There aren't many products that can are good enough to become part of our long-term reference system. Generally speaking, only equipment that we truly love will make the cut. Our TV, for example, is still a Pioneer Kuro PDP-LX5090, one of the highest-scoring sets we've ever tested. Since we tested the Popcorn Hour A-100 and A-110 media streamers, they've also formed part of our long-term testing environment, and we use one or other of them pretty much every day.
What makes the Popcorn Hour machines so useful is that they provide a solution to a problem that no other company has solved, making it as easy to play media from your PC or Mac on your TV as it is with products like Apple TV, but without the horrible, oppressive restrictions that burden hardware from big companies. The A-100 and A-110 make video playback over a home network simple.
Now, the Popcorn Hour C-200 adds more features and an impressive new design. It's available in the UK for about £300, a considerable mark-up from its US price of $300 (£190).
This is a review of the C-200 as it was shipped to us by the manufacturer. The installed firmware worked pretty much flawlessly, but we've been led to believe that there are still a number of features and improvements that are going to be added in future firmware releases. As improvements occur, we'll update this review.
We'll also be adding a Blu-ray drive to our C-200 shortly. Once we've done it, we'll update this review with our thoughts about the process and
how the C-200 works with it.
The first thing that struck us about the C-200 is that it's larger than the A-110. It's the size of a Blu-ray player, although it's slightly taller than most new stand-alone players. Its front has a large, monochrome display on the left-hand side and a slot on the other side that takes either a PC Blu-ray drive or a SATA hard disk using a supplied drive caddy.
Apart from those two main features, the front of the machine is quite plain. It also sports some basic controls. There's a power button, surrounded by a circular, three-colour LED, to the left of the display, and a button to dim the display and adjust the video output. You also get a simple navigation control that lets you use the C-200's display to navigate through menus. That's handy if you're just looking for some music to listen to.
Menus and responsiveness
Although we like the menus found on the Popcorn Hour A series, we certainly wouldn't argue that they're basic. To cheer everything up, the C-200 features a more impressive video processor, offering some graphically richer layouts. Sadly, these don't extend all the way through the user interface and, at the moment, the second-level playback menus are largely the same as the ones on the A-110. That said, there are strong rumours that this is simply because the first round of machines has early-version firmware installed, and future releases will make the system look more unified.
Even so, there are no major concerns in terms of the menus. Everything works as it should, and the speed of the system is much improved over that of the A-100 and A-110. Interestingly, the C-200 supports Adobe Flash, which none of its predecessors have. This opens up a whole new set of opportunities for graphically rich user interfaces. It's an exciting possibility, but, at the moment, that potential is unrealised.
Picture and sound quality
It always impressed us that the picture and sound quality of the A-100 and A-110 were so good. Audio and video quality is a big deal for us, as you can imagine, so we always use quite a broad range of video content, encoded at different bit rates, to get an idea of how a system can cope.
Our favourite footage originates from Blu-ray, and is provided by The Dark Knight. IMAX scenes in the most recent Batman movie have amazing clarity, and it's those that we looked at, along with some of the darker scenes, to see how the C-200 copes with high-definition video. This footage has been our non-disc-based 1080p test material for some time, and we're pleased to say that the C-200 played it perfectly. The early bank-robbery scene looked truly epic, as did footage shot on more traditional 35mm film stock.
Audio quality is also excellent, and the C-200 can decode Dolby Digital and DTS surround sound with no problems. If you want to hear DTS-HD MA and Dolby TrueHD, you'll need to hook the system up to a separate AV receiver, but the C-200 is happy to pass this audio, untouched, via the HDMI socket.
All media-playback devices rely very heavily on the source material being of high quality. The old adage 'garbage in, garbage out' holds true here. The C-200 won't make low-quality material look like it's HD, so you should make sure your video is of the highest possible quality.
Unlike the A-110, the C-200 comes with a radio-frequency remote control. There are several advantages in having an RF remote instead of an infrared model. The main benefit is that you don't need to have direct line of sight to control the player. This was an issue with the A-110, which wasn't anywhere near sensitive enough, incurring complaints from people who found the machine unresponsive to remote commands.
The problem with RF remotes is that they don't work with most universal remote controls. That's a problem for people who've built home-cinema systems that are reliant on something like a Logitech Harmony 1100. The good news is that you can order an IR remote and receiver dongle. Popcorn Hour also intends to add discrete IR codes too, which is another massive boon for people who want to more sophisticated control systems.
Like previous Popcorn Hour models, the C-200 offers plenty of options if you like tweaking and improving performance. On the hardware side, you can add a Wi-Fi card to give the C-200 access to your wireless network. Wireless connectivity is convenient, but it's not always the best choice for streaming HD media.
There are also good options for playing back media from USB storage. The four external USB sockets mean you can plug in hard drives and USB keys to watch video, listen to music or look at photos. There's also an internal USB socket, which is mainly designed to be used for persistent storage with a Blu-ray drive, and, indeed, if you're fitting a Blu-ray PC drive, you'll need a minimum of 2GB to act as persistent storage for Blu-ray discs.
