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.