and DivX files must be housed in a DivX container and AVI files must be housed in either a DivX or Xvid container. The popular open-standard Metroska Multimedia Container (MKV) is supported, but only for housing MPEG-2 video. Thinking of ripping your Blu-ray discs and playing them here? Sorry, there’s no support for H.264 video.
The situation with audio files is only slightly better. The FreeAgent Theater can pass through Dolby Digital (AC3) surround sound and it can decode MP3, ASF, OGG, WAV, and WMA audio files, but it doesn’t support music purchased from Apple’s iTunes store (not even the unencrypted variety) and it doesn’t support any of the most common lossless codecs (e.g. Apple Lossless, WMA Lossless, or even FLAC). There’s really no excuse for not supporting FLAC, since doing so wouldn’t oblige Seagate to pay any royalties. The FreeAgent Theater doesn’t support any form of encrypted media either, but that should come as no surprise. The device does support the most common type of digital photo—JPEG—but that’s it; there’s no support for any of the other formats you’re likely to encounter (BMP, GIF, PNG, TIFF, etc.).
The FreeAgent Theater produces very good image quality, although it’s worth mentioning again that the device’s output maxes out at 1080i. Its internal audio DAC, on the other hand, is just plain dreadful. If you’re going to listen to music, you’ll definitely want to connect its digital coax output to your A/V receiver or an outboard DAC. No HDMI, no optical S/PDIF, video resolution limited to 1080i, no support for popular lossless audio codecs, no support for H.264 video, and support for just one digital-photo file format? Seagate needs to seriously rethink this product.
- Navigation and transport controls on the box
- Very good remote control
- Video-out is analog only
- Seriously lacking in terms of media file-format support
- Crappy audio DAC
- Bundled software incompatible with 64-bit Windows
- No optical S/PDIF