In home cinema, 2010 has been the year of the media streamer, that's undeniable. With new devices from Boxee and some interesting hardware from Western Digital that costs less than all the competition and does just as much, the market is becoming crowded.
For us, the Popcorn Hour series has led the charge, with excellent hardware that performs every time. Made by a company called Syabas, based in Hong Kong, its most interesting piece of hardware so far has been the C-200, which had its fair share of teething troubles to start with, but after regular firmware updates has become our firm favourite.
The A-210 is available now to order direct from Popcorn Hour for $199 (£125), but remember you'll have to add international shipping and import duty. UK resellers are yet to stock it, but Advanced MP3 Players sells earlier models for around the £200 mark, so keep an eye out.
The mysterious case of the new case
The A-210 we're looking at here is basically the same as the older A-200, which had a plastic shell that users complained wasn't up to the standard they'd come to expect from Popcorn Hour hardware.
The Popcorn Hour A-210 has a gorgeous brushed metal case instead. As well as satisfying our delicate aesthetic sensibilities, this is an improvement in one important way. The older model needed a fan in order to stay cool -- with the new metal case, heat is dissipated naturally, so there's no need for a fan. This keeps noise to a minimum.
The A-210 has a plethora of video and audio outputs to keep every type of user happy. For standard definition, there's composite and S-Video outputs as well as stereo RCA jacks for audio. Component video gives you HD video in analogue form, up to 1080i. It's a good solution for people with older TVs that can handle HD, but have a limited number of HDMI inputs.
As you would expect, there's HDMI output for HD video. The Popcorn Hour can pump out virtually any video format, so if your TV doesn't support 1080/24p, you can select 1080/30p instead. There are options for every HD format, as well as an auto mode, which will negotiate with your TV for the best video option.
Audio is also available in digital form via coaxial and optical sockets. These can both pass Dolby Digital and DTS surround sound to a compatible AV receiver. The HDMI socket can also pass audio, including Dolby Digital, DTS and the newer lossless formats Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD MA. If your receiver can't support DTS or Dolby Digital over HDMI, the Popcorn Hour can decode both and pass them as LPCM, which has great compatibility.
USB is provided in abundance too. There are two standard USB sockets, one on the back and one on the front. These enable you to plug in thumb drives and other USB devices, such as portable hard drives. The A-210 will find these, and allow you to play media from them. There's also a USB target socket, which allows you to connect the Popcorn Hour to a PC and copy files on to the optional SATA hard drive.
Media playback -- comprehensively simple
Name a type of video, and we pretty much promise the Popcorn Hour can play it. There are some exceptions of course, and it's impossible for a player to support every file from the past and future. But for now, we don't think there's much on the market that betters the Popcorn Hour in this respect.
All your media files are listed by their text file names. This is possibly one of the less beautiful choices the Popcorn Hour people made, but we really like it. It's simple, there's no lag while it loads thumbnails and you can scroll around the list quickly and find what you're looking for. The file names are also presented in full, which is rare on a media player, and when you've got dozens of episodes of a particular TV show, it makes a huge amount of sense.
Apple lovers will always find the Popcorn Hour style less impressive than Cupertino's alternatives. The fact is though, this box is more functional than the Apple TV and plays far more files, so we're happy to accept its less inspiring design elements in return for a box that's useful for more than just propping a door open.
Treat yourself, add a hard drive
Many modern media streamers have their own built-in storage, or the option to add a hard drive if you choose. The Popcorn Hour A-210 is no different, but adding a drive now is a slightly more elegant process. On the underside of the unit are four screws -- once removed these allow a plastic portion of the case to be slid out and a hard drive fitted.
You can install either a 2.5-inch laptop drive, or a 3.5-inch desktop drive. As many people will have a spare hard disk knocking about, this is a pretty good idea, and as long as your drive uses SATA, you'll have no problem fitting it. Simply screw the drive into the caddy with the supplied screws, slide it in and screw the removable section back into place. The action of sliding the caddy in also engages the hard drive, so there's no cables to mess with.
Adding a hard drive is worthwhile because it also allows you to run some additional apps. There are BitTorrent, Newsgroup and FTP options that become available when a hard drive is fitted, which we think you'll find incredibly useful. Once you've got a drive in, you can also use the A-210 to share media with other devices on your network.