As with the A-100 and A-110, you can fit a hard disk to the C-200 and use the advanced features, like BitTorrent and news-group support. Fitting a drive is incredibly easy, and, depending on what sort you're going to use, will either be a 5-second or 10-minute job.
If you aren't going to fit a Blu-ray drive and are planning on using a desktop-PC-size SATA hard disk, then installing it couldn't be easier. You simply open the door on the right hand side of the unit -- with the power off, of course -- and slide the drive in. That's it. All you need to do now is format the drive using the set-up menu and install the NMT tools that add FTP, torrent and news-group support.
If you want to add the optional Blu-ray drive to the Popcorn Hour, there are additional steps to follow. Firstly, you need to remove the SATA drive bay, which is done by unscrewing the lone screw at the back of the C-200. Once you've removed the lid, you'll see what needs to be done to remove the SATA drive bay. From there, the process of installing a Blu-ray drive is the same as it would be on a PC, and two sets of SATA connectors for power and data are provided.
If you're adding a Blu-ray drive, but still want a hard disk, you'll need to obtain a 2.5-inch laptop-style hard disk. Underneath the SATA caddy, you'll see there's a bracket mounted to the base of the C-200. This is where you install the 2.5-inch disk. It shouldn't take you more than a couple of minutes to do. Remember that it needs to be a SATA drive to work in the C-200.
You should make your own decisions about downloading TV shows and movies from the Internet. You should remember that downloading copyrighted material could potentially land you in legal trouble down the road. With an installed hard drive, the C-200 can happily torrent files for you, which you can add via a simple Web interface. It can also use NZB files to get content from news groups, if that's how you roll.
There's also a built-in FTP server, which enables you to transfer files from a PC on your network, or even via the Internet, if you set up your home router in the right way. This is handy if you want to move large amounts of data to the hard drive, or if your network isn't fast enough to cope with HD streaming.
We looked at some video from Internet-based companies like Revision3, and sharing sites like Flickr and YouTube. These services vary enormously in their quality and usability. The Flickr app, for example, is horrible, and renders images at a very poor quality. On the other hand, the Revision3 interface is easier to use and of a reasonable quality. That said, we weren't impressed by the online-content menu -- the whole thing needs to be redesigned from the ground up, with higher-quality content and a faster interface.
We like the idea that you can access online content, though, and the C-200 has one of the broadest selections we've seen in a device like this. It's not far off brilliance, but it isn't quite there yet.
Improvements in photo and music handling
One of the problems we had with the older Popcorn Hour devices was that their handling of music and photos wasn't all it could be. Other devices, like the Western Digital WD TV and the Seagate Freeagent Theater, manage photos quite well. Happily, Popcorn Hour has improved the situation with the C-200, which now offers more to people hoping to use it for photo slideshows.
Also, because of its more powerful processor, the C-200 can now do some limited multitasking. For example, if you're playing music, you can opt to switch to the photo-viewer mode and look at some of your favourite holiday snaps at the same time. That's a welcome addition, and we're jolly pleased to see it.
The only problem we have with the C-200 is that it's more complicated than we'd like. Talking in the office, one of the things we agreed on was that the situation with Blu-ray drives is less than ideal. Firstly, at the time of writing, there's no option to buy the C-200 with a Blu-ray drive included. We're sure that resellers of Popcorn Hour hardware will add the option of a Blu-ray drive as time goes on -- as they did with hard drives in the past. That will help the situation, but also increase the C-200's price.
The problem with Blu-ray drives is larger than the question of just fitting one, however. Not only must you purchase your own drive but it also has to be one from a reasonably small pool of SATA drives that work with the Popcorn Hour chipset. Firmware updates will increase the pool of compatible drives, but this still complicates things. There's a full compatibility list on the Popcorn Hour wiki.
We're also aware that there are a plenty of reported issues with the C-200's firmware. During testing, we didn't encounter any significant problems, but there are reports that 1080p video using the MKV container and encoded in a certain way will drift out of sync. We tested such a file and saw no problems, but that doesn't mean other files won't suffer from this issue. Again, this bug will be fixed, but we must offer a word of caution to anyone considering this machine: it's a great device, but it's not without the occasional, temporary bug.
The Popcorn Hour C-200 isn't for everyone, but, for people seeking video playback of files from their network or via USB storage, we think there's no better machine. It offers support for almost every video codec on the planet, and ones that aren't supported at launch could possibly be supported later on through firmware updates. If you don't know what a firmware update is, this isn't the product for you.
If you like the idea of the C-200, but don't like the problems you get with a new and buggy product, then you might find the A-110 a better bet. Apart from Blu-ray support, the older machine offers many of the same features and has a slightly more stable firmware build. That means you'll get excellent video playback on an established platform.
Edited by Charles Kloet