Reviewed: Popcorn Hour A-110

Hardware

If you've ever tried to build yourself a multimedia PC for watching videos on a television, there are a few things to bear in mind. The PC needs to be as quiet as possible. Few people are going to accept the hum and whirr of a computer while you're trying to watch the conclusion to Miss Marple Investigates.

The machine also needs to be powerful enough to play CPU-intensive high-definition content, which means that the PC is going to generate plenty of heat, which will in turn require a beefy fan or two. Finally, you need to squeeze all of this technology into a case that isn't going to look out of place next to your television. Combine these three issues and building your own media PC seems harder than fitting the 1,186 surviving pieces of the Forma Urbis together. Which is where the stupidly named Popcorn Hour steps in.

Popcorn Hour's sole purpose in life is to perform exactly the same tasks as our mythical multimedia PC - viewing photos, listening to music and watching videos, and it does this using Linux, in silence, taking up the same amount of space you could use to store 12 Cuban cigars. Inside its small, unassuming grey case, there's a tiny circuit board and room for a 3.5-inch SATA hard drive (not included).

Popcorn Hour is also known as the Network Media Tank, which is a good description of its case design, although it's slightly more flexible than a real tank.

Enter the snack

The circuit board holds a Sigma Designs SMP8635 media processor, 256MB of RAM and 32MB of Flash, all of which sounds very humble when compared with a dual-core multigigabyte modern PC. But the Popcorn Hour promises to play nearly every media format we've ever heard of, and more importantly, it promises to do this at high-definition resolutions.

Plugging the box into your home media system is simple, thanks to the inclusion of both an HDMI port (for high-definition screens), and a digital optical output for an amplifier. You can also find component, composite and S-Video outputs, which covers just about every video connection we can think of.

The Popcorn Hour only includes a wired RJ45 Ethernet connector, but a wireless USB extender is available as an optional extra. This is a good design decision, as most wireless networks aren't capable of streaming high-definition content, and you're probably better off using a high-bandwidth Ethernet-over-power solution if you're likely to watch plenty of high-bandwidth content.

High-def

The inclusion of HDMI is a real surprise on a device in this price range, and it's fully compatible with the 1.3a specification, which enables the HDMI connection to transport HD audio as well as video. And the box even includes an HDMI cable, which is more than the costly Playstation 3 can manage.

We had everything plugged in and ready to go within 30 seconds, which is about a third of the time the machine actually takes to boot up when you first turn it on. It's slightly annoying that the device defaults to 'on' when it receives power, rather than a standby mode, and you need to update the firmware when you first turn the box on. Fortunately, that process is almost automatic, requiring just a few presses on the bundled infrared remote. One more reboot and you're ready to go.

GUI problems

The Popcorn Hour's GUI is based on a menu that you slide through using the up, down, left and right keys on the remote control. There's no animation, and there's a slightly delayed response to your key presses. Adding the paths and passwords to configure your media storage devices is painful and requires a degree ofpatience. But with configuration out of the way, you can forget about the input system, and simply use the cursor control to navigate through your media collection.

The rather basic GUI is the only sticking point in an otherwise-mouthwatering canon of capabilities.

The Popcorn Hour is just as happy streaming content from your network as it is reading content directly from a local USB storage device or the internal hard drive. But streaming means that you don't need a hard drive, making the device even quieter in use. You can stream content from any UPnP, Samba, FTP and NFS serving devices accessible from your network.

UPnP is probably the best choice, because it's the protocol used by many network attached storage devices to stream content to the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. The Popcorn Hour can simply slot into this kind of network with no further configuration. UPnP is also the only way to manage how your content is listed, as UPnP sources can sort your media using information such as album name or artist.

For those of us running a standard Linux server, Samba and NFS work well too. You can browse the network for compatible media sources or add them individually using the setup configuration.

There's space in the enclosure for a hard drive, but you can use it without for even quieter performance.

Pop star

We found the photo viewing experience acceptable rather than inspirational. There are slideshow transitions, and each image is displayed using the full resolution of your screen, but the interface lacks the gloss of competing products from Apple and Sony. It's a similar situation with the music and video interfaces, but none of the shortcomings in the user-interface are important. That's because the Popcorn Hour can play almost any format of media we've ever heard of, and that's what counts.

With audio, for example, you can play AAC, MP3, Vorbis and FLAC files as you might expect, but you can also play many surround-sound formats using the audio pass-through option and the digital optical connection on the back of the unit. That means you can play Dolby Digital and DTS encoded music and high-definition audio without any further processing, and that's the first time we've seen that kind of feature outside of a custom MythTV configuration.

Video codec support is even better. Standard and high-definition Xvid, MPEG1-4 and H.264, Windows Media 9 (including DRM), all within AVI, MPEG, MOV and Matroska (MKV) containers right up to 1080p resolution. The Popcorn Hour will even read raw ISO images or VIDEO folders from a DVD, and present the complete DVD experience - including menus, chapters and added features. This makes it perfect as a jukebox for your DVD collection.

We did have trouble playing high-definition content with Samba, but the less-resource hungry NFS protocol solved any glitches we experienced. The only format we could think of that's missing is Ogg Theora, but the array of codec support is still staggering. The device can also act as a decent network attached storage device. With embedded file sharing and server support, it makes an ideal media repository with a hard drive.

You can also use a perfunctory web interface to watch online videos from a variety of online sources such as YouTube, CNN, internet radio and even RSS feeds. And because it's running Linux, the box and the installation is eminently hackable. Even with today's sliding exchange rates, that makes the Popcorn Hour box remarkably good value for money.

Component video, S-Video, HDMI, USB, Ethernet and more - unless you still think SCART is cool, the Popcorn Hour A-110 has ports for everything you need.

Verdict: Cheaper than many NAS devices, yet capable of playing 1080p movies, music and photos. 9/10.

First published in Linux Format magazine

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Can you hack it?

Can I use it as a mythtv front end?

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