Ooh! Optional server software!
If your main use for the Popcorn Hour is to view videos streamed from your PC, you have a number of options available. As you'd expect, the Popcorn Hour can access Windows shares, and for that matter, any 'Samba' network share you care to set up -- on virtually any operating system.
There's also a piece of software called MyiHome which is available as a free download from the Popcorn Hour website. The biggest advantage to this software is that it makes the job of sharing out your video files a great deal simpler. You simply install, select master folders for your video, music and photos and then power-up the Popcorn Hour and it should find your PC straight away.
This enables the Popcorn Hour to search through your files -- only through those stored in the main share, not subsequent watched folders -- and you can use a third-party jukebox system to generate a more graphically rich library of your video files. Having said that, the jukebox functionality is slightly complicated, and probably won't be of interest to many people.
Excellence as a default
Of all the media streamers we've tested, we remain convinced the Popcorn Hour is king when it comes to picture quality. There are very few adjustments available, but the default picture looks excellent. When you're watching a video, pressing the setup button on the remote will drop you into a little menu that enables you to adjust the brightness, which is helpful for tweaking the picture.
Happily, the quality of everything from old Xvid DVD rips to 1080p video look utterly fantastic on the Popcorn Hour. The detail level is out of this world, especially when the source material is well-encoded at a decent bit rate. Colour is always vibrant without being unrealistic and if you were to compare this streamer to a Blu-ray player, we think you'd be pretty hard-pressed to tell the difference.
It's worth pointing out that although modern Blu-ray players offer the ability to play back digital files, much like this A-210 can, the quality is almost never anywhere near as good as the Popcorn Hour range manages.
Audio -- more incredible than ever
We've heard some pretty incredible sound from the Popcorn Hour. The support for the latest lossless audio codecs mean you won't notice a quality difference between a retail Blu-ray and a rip played on the Popcorn Hour.
We watched clips from The Dark Knight and Star Trek on our A-210, and we're very happy indeed with the quality of both audio and video. We're not going to talk to you about the legality or morality of downloading video from the Internet, but it's so much more convenient to watch video stored on a hard drive or network drive -- there are no disc load times or pointless copyright messages.
In the past, Popcorn Hour players have had some audio-sync problems. This has been down to the Sigma chipset used, and recent firmware updates have fixed it for most files. However, this nasty business still rears its head from time to time and there's not much anyone can do about it -- it's complicated. There is the option to tweak the audio delay, however, which can help rescue a file that seems out of sync. That said, this is a rare issue, and of the hundreds of files we've watched, very few have a problem.
A lack of premium streamium
Streaming video from the likes of Revision3 and YouTube is available on the Popcorn Hour A-210, as it is on other players. We rather like the selection on this device -- there's some great material to browse through.
Our biggest problem is there's no support for BBC iPlayer or other catch-up TV services. This is not a technical issue as much as it is a side-effect of the Popcorn Hour developers being US-focused. When some Blu-ray players offer these services, it makes it harder to justify buying a machine like this.
We'll keep our fingers crossed this changes in the future, but of course the issues are so complex -- the negotiations with the BBC aren't simple for companies in the UK, let alone ones abroad -- we're not going to hold our breath.
Network Media Jukebox pretties up the place
A recent update has brought an optional new user interface to the A-200, A210 and C-200 players. Taking the now-familiar style of a wall of video cover art, the Popcorn Hour can query IMDb to find and display information about the titles in your collection.
We like the idea, but in practice it's slightly flawed. It's not hugely responsive, certainly not as fast as the interfaces found on the Boxee Box and Western Digital TV Live Hub. It also gets a little confused if your file names aren't quite specific. Some people will love it though, and it's a valuable move to a more modern interface for a company that's been criticised for having an ugly menu system in the past.
Popcorn Hour won our respect because its products are well-designed, easy to use, support the video codecs we want to play and, most important of all, produce superb pictures and sound. The A-210 is the continuation of a successful line, in a small but well-designed box that will bring happiness and joy to anyone who chooses to invest in one.
We weren't able to give the C-200 an Editor's Choice award when it first arrived, because it had too many problems with its all-new firmware. The A-210 has built on the problems the C-200 experienced, and produces a much more reliable experience. For that reason, it gets an impressive score, and the honour of our coveted Editor's Choice.
Edited by Nick Hide