We reviewed the Popcorn Hour A-100 a few months back and were blown away. It was an impressive device, because for around £150 you got a media streamer that can play virtually every video format under the Sun and has enormous flexibility.
Now Popcorn Hour has tweaked the hardware and added some new features for the A-110. We won't duplicate what we wrote in the original review -- instead we'd suggest you read that first, then come back here and discover what the A-110 adds.
The A-110 costs $215 (£115). You can pre-order it direct from the US (you'll have to pay duty on top of that), or buy it from a European retailer, although the exchange rate might make this more expensive. Expect to part with around £185.
The A-110 uses largely the same chassis as the A-100, although there are some small changes that improve the machine considerably. Firstly, one of the USB sockets that was on the front panel has been moved to the back of the machine. This is a good decision, in our opinion. The rear socket would suit things that are plugged in all the time, such as an external hard drive or one of the Popcorn Hour-approved 802.11n Wi-Fi adaptors.
The status LEDs have also been vastly improved. Before, the illumination was unclear, and it was hard to tell what mode the machine was in. There are now three more distinct LEDs that give a clearer indication of when the machine is on, off or in USB slave mode. The network activity LED has gone.
You also now get a reset switch, which is handy if the machine crashes. The only problems we've had with the A-100 or its successor have been when we've been using the Web services, such as the YouTube plug-in. We've been using the A-100 now for some time, and our box has never crashed when we've been using it to watch video.
At the back you get a USB target connector. This allows the A-110 to be connected to a PC, and the internal hard drive -- if you chose to fit one -- to be accessed. This feature might appeal to some, but generally we think you'll find it more convenient to use the built-in FTP server or the UPNP network access to put files on the unit.
The other significant change is that the digital audio output has been switched to optical from coaxial. This might cause some people problems, but in reality most AV receivers have both, and if yours doesn't or all your optical sockets are in use, you can get a converter for less than £10 online.
There are two key additions to the A-110 that deserve a special mention. The first is the addition of DTS decoding. On the A-100 this wasn't included because the licence to do so is quite expensive. Indeed, according to the Popcorn Hour forums, DTS decoding is responsible for most of the cost increase between the A-100 and the A-110 -- around $35. Still, anyone who's tried to watch a DTS video clip on the A-100 without using an AV receiver will be pleased to hear of its inclusion here, although not so pleased the option won't be made available for the A-100.
The other major change is the switch to HDMI 1.3a, which now means the A-110 is technically capable of sending DTS-HD and Dolby TrueHD to a compatible decoder. It can't decode these formats internally however, so make sure your AV equipment can before you get too excited. HDMI 1.3 also makes the A-110 deep colour capable, which might be useful if you have material that takes advantage of the format.
The A-110 has also switched from IDE to SATA support -- we fitted an SATA drive to test the machine fully, and it couldn't have been easier. You simply slide the hard disk on to the connector and then secure it with some mounting screws from the underside of the case. Screws are supplied with the machine, so if you have a drive, you won't need anything else to get it up and running.
As we mentioned before, the A-110 has a USB target connector, specifically designed to copy files to the machine, as you would with any external hard drive. There is one slight difficulty you will run into with this. Because the A-110 is a Linux device it uses the EXT3 filing system, which means that if you plug it into a non-Linux machine, it won't initially be able to read or write data to the drive. Luckily there are EXT2/3 drivers available for Windows and OS X, and these will let you mount the disk on your computer.
There is another option, however -- instead of letting the Popcorn Hour format its own disk, you can simply feed it a FAT 32- or NTFS-formatted drive, which will show up under Windows with no problem. You will not be able to use the built-in Torrent client, however, because the A-110 will lose the ability to save data to the disk.
There isn't really very much to say that's changed from the A-100 in terms of performance.
You can still expect the same great picture quality, and sound either via the analogue or digital outputs is faithful to the original. We did notice that some material had quite low volume levels, which made us turn the TV up to compensate, but we suspect this is more a problem with the media than the box -- generally AC3 soundtracks seemed the quietist.
The menus are the same as those on the A-100. They're exceptionally easy to use, and although some have criticised the Popcorn Hour for being a little basic, we can't really see what the problem is. The basic user interface means anyone can operate it with minimal fuss. Setting up some of the more advanced features requires a little expertise, but that's to be expected.
Generally, getting the A-110 to stream media from your PC is a matter of installing a small piece of software on the computer. Nothing else needs to be done -- there's no configuration, apart from telling the application which folders to share out. The A-110 will simply find the shared content, and allow you to play it.
If you're slightly more technically minded, the FTP and BitTorrent features of the Popcorn Hour are all well designed, and actually surprisingly easy to use.
The A-110 offers a significant improvement over the A-100 without invalidating the usefulness of its predecessor. All of the important elements such as usability, picture and sound quality remain up to the same high standard. The A-110 does offer some extra features that some will find useful -- the switch to SATA will please many, and DTS audio decoding and HDMI 1.3 are a bonus.
In short, if you have an A-100, you don't need to feel left behind -- the A-110 is a worthy step forward, but not an essential one. Ultimately, if DTS downmix, HDMI 1.3 and SATA support aren't important to you, you should grab the cheaper A-100.
Edited by Nick Hide