Review: SageTV HD Theater

Practically every device in my house (save for the counter-top fryer) doubles as a media streamer, blasting movies, music or even photos from one side of the house to some screen on the other. The SageTV HD Theater is different, though: It’s smaller, cheaper, quieter and in some ways more versatile than most media streaming appliances.

At roughly 7 inches wide and 6 inches deep, the HD Theater is smaller than a teacup poodle in a trash compactor. In fact, it’s so small that it might even have trouble standing up to its own remote, if the two ever came to blows.

Once the HD Theater was patched into my 42-inch plasma, it became clear that it’s really two devices in one. Its first function is as an extender for viewing media stored on a computer. Like the HD100 Media Extender reviewed last year, the crux of this function is SageTV’s included DVR software. Getting the software installed and converting my favorite home theater PC into a de facto media server was a cinch. Surfing through my networked media was easy enough using SageTV’s plain (but customizable) interface, and even full 1080p playback was both brisk and clear. Also, since the HD Theater supports a ton of audio and video formats, it had no problems even when I threw it some tough file formats (MKV anyone?).

The HD Theater’s second major function is as a web video player. Included in the interface is access to YouTube and array of video podcasts. Hulu was curiously missing, but SageTV has assured us that support is on the way. Thank goodness — the only thing that gets me through my day is an ample dose of Tracy Jordan.

In terms of clarity, the HD Theater matched the quality of most devices that bring web video to the big screen: Playback was occasionally choppy and grainy, but generally passable.

The device curiously lacks Wi-Fi, as it means you have to tangle with an Ethernet cable to get YouTube on the big screen. These setbacks relegate the web-video feature to ‘bonus’ status rather than ‘killer addition.’

Oh, and the HD Theater works as a standalone media player too. This means it could access my 1TB external drive full of super-secret media (i.e., bootlegged music and movies) without having to bother with internet connectivity. All it took was connecting the device to the external drive via USB, and then I was free to sift through my treasure trove of purloined titles using the HD Theater’s on-screen menus.

The HD Theater is not without a few faults, though. One of our biggest concerns? You can’t install a hard drive into the unit. On the bright side, though, the device does support NAS setups, so true media hoarders can still get their fix.

Ultimately, it’s this mostly solid lineup of features that make the HD Theater worthwhile. Though the lack of Wi-Fi is an obvious letdown, and the lack of native Hulu (or even Netflix) support is a little underwhelming, the HD Theater is a thoughtfully designed device at its core.

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