Goondu review: Seagate FreeAgent Theater

August 1st, 2009 | by Alfred Siew

I’ll be honest and say that I was a little skeptical about Seagate’s FreeAgent Theater when the test unit was recently sent for a Goondu check-out.

Why, in a time when people are streaming videos at home with an Xbox or Playstation 3, or playing back DivX movies on compatible DVD players, would they turn to another media player, this time from a hard disk manufacturer?

Well, I got my answer when I finally fired up my first two movies – The Spartans and Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle – on my LCD TV in the living room.

In short, the FreeAgent Theater works as advertised, which can’t be said for many media players I’ve tried out.

Seagate’s offering scores highest on its convenience. Here’s something targeted at a user who either doesn’t own a game console, doesn’t know how to build a home theatre PC, or just wants to play his downloaded movies on the big screen with minimal fuss.

All you do is plug in the included 250GB 2.5-inch hard drive to your PC, transfer the video (or music) files over and slot the drive back into place on the player, which is hooked up to your TV via component or regular AV cables. ThenĀ  press play on the remote.

Seagate doesn’t do that bad on the second most important thing – video format support – either. With most of the movies you find on the Net or encode from your DVD, the FreeAgent Theater plays them back without fuss. It supports popular video formats like MPEG 1 and 2 (AVI, VOB, ISO), and MPEG 4 (AVI, DivX, Xvid).

What it lacks though is support for the MKV format, which is used on many HD video files. I tried playing a couple of files on the MKV format, which brought an “invalid” file format error. It’s a bit disappointing, considering Seagate touts the media player as an HD-capable one supporting 480i/480p resolutions, with upscaling to 720p and 1080i.

If the FreeAgent Theater did support MKV files, then at least it’d have an edge over the Sony PS3, which also does not support MKV files.

I won’t say that is a fatal flaw for the Seagate player, but it is one of several things that the company can improve on.

The remote is the first among them. Yes, I know the constraints of cost, but the buttons on this thin remote are hard to press, and more importantly, you have to get near-direct line of sight to register your commands. It just takes a bit of getting used to, especially as TV and DVD players now come with much more responsive remotes.

I won’t junk the FreeAgent Theater for that alone, to be fair. What I like is the fact that you can easily bump up the storage – as long as Seagate keeps producing compatible drives. I also appreciate the flexibility – your hard drive is easily portable, unlike other media “tanks” that double up as players.

And unlike streaming media players, the FreeAgent Theater may actually have a market for it because of its convenience. It’s not for geeks like me who already have a home gigabit network set up and a PS3 to stream movies from a NAS (network attached storage) server.

But for users who want to quickly watch a downloaded movie on the big screen, the FreeAgent Theater is worth a look.


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