Seagate built this second-gen FreeAgent Theater+ to be equally Mac and PC friendly, and to decode any video file you throw at it, regardless of resolution, framerate or other variable. Despite a crappy interface, the mission is a genuine success.
$US150 without drive; $US290 with 500GB drive included.
As I mentioned, the video decoding on this is better than anything I've ever seen in a $US150 box. The Theater+ is very comfortable with HD video, not only because of its HDMI output but because when I dumped some QuickTime 1080p movie trailers on a drive and docked it, the trailers played back without a single hiccup. Ditto for high-def MKVs I downloaded from the DivX 7 showcase. If you encoded a video with subtitles or variable audio tracks, the choice appears up when you hit the menu button during playback. And disc images of DVDs? It's like there's a real live DVD in there, only there isn't!
Some more coolness: It remembers where you are in a movie, so you don't have to worry about stopping then coming back and having to find your place, even when you're viewing a DVD image. And since it's connected, it can hop on your NAS drives to pick up movies and other files. Again, no problems playing back. (Note: I didn't try the wireless option, which will sell separately for $US70 later on — I used Ethernet through a Linksys powerline adaptor).
The chart of accepted video codecs is long, but unlike most players of this price range, there are very few fine-print exceptions. What can't you play? Very very low-res (viral) WMVs got the ix-nay — higher rez WMVs play just fine. What else? DVD disc images in the .img format don't show up, but switching a .img to the supported .iso is surprisingly easy. That's it. It didn't brick any other assorted video in my library, out of hundreds of files.
I won't lie, the interface on this baby is pretty heinous. It's media manager circa 2002, which means that I would expressly stay away from photos and music, despite its ability to read any of those files too. Movies are good because you don't need a lot of browsing — I just switched it from the ridiculously blocky "thumbnail" view to a standard list view, and skimmed my movies in alphabetical order. The good news is, you can change filenames to make it look a little prettier: dont_tempt_me.m4v becomes Don't Tempt Me.m4v.
I also wouldn't bother with Seagate's media manager software for "syncing" content to the hard drive. Maybe run it once for it to set up a folder structure on your drive, then copy video files over to it to your heart's content. You don't even have to use a FreeAgent Go drive, though it looks nice, nestled in there. You can plug just about any drive (NTFS, HFS+ or FAT are all fine, format wise) into a USB port, and navigate to it through the "devices" list.
As I mentioned, this is a networked device, but the internet options are as of now pretty lame: A non-personalised Flickr feed, a Picasa widget, a stock ticker and a weather program, all of which are bargain basement plug-ins.
What do I personally want? A basic video player that can read the 150 to 200 DVDs I ripped in H.264 to save space, plus all of the crap that Apple TV and the lesser media adapters seem to have a problem with. Video should be either local or on a NAS, and I shouldn't have to worry about codecs or resolutions or any of the crap others seem to freak out about. I don't need help with music or photos — it's strictly about movies and longer-form TV. Because of that, I am a fan of this little box. Once it starts shipping, I encourage you to check it out. Just heed the following rules:
• Don't buy the 500GB drive bundle for $US290—Amazon sells the 500GB FreeAgent Go right now for $US106, so there's no way the bundle makes sense (as currently priced). • And don't accidentally go buying the old FreeAgent Theater. It's my understanding that the first go 'round wasn't so pretty. From the looks of this massive overhaul, Seagate probably should have done more than just add a plus sign. [Product page; Amazon sales page]
Decoded every video I selected, with two extremely negotiable exceptions
Compatible with Mac and PC formatted drives, and has no issues with folder hierarchies
HD, HD and more HD—720p and 1080p look good and play back smoothly
No problem locating NAS drives on the network, and no hiccups in playing back DVD disc images over the network
Internet widgets at present are dumb, but a future firmware update could bring something nice
The user interface is pretty ugly — your best bet is to clump your videos together into easy folders (movies, TV, etc.) and to avoid using this to manage photos and music
FreeAgent theatre Media Manager is an insult to anyone who actually knows what this product can do for them