The name of this product immediately gives us a problem. Because Seagate is an American company, it seems to think Theatre should be spelt Theater. This just isn't the case, and we find ourselves slightly annoyed by the whole thing. Of course, its name is a trademark, so we feel obliged to spell it the way Seagate wants — but under substantial duress.
With our protest firmly lodged, let's move on to what the FreeAgent Theater does — it provides a simple way for you to get your photos and music on to your HD TV. It can also cope with certain types of video, but support for that is a little less comprehensive. At AU$199 the Theater is fairly inexpensive, but do bear in mind that you'll want a matching portable Seagate FreeAgent hard drive to make the most of the package and those start from about AU$120.
We think this little box is pretty well thought-out. The FreeAgent Theater isn't attractive — it's certainly not the sort of thing you'd see Apple hatch — but it's quite cunning in its own way.
Firstly, you need to remember that Seagate is a hard drive maker first and foremost. The Theater is designed to promote that side of its business. The Theater therefore makes most sense when it's used in tandem with a Seagate FreeAgent hard drive. These are either available separately or bundled in the box, depending on which pack you buy.
If you use a FreeAgent drive, it's a simple matter of pulling the drive out of the dock and sliding it into the FreeAgent Theater. It's simple, works brilliantly well and won't confuse even the most backwards of technophobes. Other storage devices can be used via the USB port in the front.
As you'd expect, a simple remote control is provided with the Theater. It's one of those small, credit card-sized jobbies, and we weren't thrilled with it. It does manage simple tasks, but it's not that easy to use and feels pretty unsatisfying in your hand.
To connect the Theater to your TV you'll need a component cable, an S-Video connection or a standard composite lead. There's no HDMI on this device, which is a great shame. You do, however, get digital audio out, in the form of an RCA digital coaxial socket.
As well as not having an HDMI output, the Theater also doesn't come with a component cable. Still, you can "adapt" a regular composite and stereo audio RCA lead to the purpose — just don't expect the very best picture quality.
Although we wouldn't suggest this machine as ideal for people wanting to watch video, the Theater does seem to have a reasonable amount of playback chops. It's happy with DVD video in either VOB or ISO form, for example — a pretty good feature, we think. It'll also accept both DivX and Xvid, though only at standard-definition quality. This is our main problem with the device — a lack of high-definition video support. Even worse, failing to play MKV containers is just silly. By comparison the competing WDTV does both MKV and 1080p with no issue — it only does it through HDMI though, which perhaps aims it at a more advanced market, whereas we'd hazard a guess the FreeAgent Theater is pointed at those with older gear.
The Theater is more than happy handling all your JPG files, though. It can cope with images up to 20 megapixels in size, and we're pretty sure that's more than most people are shooting at the moment.
Audio support comes in MP3, WMA, WAV and OGG flavours. The Theater can also handle Dolby Digital audio in AC3 files. It's a shame not to see FLAC or Apple Lossless supported, but it's probably not the end of the world.
Upon hooking up the Theater to our 1080p plasma, we were presented with a menu system. There's nothing especially complicated here. You get a choice of either entering the device configuration, or browsing any hard drives or USB drives connected to the machine.
Set-up is simple enough, and involves selecting the display type and output resolution. The Theater can go up to 1080i — which is pretty much the maximum for component, because most TVs can't accept 1080p via that particular socket thanks to big media companies leaning heavily. To be fair, for the sort of thing you'll be doing with this box, 1080i is fine.
Because the Theater is designed to handle photos, video and audio, let's have a look at each area separately and find out what it does well, and what it doesn't do quite so capably.
Frankly, the codec support and video quality of the Seagate is its weakest area. It will playback Xvid and DivX as well as MPEG-2 files, which opens up a respectable amount of content for you to enjoy. We were not, however, especially impressed with the video picture quality, which we'd rate as much lower than that of the Popcorn Hour. The image was particularly soft and didn't seem especially smooth.
We were much happier with the way the device handled still images. It's easy to get a photo slideshow up and running and the quality is very agreeable. Seagate apparently went for a chipset that prioritised the quality of still photos, and we think it shows. We enjoyed our image library on our plasma TV, and thought the whole process was very gratifying.
Sound is another area the FreeAgent Theater seems to do well in. We opted to use the digital audio output, and feed the signal to our Onkyo amp and Klipsch reference speakers. We were then able to listen to a selection of well reproduced music while we looked at our photo slideshow — just what we hoped for.
So, what we have here is a machine that can easily satisfy people who want music and photo playback. For those looking for a good video device, we'd suggest you look elsewhere.
The Seagate FreeAgent Theater is an interesting idea, but is it a good one? If you compare it to media streamers such as the Popcorn Hour then no, it's very bad at doing that sort of thing. If you look at it as a handy way to look at photos and listen to your music on your TV, though, it looks much better.
Nothing will change the fact that it's got some horrible omissions, but we can see where Seagate was trying to go with this one. It's certainly got a market — think of it as an alternative for a digital photo frame. Connect this to your TV, and you've got a cool background to enjoy family snaps on. Think of it as a party device — ideal to have on while people do other things — and it's capable of providing the tunes too.