If you're looking for a way to view tons of media from your computer on your TV, but you want something other than a media streamer, a hard-drive-based media player like the Seagate FreeAgent Theater (starting at US$129 without the hard drive, as of February 11, 2009) may be for you. But if you take home entertainment seriously, you may want to consider other options.
The FreeAgent Theater is relatively easy to set up: Hook it up to your TV; plug it in to an electrical outlet; connect a USB hard drive, a thumb drive, or a digital camera; and you're ready to go. As noted above, the FreeAgent Theater does not include a hard drive at its base price, but you can buy it packaged with either a 250GB or a 500GB FreeAgent Go hard drive; at its site, Seagate currently sells Go drives in these sizes for $100 and $150, respectively.
The FreeAgent Theater includes PC syncing software for transferring photos, music, and movies from your computer to a hard drive. Plug in the hard drive, and the software will automatically sync your PC's media collection to the external drive. Also included is a cradle for attaching any of Seagate's FreeAgent Go portable hard drives to your PC to make transferring media easier. Plug in a hard drive, click the MediaSync button in the PC sync software toolbar, choose your sync options, and you're ready to go.
The player itself is compact and well-designed, with playback control buttons on top, a USB port on the front (for use with any other USB drive), and a dock where you can insert a FreeAgent Go drive. On the back are component and composite outputs, and S-Video-out, but no HDMI-out. Though the FreeAgent Theater supports high-definition video (up to 1080i), and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, its lack of HDMI will disappoint some users.
I found the FreeAgent Theater straightforward to use. After you plug in a drive and switch it on, the device is ready to use. To view your media, select the drive, and you'll be able to access any media file that is in a format that the FreeAgent Theater can play back. The menu interface is simple to navigate; you can sort through content by device and then narrow it down by category. One quirk I ran into involved the photo slideshow: To go backward or forward through the slides manually, you press the up/down arrow keys on the remote, not the left/right arrows as I would have expected. Instead, the left/right keys rotate the photo.
The device does have some limitations. For one thing, the FreeAgent Theater doesn't play unprotected AAC audio files at all. So any music you've ripped from your CD collection using iTunes' default settings--along with any iTunes Plus (DRM-free) songs you've purchased--can't be played via the FreeAgent Theater. Also, the only way it can play back MPEG-4 video is if that video uses the DivX, Xvid, or AVI codec.
By and large, the FreeAgent Theater does an admirable job; and for many users, it should provide an easy, painless way to release the media held hostage on their PC. For high-end users, though, the lack of HDMI output may be a deal-breaker.