Looking for a versatile media streamer that can handle music, photos, and videos from your home network and the Internet? The Seagate FreeAgent GoFlex TV ($100, price as of August 5, 2010) is one of the best in a growing field of attractive candidates. The GoFlex TV shapes up as a worthy competitor to its Western Digital rival, the WD TV Live Plus, though the slightly pricier WD TV maintains a small advantage in features, interface, and speed.
Like the WD TV Live Plus, the FreeAgent GoFlex TV is a connected box that lets you play media from computers, media servers, and storage devices on your network, or from USB flash or hard drives plugged directly into the device (you can also insert a portable GoFlex hard-drive module directly into the GoFlex TV, which eliminates extra clutter). The GoFlex TV supports a generous number of Internet services, including Flickr, Netflix on demand, Picasa, YouTube, a slew of popular sites through MediaFly, and other sites via category widgets (such as Finance).
But also like the WD TV Live Plus, the GoFlex TV lacks built-in Wi-Fi support: You can add that via an optional $50 USB adapter, but be prepared for degraded media playback if you live in an area where lots of other Wi-Fi networks are competing for scarce bandwidth.
Setting up the unit took only a few moments; I have to give Seagate high marks for the unit's simplicity. I hooked it up to my HDTV with an HDMI cable I had on hand (the GoFlex TV supports component, composite, and HDMI connections, but provides cables for only the first two), and then linked it to my network via the included ethernet cable plugged into a HomePlug AV switch.
After I connected the AC adapter to a power outlet, a couple of screens for setting language and date/time appeared, but no further action was required: Within a minute or so, the home screen popped up. I was immediately able to browse both my home network and the Internet services using the unit's remote, which is somewhat larger than most half-size remotes but still smaller than a typical TV or cable remote. I quickly set up my Netflix on-demand service (the screen displays a code that you must type into an activation screen on the Netflix Website).
Navigating is fairly simple since the home screen provides access to media in several ways, including some that are deliberately redundant. At the top is a row of options for media types (Music, Photos, Video), as well as Internet and local-network location. Then comes a row of shortcuts to the Internet services. Finally it gives you a row of icons for navigating all directly connected and local-network devices--be they USB flash drives, GoFlex drives you may have plugged into the GoFlex TV, networked PCs, or media servers (DLNA or Samba shares).
But playing or viewing material, especially over a local network, can be slow. Sometimes files take quite a few moments to appear (Seagate says this is because the device is building an index). Also, the GoFlex TV doesn't support file operations: You can't copy files from a network location to a local drive, a WD TV feature that can be useful if streaming over the network is poky and you don't want to have to use a PC to transfer media to a local drive. And in my tests, some media files inexplicably failed to play at all--I got several messages saying that MP3 files I had ripped from CDs were in an invalid format.
Though the home screen makes digging up content supereasy, I was somewhat disappointed to find that a lot of features--including any network settings or playback adjustments (such as slideshow options)--are accessible only when you click the menu button on the remote. I appreciate that Seagate wanted to reduce screen clutter, but this arrangement makes these features a little less discoverable.
For people who own a GoFlex drive, Seagate provides Media Sync software that makes it easy to transfer and update the contents of a PC or Mac media library to the drive. But you have to connect the drive to the computer to perform updates--you can't update it when it's connected to the GoFlex TV.
The GoFlex TV supports a wide range of DRM-free media formats; it's also the only media streamer I've seen that lets you play DivX video. And thanks to a deal Seagate made with Paramount, the GoFlex TV provides a feature for designating it as an authorized playback device for Paramount movies you've purchased and stored on digital media (some GoFlex drives were sold with the movies preloaded, so you could view them once you paid online to unlock them).
The device's Netflix support is basic, allowing you to play videos that you've placed in your on-demand queue on the Netflix Website. The unit doesn't support the newer Netflix interface that appears on Roku and WD TV Live Plus streamers, which lets you browse and add content to your queue directly from your TV screen. The omission is hardly a fatal flaw, but the feature's convenience is undeniable.
Other GoFlex TV services looked fairly similar to the way they do on other Internet-connected media streamers--you can log in to your YouTube account to view (and designate) favorites, you can search for photos on Flickr (but you can't log in to your account to easily view your own), and so on.
Overall, I found the GoFlex TV to be serviceable, with easy setup and a large selection of Internet content as major pluses. It is on the slow side, however, and the interface could be better (especially for accessing settings and Netflix movies). For $20 more, I give the WD TV Live Plus the edge.
This story, "Seagate FreeAgent GoFlex TV HD Media Player" was originally published by PCWorld.
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