LaCie LaCinema Black Max

Digital media has been trying to force its way in to the number one spot for entertainment over the last few years. Whilst it’s transformed the way we listen to our music, it’s still got a long way to go before it can replace the traditional broadcast medium. The main obstacle that stands in the way of digital media from taking over broadcast television is the living room. Digital media has always been the domain of the computer in the den, corner of the room, bedroom, laptop, pockets and in some cases the kitchen. And for that reason, it’s been a slow transition for even the cutting edge consumer to go all-digital with their living room media. Things are changing though, and the past 24 months has shown significant progress in this space.

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There have been a number of attempts to try and merge digital content with the living room television, but these offerings have often required compromise or they lacked the ease of use and seamless integration that is required for it become successful. I think that problem is on the verge of being solved with the advent of the do-it-all media centre. Media centres are designed to be the hub of all your digital media, the one-stop-shop for all of your entertainment requirements. The problem has always been to integrate all the functional elements of a media centre and to do it well. That’s why when I heard about the LaCie LaCinema Black Max, I was intrigued at the functionality it promises.

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I’ve spent the last couple weeks using the LaCinema with my main television in the living room. I’ve lived by it every time I’ve wanted to watch live or recorded broadcasting, downloaded media and streamed content – the features I was most interested in. Being a media centre, it naturally does all of the other things you’ve come to expect including music library access and photo slideshows. These are all great additions, but not the compelling reason for buying a media centre. The real reason you want one of these is the ability to time shift live broadcast to suit your schedule, schedule automatic recording of programming; the missing ingredient from many other similar products. The LaCinema promises to do all of this in a set top box, using its own custom-software and stores it all on a 500GB or 1TB hard drive.

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On paper, the LaCinema offers nearly everything you could possibly want from a living room media centre. It’s got a digital TV tuner, ability to pause live TV, schedule recordings in advance, playback HD content from my computer, it can upscale content to 1080p, it’s backwards compatible with non-HD sets and more. The feature list for the LaCinema really is extensive.

You’ll find it very surprising that a device which can do so much is actually very intuitive to use. The menu system is very simple to navigate and provides you with access to the systems functionality without needing the manual. This includes the automatic setup and network detection using its wireless-N network adapter or Ethernet connection. It’s mostly plug-and-play as soon as you get it out the box.

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LaCie’s trademark design of simple is repeated in the LaCinema with its square design and sharp corners. The exterior is made of a glossy black plastic with the only thing visible on the front being the USB port, blue LED, and when recording, a tiny orange LED.

The menu system for the LaCinema has been designed to work with your television set, using large fonts and icons to represent various menu elements. A simple navigation system is also employed for quick access to different options when browsing for media or accessing menu functions. These are all essential ingredients to creating an easy to use interface. In the living room, users are armed with just a remote, foregoing the abilities that a mouse and keyboard provide, so it’s important that this control system is easy to use and responsive. Getting this part wrong makes the user frustrated and creates a barrier to making full use out of the product, no matter how extensive the feature list.

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So how does the LaCinema do? They got the menu layout and navigation correct, but they forgot about responsiveness. The expected response time from a user’s perspective is very finite, and I didn’t find the responsiveness to be all that great. For instance, when changing channels using the TV tuner, I would have to wait several seconds before anything happened, before I could start flicking through. Likewise with the on-screen TV guide. The layout of programming information, along with the highlighted sections for shows that are on right now are great. It shows me what I want to see, but when I’m scrolling to view listings for more channels, there is an annoying delay before any info is updated and displayed.

I tested the LaCinema with 1080p and 720p screens and in both setups, the picture quality was much better than just using the televisions in-built tuner. This is a result of the high definition up-scaling of non-HD content. Normal broadcast content looked sharper and smoother and with better colours, thanks to the loss-less HDMI connection between the LaCinema and the television set. Using the PVR (Personal Video Recording) functionality for pausing and rewinding live broadcast is made possible using the included, albeit limited remote. The rewind and fast forward speeds can be done in multiplications for scanning through programming very quickly. LaCinema automatically records whatever you’re watching, regardless of whether you pushed the record button or not. It caches whatever channel you’re watching, so on changing a channel it wipes what it recorded and starts recording again. This is great for rewinding a programme you’re watching, perhaps a sports event where you just missed an important moment.

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LaCinema ships with software for Windows and Mac computers for setting up your media streaming. This sets the relevant settings on your machine for allowing sharing of content to your LaCinema over the network. For the Mac, TwonkyMedia is used for setting up this feature and is fully DLNA and UPNP ready for connecting with compatible devices. This allows devices to very easily browse and access content stored in shared directories. On booting up TwonkyMedia for the first time, it did a quick scan of my computer for media, and within a few minutes I was able to see all of this content collated together on LaCinema. I was a bit unsure as to whether the LaCinema would be compatible with some of the video codecs that were used to encode some of the content that was on my computer.

Surprisingly it was able to playback nearly every video I tried out. Ranging from standard mp4 content to 1080p .mkv videos, LaCinema just played them all without any problems. This is a killer feature for those who have HD content locked away on the computer – here’s a device that will let you view it from the comfort of your living room without resorting to burning DVD’s or Blu-Ray.

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Whilst the LaCInema trumpets a whole bunch of useful features, there are some areas that still need a bit more refinement. I’ve mentioned the lag that I experienced when using the menu system. The area where this is the most annoying is when you’re navigating the EPG. Scrolling through the list of channels and seeing what’s on suffers from a one-or-two second delay when you page to the next screen of channels. The digital tuner inside the box is only a single tuner, so if you’re recording one programme, you won’t be able to switch to a different channel unless you interrupt the recording. You can however watch other pre-recorded or streamed media whilst you’re recording. LaCinema doesn’t seem to have an off switch. The dinky remote has a power button which appears to switch the box off, but the box remains powered with the blue LED lights staying on, and either the drive or the fans continue spinning because there’s definitely noise coming from it.

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Overall, the LaCinema Black Max ticks nearly all the boxes for the perfect media centre. Functionally, it has everything you need to stream your digital media across your home network and at the same time, takes care of broadcast media with its PVR functionality. It’s HD compatible and it supports a wide range of codec formats. This powerful combination of features makes the LaCinema Black Max a compelling product that is cheaper than a full-blown PC-based media centre.

2009-05-25 Onwah Tsang

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