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Review: The Seagate Freeagent GoFlexTV

Google (s GOOG) TV, Roku, and… Seagate? (s STX) The hard disk maker wants to compete head on with the big boys in this year’s fight for the living room with its new Seagate GoFlex TV, a media streamer that doubles as a dock for Seagate’s new FreeAgent GoFlex hard disks. The box features Netflix (s NFLX) streaming, support for lots of video codecs and some nifty sneakernet functionality — but is that enough to warrant spending up to $300 on a combo of the device and essential accessories?

I gave the GoFlex TV an extensive spin over the last two weeks, and I’m honestly a little underwhelmed. It works very well as a part of the GoFlex universe, but its streaming functionality, UI and hardware features leave you wanting for more. Here’s the good, the bad and the ugly, feature by feature:

  • The specs: The GoFlex TV is pretty small (4.3 x 5.9 x 1.6 inches), so it won’t take up much space in your TV set-up. It features one HDMI and two USB ports as well as A/V and SPDIF out. There’s a Ethernet port for network functionality, but unfortunately no Wi-Fi. Seagate Wi-Fi adapters sell for around $50, but the company wasn’t able to send me one in time for the review. I tried to make it work with a standard 802.11g USB Wi-Fi adapter as well as my TIVO’s (s TIVO) Wi-Fi adapter, but to no avail. Having no integrated Wi-Fi is a major letdown, if you ask me, especially considering that you can get a HD Roku box with Wi-Fi for $99.
  • The twist: Seagate’s GoFlex TV features a bay to insert the company’s new GoFlex drives. It looks a little dorky at first, since the drive is sticking out, but I actually started to appreciate this a lot after a while. No need for another drive and cable, which keeps the clutter down to a minimum. Of course, users can still connect drives or Flash memory sticks via USB.
  • The media player functionality: This is where the GoFlex TV shines. Tons of codecs (Xvid, DivX, MKV, H.264), plus the ability to play DVD ISOs like a physical disk, including the menu. The last one makes this especially appealing to P2P users and people who like to, uhm, back up their DVD collection. Of course, doing so is illegal in most cases, since you’d be circumventing copyright protection technologies.
  • The online services: This little streamer offers access to YouTube (s GOOG) and Netflix as well as a number of podcasts, Flickr (s YHOO), Picasa, a few online radio stations and some text feeds. Registered users can also access content from DivX (s DIVX) and Paramount (s VIA). I suspect that most users are going to be interested in YouTube and Netflix. Both implementations are okay, but not overwhelming. Especially disappointing: The Netflix implementation only let me access my Instant Queue. There was a menu item called “enter directory” but it simply didn’t work. That’s a shame, especially since Roku, the Wii (s NTDOY) and others allow you to browse the complete Netflix Watch Instantly catalog.
  • The UI: Speaking of things that don’t work, at least not for me… I don’t mind plain and not flashy, but the GoFlex TV UI is just confusing. There’s at least three different ways get to things like the Netflix app, and oftentimes lists them right next to each other. Essential setup options on the other hand are so well hidden that you gotta look into the handbook to find them.
  • The content: Having Netflix is great, and we all love YouTube, but it would be nice to have some additional content sources. I’m not just talking about Amazon (s AMZN) On Demand, even though that would be neat as well, but also about more options to customize the online content. The GoFlex TV supports RSS feeds, but there’s currently no way to add video podcasts on your own. That’s a shame, because the device should be able to play almost anything you throw at it.

To be honest, the Seagate Freeagent GoFlex TV seems a little rushed out of the door, possibly to compete with Western Digital’s (s WDC) new media player. The good thing is that some of its shortcomings are easily addressable by Seagate. All it takes is a firmware update, and the GoFlex could, for instance, browse Netflix’ entire VOD catalog. The same goes for some of the UI issues.

However, hardware specs and price point can’t really be addressed by a firmware update, the biggest one being that the GoFlex TV can get pricey. The device itself retails for $130, a 500GB GoFlex drive goes for $120, and the Wi-Fi adapter sets you back another $50. Suddenly, that little box doesn’t look all that cheap anymore, does it?

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