First Look: What's Missing From Seagate's FreeAgent Theater?

Seagate was kind enough to give us a working demo of the company's latest foray into your living room, the FreeAgent Theater. It's not a DVR box, nor is it really a digital media receiver in the sense one would use it as the central point for recording and playing media streamed across a connected household. After connecting to your television via Component, Composite, or S-Video connections, the FreeAgent Theater can play a good chunk of media that you've already preloaded onto--you guessed it!--one of Seagate's FreeAgent Go portable hard drives.

Given its functionality, it might be more appropriate to call the FreeAgent Theater the "Powerpoint-in-a-Box." But that's not an indication of our dissatisfaction with the device... for the most part. The FreeAgent Theater remains a neat concept for Seagate's first big push into home theater territory, but its first generation iteration might not be the best buy:

Pros

Ample Connectivity: Seagate's really catering to all crowds with the FreeAgent Theater. We were unsure that anybody still used S-Video, but there it is, right alongside component and composite connections for your television. Either rock your media on grandma's old set or let the FreeAgent Theater upconvert her old media up to a 1080i resolution for your brand-new HDTV. As for sound, the FreeAgent Theater sports both stereo and coaxial S/PDIF audio connections.

Head-Nod to Competition: While it's easy to slap a FreeAgent Go portable drive right into the front of the FreeAgent Theater, Seagate does include a front-mounted USB port for "other" devices to connect. You can display the photographs straight off your digital camera or other, non-Seagate-branded portable storage.

Above-Average File Support: The FreeAgent Theater comes out of the gate supporting a wide variety of file formats, including

  • Video: MPEG-1, MPEG-2 (AVI, VOB, ISO), MPEG-4 (AVI, DivX, Xvid)
  • Audio: MP3, AC3 (5.1 audio), WMA, WAV, OGG
  • Photos: JPEG, up to 20 megapixels

The unit comes with complete subtitle support (SAM, SRT, and SUB) and can even read the directory structure of DVDs as if they were, well, actual discs. Why is that important? Because when you're trying to play your ripped movie collection, the FreeAgent Theater will identify the containing folder and play from there--no need to have to pore over tons of individually named files to find the one that's actually your movie

Explorer-Based Browsing: Geeks rejoice. Pulling up media in the FreeAgent Theater is analogous to surfing through a typical Windows Explorer window. You media is organized exactly how you've dragged and dropped it onto the drive. And when you go to run a slideshow of your huge-megapixel picture folder, the FreeAgent Theater actually loads new images in the background for a seamless viewing experience.

Cons

Lack of Full HD Support: You'll note the omission of 1080p video anywhere in the Pro section. That's because this first-generation edition of the FreeAgent Theater can't upconvert or output at a full 1080p resolution. Nor can the device play any H.264-encoded video files--goodbye, Blu-ray. Expect to see this functionality, as well as an HDMI output, included in subsequent iterations of the FreeAgent Theater.

Lack of Network Functionality: Okay, Seagate's pitching the FreeAgent Theater as a completely newbie-friendly device. We understand that. Your average consumer might not be able to figure out the nuances of media sharing across a network, but that doesn't mean that this feature should be omitted for those who want to give it a whirl. While the addition of an Ethernet jack to the FreeAgent Theater is certainly on the "ideas" list, don't expect this to happen anytime soon. If you want your media, you're going to have to connect it the old-fashioned way: USB-style.

Where's the Metadata: There are two ways to search for your pictures using the FreeAgent Theater: You run through your directory structure to find the appropriate folder you dumped them in, or you click on your single, giant "Images" folder and use the accompanying thumbnails to find your files. Seagate has considered adding metadata search support for media files, but the subtle differences between how various applications and hardware handle metadata has made the task less fulfilling than expected.

Taking a dump: With the ability to connect multiple devices, including a Seagate-branded portable drive, you would think that the FreeAgent Theater would have a single means for transferring the contents of, say, a connected camera to a mounted hard drive. Not so. This is also a feature that Seagate's considered, but you'll have to wait for a second-generation edition of the FreeAgent Theater to see if it makes it in.

Conclusion

While the FreeAgent Theater might not appeal to hardcore home theater enthusiasts--or even aspiring hardcore home theater enthusiasts--it does have a lot of good going for it. The device is simple to operate, practically seamless in its ability to load and zoom large pictures, and does offer some helpful functionality for all the DVD archivists in the audience. A lack of a full high-definition experience and any networking functionality whatsoever leaves a sour taste in the mouth, but definitely has our eyeballs out for the FreeAgent Theater's hopeful evolution.

Launch Date: March 4

Pricing:

Standalone dock, no hard drive -- $129

FreeAgent Theater bundled with 250GB FreeAgent Go -- $229

FreeAgent Theater bundled with 500GB FreeAgent Go: $279

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