It's not often we run across a truly innovative product, but LaCie's Silverscreen mobile hard drive and multimedia player is just that. (Unibrain's iZak seems to be virtually the same product, though we didn't test it and cannot speak for its performance.) Though it's a sluggish performer when attached to a PC and it holds only 40GB or 80GB of data on its 2.5-inch platters, the fact that it can play back video, pictures, and music directly to any TV with an analog, S-Video, SCART, or composite input is very cool. It even includes its own thin remote, so you can lie back on a hotel bed (or your in-laws' couch or your buddy's bean-bag chair) and veg to your heart's content. People who travel often and don't like to be without their favorite movies or digital photos will appreciate the Silverscreen's portability and ease of use, even at a pricey $299 for the 80GB model ($249 for the 40GB version).
The 5.5-inch-long, 3.5-inch-wide, 1.1-inch-thick Silverscreen is small and light enough to be portable and plays back a broad array of file formats: MPEG-1 video; VOB movie parts, AVI movie files, or DVD movies ripped in ISO-image format (though not DVD file structures); MPEG-4 DivX or Xvid movies; MP3, WAV, WMA, AAC (Windows, not Apple M4A), and AC3 audio files; and JPEG-image files. Simply copy the media from your PC to the Silverscreen's folders, and you're ready to go. The Silverscreen's picture is quite nice--on a par with or better than that of any of the DVD players we've used. Also, the output is scalable to 1,920x1,080i or 1,280x720p, which means you can take advantage of a high-definition TV.
A translucent plastic casing covers the Silverscreen's silver metal liner for a deep, lustrous look and amazing toughness, making this drive brawny enough to survive an inadvertent drop to a hard surface from about 2.5 feet. The drive also ran only slightly warm to the touch even after 30 minutes of steady playback in our tests, which is impressive, as hard drives tend to run hot after prolonged use. The thin-profile, infrared remote is nicely responsive, and although we're not in love with its membrane-style keypad, the remote's layout and button spacing is good enough to make up for it. Minor caveats: the analog to S-Video/composite converter cable that you need to attach the drive to a TV is nearly as bulky as the drive itself. We also found the 10-foot onscreen TV interface--the large menus designed for you to read at a distance--a bit sluggish, and we managed to crash it a couple of times trying to get info on unsupported files. We had to power down then up again to recover. However, generally speaking, the drive is easy to use and it's stable, and the firmware is upgradable (by the user), so these issues will most likely be fixed.
The Silverscreen draws its power via the USB cable when you attach the drive to your PC. Attached to a TV, it runs off a mini-USB to an AC power adapter (the unit has no AC jack). There's also a USB pass-through adapter with both a mini-USB port and a normal USB port on the output side, so you don't have to waste a USB port on your notebook when you plug in the Silverscreen. The kit also includes a SCART adapter (a European video interface) and the SilverKeeper backup utility for Macs. LaCie relies on the XP backup component for PC users who want to use it to back up their computers.
As auxiliary storage for your PC or notebook, the Silverscreen is less impressive than it is as a multimedia player. In our informal hard drive read/write tests, it took a laggardly 48 seconds to copy a 400MB folder of files to the drive and an even more sluggish 2 minutes, 14 seconds to copy a 1.9GB large file. These were the worst numbers we've seen out of USB 2.0 drives, which generally average around 60 to 80 seconds to copy the large file. However, playback performance to TV was smooth, even when playing cinematic-quality DVD rips.
The Silverscreen's mediocre quick-install guide tells you little to nothing about the adapters (mentioned above) included in the package. The user manual on CD is a heck of a lot more informative, but since the product can be used sans PC on the road, better hard copy is in order. LaCie covers the Silverscreen with a standard one-year warranty. Phone support is available; unfortunately, LaCie provides only a toll number, and the support desk is open only Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. PT. Online help for the Silverscreen is limited to an information request form and a couple of FAQs.