It's easy to fail when you're making a media streamer. Many have tried to do it and almost all have come unstuck. Even Apple, masters of good design and intuitive user interfaces, fell at virtually the first hurdle with Apple TV.
When we heard about an American product called the A-100 from a company called Popcorn Hour, we couldn't help but get excited. Here was something that offered support for every major -- and a good number of minor -- codecs, had loads of flexibility and didn't cost the Earth. With fingers crossed, we dove into the hype.
The Popcorn Hour A-100 is not currently available for purchase in the UK, but it's available through European and US suppliers. It costs around £185 with VAT but not including any importing charges.
When people see the A-100 -- or as it proudly proclaims across the front, 'networked media tank' -- their reactions are usually the same: "why is it called Popcorn Hour?" and "it looks like an external hard drive". We think it's fair to say it's not the swankiest looking device. Of course, Apple had its chance to make a beautiful media streamer and we got stuck with Apple TV. Now it's the turn of function over form to win the battle for our hearts.
At the front of the machine are two USB sockets, which can be used for memory sticks, a USB keyboard (handy for some tasks) or even external hard drives. Apart from that, there is nothing else on the front panel -- not even a power button.
The back is slightly more intriguing. There is a power socket, Ethernet, HDMI in, S/PDIF out, stereo RCA and composite video RCA outputs, S-Video and component video out.
The supplied remote control is light and comfortable. It has glow-in-the-dark buttons, which are a real blessing if you're going to watch a film in a dimly lit room. During our tests we found that the button layout on the controller was pretty logical. There were some oddities like having to press the stop button when playing a video instead of being able to press the return button to get back to the file list. Still, this is a very minor point.
The key to a good media streamer is flexibility to get files on to the device and then play them. The A-100 supports most video file types and containers, which is a good news. A full list of the supported files is on the Popcorn Hour Web site, but the highlights include MPEG-4 (DivX, XviD and H.264/X.264) and MPEG-2 at both standard and high definition.
The only feature that's very clearly missing from the A-100 is wireless. We have mixed feelings about the decision not to include Wi-Fi: on the one hand, it's convenient and tidier than Ethernet, but having experienced 802.11g to watch streaming video with our D-Link DivX Connected box, it can be unreliable and quite annoying.
The most obvious method for getting video on to the A-100 is to connect it to your network and stream files from your PC. To do this, you'll need to use a piece of software called myiHome. It's not complicated to use: you feed in the location of your photos, music and video and then the Popcorn Hour can play them.
If you've opted to fit a hard drive to the A-100, it can join your home network and you can simply copy files to the disk for playback later. You can also connect to the A-100 via FTP, which might appeal if you want to send files to it from a laptop or even from another machine on the Internet. If you don't fit a hard disk, then by far the best solution for you will be to use USB storage -- either a memory stick or external hard drive.
For a device like this, it's quite important that the user interface is simple and easy to use. Popcorn Hour has done a good job here. When you first turn the machine on you will be presented with a simple screen. From here, you can select to use video, audio or photos. There is also a link to select the media source (USB, hard disk or network device), access the Web services or configure the box.
There are so many features it would be impossible to mention them here, but it would be remiss of us not to mention the A-100s built-in BitTorrent client. To use this system, you simply browse to the Web interface of the device, upload the .torrent file and hit start. The box does the rest.
Picture quality on the A-100 is superb as long as the file you give it to play is of high quality. Trailers from apple.com looked simply stunning, as did our DVD clips. The best results were from HD material.
Sound quality is great too. Again, the quality will depend on the type of file you are playing, but the A-100 will relay Dolby Digital and DTS out via the optical audio output. If you've got an AV receiver, you'll get full 5.1 surround sound.
If you're planning on using the A-100 for music, you should be aware that the audio codec support isn't as good as the video support. The usual suspects are here, including WMA, MP3, AAC (unprotected) and WAV. After a firmware update, FLAC is supported: boxes bought now should include this feature. No OGG support as yet, sadly.
Streaming media from a hard drive is pretty much flawless. The machine doesn't come with a drive by default, but fitting one is easy and high-capacity drives are far from expensive these days. During our tests, media played without stuttering right up to 1080p QuickTime material. We used a variety of material to test this including MPEG-4 video in both Matroska and QuickTime wrappers. The A-100 didn't have a problem with anything we threw at it.
Over the network, we were able to get 1080p video working without a hitch most of the time. There were occasions where playback stuttered, but this might have been a problem with our network or even the file we were playing. The Children of Men trailer stuttered, but the Get Smart clip played flawlessly. Happily, 720p video always worked flawlessly and for the time being, 1080p isn't practical to download with a movie weighing in at 14GB and virtually no TV stations broadcasting in that format.
USB playback was flawless, but only with a fast memory card. Using an older, slower stick meant we got some juddering at times. This isn't the A-100's fault, so if you're planning on playing HD material over USB, make sure it's fast.
You also get access to some Web services with the A-100, but this is the buggiest part of the system. We used the Flickr photo stream and the box hung on us. Other services like Yahoo! Weather were fine, though.
The Popcorn Hour A-100 is a really impressive piece of hardware. It's exceptionally well priced, although you'll have to pay to import it. Even so, it could cost you a little less than Apple TV. Also, Popcorn Hour has continually produced firmware updates that add new functionality to the device. The active user forum on its site has areas where users can suggest features and this feedback is monitored carefully by the company.
The only other product we've reviewed that comes close to the A-100 is the D-Link DivX Connected box, but that device has very limited codec support. Apple TV has the built-in hard drive, easy synchronisation through iTunes, but doesn't support any useful codecs at all.
Edited by Shannon Doubleday