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Seagate’s FreeAgent Theater offers a neat, easy way to take the content from your PC and view it on your TV. But, while it supports HD content up to 1080i, it lacks support for HDMI — which is sure to turn off many videophiles.
The FreeAgent Theater is a thin device that connects to your TV via S-video, composite A/V, or component video. (No cords are included; you’ll have to supply them yourself.) It has a USB port for connecting an external storage device, such as a thumb drive, an external hard drive, or even a digital camera. But Seagate (s STX) has designed this product for use with one of the company’s own drives; a FreeAgent Go portable hard drive will slide neatly into a dock on the front of the device.
You can buy the FreeAgent Theater on its own for $130, for $230 with a 250GB FreeAgent Go hard drive, and for $280 with a 500GB version of the hard drive. Both versions that include the hard drive come with a PC docking station, which provides a more elegant option than simply dangling the hard drive from the side of your PC. (You’ll need Windows XP or Vista; Mac users are out of luck.) (see update below)
What’s not as elegant is the FreeAgent software that comes with the drives. It’s designed to simplify the process of transferring content, but I found it slow and frustrating to use. That’s because there’s not a simple way to select a file and transfer it to the drive; instead, you have to select a series of folders to sync. And, once I began syncing content to the drive, it took more than 30 minutes to transfer less than 20GB of files. I’d prefer a simple drag-and-drop system, which you can get by forgoing the FreeAgent app entirely, and relying on Windows Explorer instead. (This method also works on the Mac, even though the software does not.)
The experience improves once you disconnect the drive from your PC and pop it into the Theater. Your connected drives are displayed in a neat list on the TV, and you can browse through them easily using the included remote. My only complaint is that the FreeAgent Theater displays all of the files that are listed, whether they are compatible with the player or not. (Supported file types include: MPEG-1, MPEG-2, MPEG-4, AVI, DivX, and Xvid for video. The FreeAgent Theater will also play back various digital music files and display JPEG photos.) You don’t find out that the file is incompatible until you attempt to play it. And the FreeAgent software could make itself more useful by alerting you to incompatible files, rather than just transferring them blindly.
Video looks very good when it does play, though. The FreeAgent Theater supports HD content at 720p and 1080i, and the company says it can upscale standard-def videos. HD content looked great; I watched several episodes of Mad Men and was impressed with the crisp, clear picture. Standard def content didn’t fare quite as well, though. I watched an episode of The Amazing Race, which (sadly) isn’t shot in HD, and the video quality was lower than what I’ve seen on broadcast TV.
The FreeAgent Theater is simple to setup and operate. I like how the dock keeps the area around your TV neat and clutter free. Competing products, like Iogear’s Portable Media Player, lack the docking station, which hides your cords and simplifies the connection process. Seagate’s product is reasonably priced, too, especially if you already have a portable drive. If only it supported HDMI, I could recommend it without reservation.