Seagate FreeAgent Theater+
Media, media, media. You've collected it from all over the Internet, but sometimes you don't feel like sitting in front your computer to watch it. Several worthy digital media adapters are on the market that will read media from PCs and display it on your TV, and even more Media Center extenders that link to later versions of Windows Media Center Edition to do the same thing. Seagate's FreeAgent Theater+ ($150, as of 9/15/09) takes nearly all its competitors' tricks and combines them into what promises to be one extremely svelte and capable digital media adapter. Unfortunately, not all the features were yet up to snuff in my hands-on with the unit.
The Theater+ has an integrated dock for the company's FreeAgent Go drives, as well as one front and one back USB port so you can attach virtually any other kind of storage. As long as the drive you attach is formatted to FAT32, NTFS, or HFS/HFS+ (Mac), the Theater+ will read its contents. You don't even have to transfer your downloads to an external hard drive--the Theater+ offers both 10/100 ethernet and wireless connectivity. Alas, the latter is only via a rather pricey $70 USB 802.11n dongle that won't be available until October. At least it's N.
Standards and output options are state-of-the-art. Along with HDMI output, you get component and AV (composite video/stereo audio) outputs as well as optical audio output. While it lacks RCA-style S/PDIF audio, audio systems without an optical input are rare these days. Breakout or plain cables are provided for all the outputs, but no HDMI to DVI adapter, so owners of older TVs may need to grab one of those before heading back from the store.
The claimed media support is stellar. Music files the unit will play include AAC, AC3, ASF, FLAC, M4A, MP3, OGG, RA, RM, RMVB, WAV, and WMA. The device will even read M3U and PLS playlists. Video file types include ASF, AVI, DAT, DIVX, FLV, M2TS, MKV, MOV, MP4, MPEG, MTS, RM, RMVB, VOB, WMV, and XVID at up to 1080 resolution. It also handles SAMI (smi), SRT, and SUB subtitles. BMP, GIF, JPEG, PNG, and TIFF image files can be displayed as well.
Unfortunately, while the unit played all the audio files I threw its way (exception for Apple Lossless and an exceedingly rare 96kHz/32-bit .wav file, a format it doesn't claim to support), it didn't recognize the WMV3 audio codec in the WMV HD videos I played, or render those files in their correct widescreen aspect. These are files that play fine in the D-Link 10/100 DSM-520 and the LaCie LaCinema Black Max, so Seagate still has some work to do. The TIFF and PNG images, which the Theater+ does claim to support, failed to render as well. Audio output via the analog stereo-out was a little weak also. I had to crank up the TV volume well past normal, and when I switched to another device, the volume was too high.
The Theater+'s on-screen interface is attractive; however, the text and some of the icons are a bit small. When I used the composite-out to a CRT TV, the white text on dark background was often difficult to read, but it was fine on higher-resolution digital displays.
You may control the Theater+ only by using the included remote. Navigation is relatively simple, and functions are for the most part logically placed, though I missed front-panel controls for scenarios in which the remote's battery is dead.
Another complaint: The documentation for my review unit was less than comprehensive. The unit was set to the PAL video-signal format (common in the UK), and the description of how to reset the device to PAL/NTSC (the U.S. standard) was confusing. I also could find no mention that the wireless connectivity was via a dongle--I wasted quite a few minutes sending e-mail trying to find out how to connect.
The Theater+ promises to be one of the most technology-complete digital media adapters on the market--when it's fully developed. However, unless you enjoy early-adopter aggravation, I'd wait a few weeks for the company to iron out the bugs, complete the media format support, and get the wireless USB adapter out the door.
--Jon L. Jacobi