Seagate’s media player is designed to plug into your TV and play media files from removable storage devices. Like the excellent WD TV, it can’t stream files over a network and has no built-in storage.
Although fairly small, the FreeAgent Theater is actually far bigger than it needs to be. This is because half of its slender casing is just a big hole. Remove the plastic cover on the right and there’s a slot designed for Seagate’s FreeAgent Go portable hard disks. These are both stylish and inexpensive, and we awarded the 320GB model four stars in Labs, Shopper 252. The drive slides neatly into its bay, and a button on the front releases it. Software is provided for transferring compatible files from your PC to the drive. It will work with any USB removable storage device.
If you want something with more capacity than a portable disk, you can attach it to the USB port on the front. It’s a pity there isn’t a second port on the rear, as the WD TV has, so you can keep one drive plugged in permanently and still have a port spare. Like the WD TV, there’s no memory card reader for quick slideshows, but you can pick up an SD-to-USB converter for around £5.
HDMI is notably absent from the ports on the rear, but the component output supports HD at 720p and 1080i resolutions. There’s no support for 1080p, though, and you lose the convenience of a single cable for video and audio. Coaxial S/PDIF and stereo phono outputs are provided for audio. Those with older TVs have a choice of composite or S-video outputs, and there’s a SCART adaptor, too.
The FreeAgent Theater starts quickly, and there are basic controls on the top. The remote is small and fiddly to use, but the menu system is minimal and reacts quickly to inputs. It’s essentially just a file browser, with few additional niceties. Audio support is poor. It doesn’t play AAC files and you can’t make playlists as you go, and it browses only by folder. The WD TV can do both these things and browse music by artist, genre, album and date.
Video playback capabilities aren’t particularly impressive. It lacks the WD TV’s 1080p 24fps output and support for the popular H.264 codec, so you can’t play video directly from AVCHD or H.264 camcorders, as you can with the Kodak Zi6. There’s also no support for the MKV format, which is popular online. Its only advantage over the WD TV is its 32x fast-forward and rewind speeds.
The FreeAgent Theater is easy to use, but it’s basic compared with the similarly priced WD TV. Even if you already have a FreeAgent Go hard disk, we’d recommend the WD TV. An external drive may look messier, but the superior interface, HDMI output and H.264 support are worth it.