From the front, LaCie’s LaCinema Black MAX is a near-featureless box, its minimalist looks spoilt only by a single USB port.
In contrast, the rear is covered with a wide variety of inputs and outputs. This isn’t surprising, as it has a range of capabilities to equal many media centre PCs. You can enjoy video, audio or photo files either from its built-in 500GB hard disk or streamed from a networked PC. It also has a Freeview TV tuner.
The interface is as stylishly minimalist as the hardware. The monochrome menu has big and easy-to understand icons for each major feature. It’s a little sluggish to respond to your inputs on the remote, though. That wouldn’t be a problem for a device you use only occasionally, but it quickly becomes frustrating if you’re using the LaCinema for all your TV viewing. In addition, the remote is simply too small and has too few buttons for the LaCinema’s wide range of functions. It doesn’t have dedicated buttons for fast forward, rewind or short cuts for common tasks.
There’s an RF input and a passthrough on the rear. We were dismayed to discover that there’s only a single tuner, so you can’t record one programme while watching another, or record two at once. To access the timeline EPG you have to use the Options menu. Once open, it’s sluggish to navigate and you have to use yet another menu to skip forward by 12 or 24 hours. There’s no option to record whole series with a single command.
Picture quality was good, but audio was sometimes missing, so we had to look in yet another menu to select the matching audio stream. It may have a hefty 500GB in which to store recordings, but in terms of usability the LaCinema is seriously lacking when compared to almost any dedicated PVR or Windows Media Center.
The component and HDMI outputs, with support for resolutions up to 1080p, should satisfy anyone with an HD TV. Video format and codec support is excellent, covering everything we’d expect. In our tests, videos looked fine, and we were pleased with the ability to fast-forward and rewind at up to 300x normal speed. It can decode and output AC3 (Dolby Digital) audio, and passthrough DTS audio to a receiver.
Browsing through photos would be easier with more thumbnails. The LaCinema provides a text list of images, with only a single thumbnail shown at a time. It has a small selection of slideshow transitions, but no settings for slideshow speed. The music interface works well. You can build a quick playlist from scratch and browse tracks while listening to others, although it will only recognise M3U playlists. Phono and optical S/PDIF audio outputs are provided.
As well as the ports mentioned, the LaCinema has composite, S-video and phono inputs for analogue audio and video capture. Three of its USB ports are for connecting storage devices to the LaCinema, with one for connecting it to a PC as an external drive. You can stream media from a UPnP server over a wired or wireless network connection, and there’s support for Draft-N. It’s a pity there’s no built-in optical drive, though; you’ll still need another device to play DVDs and CDs. Its power consumption is also a concern, as it consumed around 16W and made a loud humming noise, even when on standby.
The LaCinema’s range of features puts it in direct competition with media centre PCs. It looks good value, with capable HD video playback and a 500GB hard disk. Unfortunately, it’s let down by its sluggish interface, hard-to-access EPG and single TV tuner. If you want an HD-capable budget media centre, consider buying one of the latest Atom-powered mini PCs, such as Asus’s Eee Box B204 and then add an inexpensive dual USB tuner.