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.
Setup 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. 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 mean this is its weakest area. It will playback Xvid and DivX as well as MPEG-2 files, which open 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 lovely 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 have a goosy gander elsewhere. As always, the Popcorn Hour remains our favourite, although amusingly, it's utterly terrible at music and photo playback. Will anyone manage to do all three well?
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, however, 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.
The best alternative to this device has to be Apple TV. There are none more accomplished at handling photos and audio than Apple, and if you live in the iTunes/iPhoto ecosystem, it's a good alternative. It is very expensive, however, which the Seagate isn't.
Edited by Nick Hide