The LaCie LaCinema Premier is essentially a big hard drive with audio and video outputs and a remote control. It's designed to sit in your entertainment center and play back audio, video, and photo files on your TV and sound system without having any contact with your computer or the Internet. Numerous other devices can do the same thing, but the LaCie's claim to fame is the ability to directly play back ISO, IFO, and VOB files from DVDs. Of course, you're only legally allowed to rip DVDs that aren't copy-protected, which pretty much eliminates any Hollywood release, but for those willing to skirt the Feds with their DVD ripping, this is a great feature. Unfortunately, we ran into a few playback issues during testing, and the device's video quality could be sharper, especially for something billed as a high-def upconverter. Still, if you're willing to put up with a few hiccups, you don't care about music or photo functionality, and you don't already get your video fill from a networked PC, game console, or AppleTV-style device, then the LaCinema Premier may deserve a look.
Externally, the LaCinema Premier isn't much beyond a small (6.6 inches tall by 2.8 inches wide by 4.6 inches deep) black box, A couple of LEDs indicate power, playback, and HDD access, and there are front-panel controls for menu navigation as well as Stop and Play. The included clicker is packed with mostly unused buttons, and the crowded arrangement doesn't do you any ergonomic favors.
The menus are disappointing compared to something along the lines of an AppleTV or PlayStation3, both in aesthetics and functionality. The first screen you see, with icons for the three file types (Movies, Music, and Pictures) plus a setup menu, is the looker of the bunch. Selecting a media type conjures the standard Windows file tree, which includes as its first screen yet another screen with Movies, Music, and Pictures folders.
Drilling down to the content you want can be quite painful if you have lots of nested folders and files. It took the LaCie about 16 seconds, for example, to show the contents of one folder containing about 500 folders, and navigating that list was pretty annoying. The button labeled Page Down just jumps to the bottom of the list; we eventually figured out that REW and FFWD are used to page down a list, which is still relatively tedious. A navigation aid as simple as one found on any cell phone contact list--pressing "2" for files beginning A, B and C, and so forth--would be very welcome, and a system that could recognize ID3 tags for easier sorting and searching (imagine that!) of MP3s would be even better.
The LaCie can't even initiate a global shuffle that randomly plays every song on the device; all of the shuffled songs must be located in the same folder--a big no-no given the LaCie's clunky folder-based navigation. The only saving grace is that we expect most users of this device to focus on video files, which will be fewer because of their significantly larger size, and thus easier to navigate using folders.
Compounding our annoyance was the spotty response; on many occasions the LaCie took more than one button-press to react to the remote, which caused all sorts of headaches. In its favor, the LaCie's clicker can page through menus relatively quickly.
Happily, setup was a breeze. Lacie includes some software, but it's not necessary to install any of it to get content onto the drive. We simply hooked the included USB cable to a free USB 2.0 port (transfers via USB 1.0, as expected, are tediously slow) on our PC, dragged all of our media over to the appropriate folders, then walked away for a couple of hours. The only issue came when we tried transferring a bunch of ISO files larger than 4GB. Since the device comes formatted in the FAT32 file system, for compatibility with Mac as well as Windows, the file size is limited to 4GB or less--so even a standard ripped DVD (4.7GB) is too large. Windows users can check out the Tip below for a workaround, which involves reformatting the drive to NTFS, after which the LaCie will play files larger then 4GB. While LaCie is compatible with Windows, Mac, and Linux, this compatibility is less impressive when you consider it works with Mac only in the somewhat crippled FAT32 mode. We also would have liked the ability to transfer files using a USB flash drive--so we didn't have to disconnect the LaCie and drag it to our PC--but it needs a PC connection to transfer files.
After everything was uploaded onto the LaCie, we disconnected the power supply, walked the unit into the living room, found a nook in our entertainment system that the remote could still reach (it would be nice of LaCie to include an IR extender so the box could be stashed out of sight), reconnected the power, and hooked the AV jacks into our system. Of course, to put more files on the LaCie or remove them, you'll need to reconnect the unit to a PC. Unlike many media players, the LaCinema Premier is not designed to connect to a network.
