Seagate FreeAgent Theater+ HD Review
HD Digital Media Player, $150
We are beginning to see 3D TVs roll out with great fanfare. But for me, the less heralded - but perhaps more important and definitely more ubiquitous - trend in consumer electronics can be labeled Connectivity.
I'm planning an article specifically about this movement that enables your TV to communicate with the Internet and your home computer network through a wide array of devices.
For now, let me focus on one of those connectivity devices, the Seagate FreeAgent Theater+ HD Media Player. After running it through its paces, I admit that I have never run across a box quite like this.
I can only imagine the Seagate designers' mission statement, "Make a box that can read and playback almost any file format of photos, music or videos that might be on a computer. Also, be able to connect to the Internet and stream content from a large range of providers. And, oh by the by, upscale everything to 1080p to display on an HDTV. One more thing, make it easy to use."
And for good measure, Seagate adds a slot for docking one of their sleek portable FreeAgent Go hard drives, which allows you to take your whole show on the road.
The FreeAgent Theater+ HD Media Player is one of those tools that you don't think that you need until you try it out. Then, especially if you have a lot of digital media, you may just find it indispensable.
(Editor's note: You can purchase the FreeAgent Theater+ HD Media Player without a Go drive for $150. Online, Seagate offers a package with a 500GB portable Go drive for $270.)
Out of the Box
The FreeAgent Theater+ HD Media Player is unassuming, basically a matte black box with a glossy top and an illuminated Seagate logo on the front.
The Go drive slips into a dock on the right side of the top. On the face of the player is one of two USB slots. This one is convenient for plugging in flash drives or digital cameras.
On the back, the connection panel supplies one HDMI out and one set of Component Video (YPbPr) outs.
If for some reason you want a Composite out, you plug the video cable into the Y connector.
The mini-jack labeled AV Out is a stereo analog Audio out. There is also a digital (optical) Audio Out.
You can either connect to the Internet via an Ethernet wire into the LAN port.
Or if you opt for wireless, Seagate sells the FreeAgent Theater+ Wi-Fi Adapter for $59.95. It plugs into the USB port on the back.
The six-inch long remote control couldn't be much smaller or it would be lost in the couch cushions instantly.
Even so, the colorful buttons are spaced far enough apart to punch independently.
I'll talk about connecting the Theater+ later. For now, let me explain what the unit can do once it is hooked up.
The main menu gives you five basic options. From there, you can navigate to any connected drive and the Theater+ will search for any and all movies, pictures or music in the supported file formats.
One of the great advantages of the Theater+ is the wide range of formats that it can read and playback. For example, almost all of the players that I have encountered can only read JPEG photos. This Seagate also supports BMP, GIF, PNG and TIFF formats.
I especially like how the unit handles playing the images. First, it takes the file and no matter what its original resolution, it rescales it to the resolution that you choose. For HDTVs, usually that's 1080p.
Of course, the video scaler in the Theater+ can only perform so much magic on a low resolution image.
When you feed it a high resolution image, like one from a 12MP digital camera, it will downscale it to 1080p. But Seagate has added a cool feature that shines with large images. You can zoom in two, four, eight or sixteen times on a photo.
Each time, the player will re-render the display, which means if the original image has a resolution of 4200 x 2800 pixels, the zoom will be truer at each zoom level.
The bottom line is that your images are presented in the best possible manner, which should be important to even the casual photographer.
As for basic functionality, the Seagate designers have built a simple to use slide show interface with a nice selection of transitions and timings (5, 10, and 30 seconds and 1 and 2 minutes).
Since the chipset can support two images on screen simultaneously, the Cross Fade is clean.
For a little more spice, you can add music to your slideshow.
If you have downloaded your images and music on to the Go drive or a USB flash drive, you can pack up the Theater+ box, (it weighs less than two pounds), and take it to your company's boardroom or your neighbor's living room. Plug it into a TV and you're ready for showtime.
The Theater+ can also playback movies and videos. It is not a DVD player, therefore the digital files need to be stored on a drive. For example, you may have bought and downloaded a movie from a service like CinemaNow or FilmFresh on to your computer's hard drive.
Or maybe you shoot home movies. If you have edited them and added a menu, the player can display the menu. It even supports subtitles.
All these added touches do truly optimize your viewing experience.
Before I move on, let's look at what happens if you choose the Internet option from the main menu.
Most of you are chummy with YouTube videos. I was more curious about the choices available when you punch the Video Feeds icon.
You are offered five categories, World News, U.S. News, Business & Technology, Entertainment and Sports.
You can see from the screen shots from the World News and the Business & Technology sections that the feeds offer a great range of topics.
You can brush up on your German or patch up your portfolio. Some of the videos are short (under five minute clips), others are full- length hour shows.
The picture quality of the programs are inconsistent, but the Theater+ does the best it can with them. And I did get an occasional "Unable to service request" message when I tried connecting to one of the feeds.
