Satellite receivers, games consoles and even TVs are getting in on the whole networking 'thing' these days, so standalone media streamers need to offer a lot to warrant attention – like the LaCinema Black Max £350 hybrid box from French PC accessory manufacturer LaCie.
For that outlay you get 1080p-capable multimedia streaming/playback, a 500GB hard disc and a single tuner Freeview PVR (HD terrestrial support is touted, although this is not suitable for the UK) in one.
Measuring 234 x 225 x 46mm, it's black (with a slight reddish tinge) case resembles a flashy media centre PC.
The fascia is pretty featureless save for a USB port and a tiny amber LED drive light. A blue light emanates softly from beneath but, oddly, there's no red light to tell you when you're recording – presumably it would've spoiled the minimalist effect. It's also rather noisy in operation.
Rear connections are comprehensive and include HDMI and component outputs and an optical digital audio output with Dolby support.
There's also a UHF loop-through but, confusingly, the aerial input on our test model is labelled 'aerial out'.
The chocolate bar-sized remote is very 'French' and not very intuitive. It has few buttons and the most oft-used (displaying a 'gear' symbol) has multiple uses that can be confusing even with onscreen prompts.
That said, the menu software is slick. In black and white and using chunky icons as a jump-off point, it ensures that you're never more than three or four moves away from getting to what you want.
TV gets its own space where channels can be accessed via a main list. Here, you can view all channels or create and name (using an onscreen keyboard) favourites lists.
Alternatively, a full-screen EPG (again in black-and-white) displays 7-day DVB data as a vertical grid of listings for channels scrollable left to right. This can be sluggish, especially when recording in the background. Pressing info brings up a synopsis for the selected show.
You can start recordings (in transport stream format) while watching, via the EPG or the manual timer with once, daily, weekly and monthly repeat options. These are accessed from the channel list or the video menus. You can play back recordings while recording and fast-forward and rewind them at up to 300x normal speed. Up to 250 hours of recording can be stored.
TV timeshifting is possible and you can fast-forward or rewind at up to four levels of speed indicated by arrows.
External video is possible in composite or S-video quality (leads are supplied) but there's no timer for this and results from our Sky+HD box were a little fuzzy.
We encountered a bug during testing which meant that, when connected via HDMI, returning to live TV from another menu resulted in no sound, requiring us to turn it on again via the menus. We hope this is fixed soon.
The Black MAX's multimedia capabilities are undeniably impressive, with .mov and .mkv supported as well as the usual XviD, DivX and MP4 formats.
Playlists can be created, and decently encoded HD video in particular looks as sharp as the source while upscaled (up to 1080i) video looks noticeably smoother.
The LaCinema Black MAX excels when used as a wired or wireless streamer doing all the setup for you bar entering your WEP key) when establishing a wireless connection. It'll work with Windows Media Connect or Twonkey server software (supplied) which can be synced with your iTunes library and playlists.