The LaCie LaCinema comes in three capacious varieties: 500GB, 750GB, and 1 terabyte. Assuming an average file size of 4.5GB, that's more than 110 DVDs for the smallest version. It's also compatible with a good number of file types:
Unfortunately, the LaCie lacks support for MOV (QuickTime movies), VRO (specialized VOB file created by some DVD recorders), and earlier DivX versions. There's also no support for the increasingly popular MKV video file format. We'd also like to see support for more audio formats, particularly higher-quality formats such as lossless FLAC and WAV. As expected, it also can't playback DRM-protected music, including songs downloaded from Apple's iTunes store.
Around back, you'll find all of the requisite AV connections with the exception of HDMI. Along with the USB port, there's a component-video output (480p, 720p, and 1080i resolutions), an S-Video output, a composite-video output, a stereo audio output, and both optical and coaxial digital audio outputs. Unfortunately all of the video outputs are not automatically active simultaneously; you'll have to activate the video output you want (and choose between digital and analog audio) manually via the menu system. The LaCie comes set to composite/S-Video output by default.
As we mentioned at the beginning of this review, video playback had a few issues with stuttering and general softness. One of the first videos we tried was a VOB of a wedding copied from a DVD, and the LaCie struggled. It would freeze periodically and start up again, even though Power DVD and Windows Media Player had no problem playing back the same file without freezing. We encountered similar issues on VOB files from a few commercial DVDs (ripped for testing purposes only).
On the other hand, we played back numerous ISO files and didn't encounter any stuttering or other issues. In one instance, playback simply froze the device, necessitating a restart, but that only happened once. We'd recommend anybody who wants to use the LaCie for playback of files that originated on DVD to stick with ISO files. Another bonus is that menus function normally, allowing full use of special features, audio soundtracks, and subtitles, as well as direct access to scenes. The device can play back all of the available audio soundtracks, including alternate-language and Dolby Digital (but not DTS), as long as they're included in the original ISO. It played back uncompressed ISO files, some as large as 9GB (after reformatting to NTFS), as smoothly as smaller ones. We missed the option to toggle through audio soundtracks without returning to the DVD menu, and for whatever reason, the subtitles looked really bad (albeit still legible), but otherwise watching an ISO file on the LaCie convincingly replicated the experience of watching a DVD--right down to the inability to skip the FBI warning.
Other video formats we tried, including our standard suites of DivX, XviD, MPEG, and MPEG-4 test files, played fine. The LaCie did not recognize any of the 1080p test files we downloaded from the Windows Media Video site, however. We tried a variety of music files, and the LaCie wouldn't play back the AAC files we tested, although it handled WMA, OGG, and of course, MP3 (variable and fixed bit-rate) music files without a hitch. Audio playlists, such as PLS, are also not supported.
To check out the image quality of videos, we compared the LaCie (playing back a raw ISO file ripped without compression) directly to a standard DVD player (set to 480i resolution via component-video and playing back a disc created from the same file), and the DVD player looked better. The LaCie's image was softer, regardless of which component-video resolution we selected--indeed, 480p, 720p, and 1080i were indistinguishable to our eyes in all cases. A scrap of printed newspaper and some text, for example, looked noticeably more distinct when played via the DVD player, and on the LaCie we noticed faint trails behind some colorful onscreen graphics against a white screen; these triails weren't visible on the DVD player version. That said, video quality on the LaCie was certainly sufficient for most viewers, and screens smaller than our 50-inch test model will appear sharper.
As a still-photo picture torture test, we used a series of very high-quality image files (12-megapixel JPEGs, averaging 4MB to 8MB each), and again we were struck by the softness of the images. The same pictures fed through our plasma TV's PC input looked a good deal sharper, as did pictures displayed on the PlayStation3. The LaCie did a good job with the slide show, however, transitioning between these large files at a solid clip of five seconds per photo--the fastest allowed by the system. We tried out the "fade in/out" feature but it was pretty lame; it simply brightened the image over a second or two until it reached full brightness, whereas we'd prefer to see two images crossfade into one another. To play a musical background to the slide show, you have to actually move music files into a special folder; we'd much prefer to have access to all of the music on the device.
Music performance was fine. We compared the sound quality of the same selection of MP3 files, played back over the digital and the analog outputs of the LaCie and a PlayStation3, and sound quality was indistinguishable between the two devices. Fast-forward and rewind happened in 15-second chunks instead of smoothly, but that's about our only complaint.