As I was exploring the different Video Feeds, I noticed a couple of my favorite Internet content providers were missing, no Hulu and no Netflix or any other movie on demand source.
The Seagate reps that I talked to said that they were constantly looking at possible content providers and that if they added any, it would be a simple matter of updating the firmware.
They were admirably cautious about wanting to reveal who the new sources might be or when they would become part of the family. When they do have something to announce, I will append this review.
In the meantime, you can purchase MediaMall Technologies' PlayOn media server (a lifetime subscription is $39.95) and install it on your computer. Then when you pick the Devices option on the Theater+ menu, you can navigate to any media servers on your home network.
The PlayOn server gives you access to Netflix and Hulu and a group of other popular streaming content providers.
I would prefer a more direct connection with the Theater+ player, but for now hooking up through PlayOn is the best option.
All in all, I'm pleased with the scope and quality of the Internet content accessible through the Theater+ player.
The EPA is now publishing a list of ENERGY STAR qualified TVs. (You can find it here.)
Until the EPA generates a list of ENERGY STAR qualified devices like this Seagate unit, we will continue to take our own set of power consumption readings.
To measure power, we hooked the FreeAgent Theater+ HD Media Player up to our watt meter, called Watts up? Pro, and took readings during playback of a variety of media.
I realized after I performed the initial set of measurements that I had a Go drive docked in the player, which, as I thought, elevated the power consumption.
For example, with the Go drive docked, the player consumed about 11W when playing the Green Lantern DivX movie that I downloaded to my computer's hard drive from the FilmFresh website. If I removed the Go drive, the reading lowered to 7.9W when playing the movie.
When the player was idle, the reading dropped to 9.4W with the Go drive installed and 7.7W without. If I turned the power off, the meter leveled off at about 2.6W with the drive and about .8W without.
I like to see units like this take almost no power when they are turned off. Even .8W seems like a waste. At 2.6W with the Go drive attached, the player is definitely a silent power muncher.
For me, setup was easy as could be. I ran an Ethernet cable from my router to the Theater+ and it automatically found the network. I'm running Windows Vista but the unit is compatible with Macs and I assume that the connection is as simple.
I hooked up to my HDTV with an HDMI cable. Make sure that you go into the Video sub-menu of the Settings menu and match the player's output resolution to that of your TV. The quickest way is to choose HDMI Auto if you are using an HDMI cable.
The menu also supplies Brightness and Contrast controls. I suggest that you don't futz with them here. I always prefer to make those adjustments directly on my TV.
Other than that, you should be good to rock and roll. The player has full functionality even without the Go drive attached.
If you do decide to use a Go drive, Seagate supplies a FreeAgent Theater application, which "includes Media Sync, a feature that allows you to automatically synchronize media files between your computer and a FreeAgent Go portable drive or any NTFS or FAT32-formatted USB external storage device." The manual explains how to install and use the software.
One last point, Seagate is making a USB 3.0 portable drive, the BlackArmor PS 110, which will not dock into the Theater+. But with the cable that accompanies the drive, you can plug it into one of the Player's USB 2.0 ports. The drive is backward compatible and will play the media back at USB 2.0 speeds.
Picture quality from a player like this that handles all sorts of content can be inconsistent simply because the programs that it is accessing are inconsistent.
If you have ever spent any time watching videos on YouTube on your computer, you know that picture quality can range from gawd-awful to near HD.
As I already mentioned, the video processor in the Theater+ can only perfume the really stinky video so much.
Audio performance is also dependent on the source material. The Theater+ can pass through Dolby Digital and DTS audio if they are supported in your digital media files.
Another factor when you are streaming video from the Internet is the amount of bandwidth that your Internet Service Provider is delivering. I still believe that you need a consistent bandwidth of about 2.5Mbps. I would suggest at least 5Mbps if not more.
Playback of content from either a Go drive or from a network drive should not be a problem.
And to reiterate, if you are displaying high resolution still images (over 1920 x 1080 pixels), you should be delighted at how the Theater+ rescales the images when you zoom in on them.
Considering the scope of content that you can access and playback on the Seagate FreeAgent Theater+ HD Media Player, I think that the MSRP of $150 is quite reasonable. I just went surfing on the Internet and found it for around $30 less which makes it a real value.
If you go shopping for this product, please remember a couple of points. Seagate still sells a product called a FreeAgent Theater Media Player which was a first attempt that was made mostly for a specific use in Europe.
This review is for the + HD model, which has added features including 1080p output. Don't confuse the two.
Also, the $150 price is just for the FreeAgent Theater+ HD Media Player and does not include the Go drive or the Wireless adapter. As I said, the Player is fully functional without them.
The Seagate FreeAgent Theater+ HD Media Player is an easy to use device that connects to your home network and the Internet and plays back a wide range of digital media formats and streaming content on to your HDTV in up to 1080p resolution.