There's no sense pretending otherwise - Here at DigitalReviews we love the Popcorn Hour range of Network Media Streamers. From the A-100 we reviewed back in 2008 to the class leading C-200 reviewed a little over 6 months ago, Syabas's Network Media Tanks have all packed quite a punch.
Read on as we take a look at the A-110's successor: The Popcorn Hour A-200.
In case you have been living under a rock, you would know that media streamers are quickly becoming the bedrock of the modern home theatre system.
As opposed to the costly and power hungry Home Theatre PC, media streamers (or as Syabas likes to call them - Network Media Tanks) are relatively cheap, unobtrusive and generally consume much less power.
And while these media streamers can't do everything a PC can do, they do media playback very well.
And right at the top of this media streamer segment is the Popcorn Hour family of devices: The A-200 being the latest NMT from this powerhouse.
IN THE BOX
As expected, the Popcorn Hour A-200 comes with pretty much everything required to get up and running straight away.
Along with the unit itself, a power brick and a backlit remote control (with batteries) is included.
Cabling is fairly consistent with the competition in that the A-200 is bundled with a HDMI cable, a short USB extender and a USB A to B cable. The only real addition we would like to see is that of a patch cable mainly due to its network bent.
As with all previous units tests, included paperwork is brief, with a quick start guide,warranty information and errata rounding out the reading material.
A small bag of screws is also included for those looking to install a hard drive.
While original Popcorn Hour units were really just over ported metal hard drive cases, the A-200's look and feel is completely different.
At a glance, the A-200 looks more like a slightly oversized router and has a new plastic beveled look. A horizontal seam runs around most of the unit which is neat but fairly obtrusive - particularly on its front face. Beneath the seam, on the front left of the unit is a small glossy depression which houses a pin reset switch, USB port and power indicator.
The top of the unit features a high gloss panel with the customary Popcorn Hour branding.
The rear of the unit is more conventional with the A-200 featuring all the ports from the A-110 along with the addition of a coaxial SPDIF port. In fact, other than perhaps an RGB port, its hard to imagine what other ports (if any!) would be worth adding.
The bottom and sides of the unit are nondescript and consist mostly of air vents. We have to say that after looking at the unit on our test bench for a while, the A-200 isn't the prettiest thing in the world. Thankfully, the A-200 isn't built for the catwalk, it's built for playback.
Being totally without fear, we decided to throw caution to the wind and transplant our old A-110's internal 500GB 2.5" hard drive straight into the new A-200.
Once opened up, we saw the familiar innards of a Popcorn Hour, albeit with one instantly recognisable difference. Whereas all the other units we have reviewed in the past - including the A-200's sister unit, the C-200 - had passive cooling, the A-200 cools its sigma 8643 processor with a small fan.
While we considered the ramifications of including active cooling to the unit's running noise, we discovered another philips screw holding down the plastic hard drive tray and promptly removed it.
Despite our reservations with the all plastic enclosure, we must say that the hard drive mounting mechanism works very well. Once the hard drive is screwed onto the removable plastic mount, the plate slides into place neatly and easily. This in turn is held down securely by reapplying the screw removed earlier.
We connected up power, HDMI and ethernet to the A-200 and within a minute, our Kuro rendered the familiar C-200 menu system. Since the A-200 is essentially just a C-200 minus the ability to install an internal BD-ROM drive, this wasn't surprising.
Despite the neat, if simple interface, both the A-200 and C-200 are due to receive what Syabas is calling a Rich UI which should vastly improve the onscreen experience, if this preview is anything to go by.
While we usually check for a firmware update before we do any anything else, we just had to find out if our hard drive transplant gambit came off. It turns out that the A-200 happily accepted our A-110's hard drive and all its contents survived the transplant without issue. May luck always favour the foolish!
Having confirmed the transplant, we did a quick check for firmware updates and sure enough, one greeted us. While checking for firmware updates via the unit itself isn't revolutionary, it sure is handy!
Like the C-200, the similarity between the A-110 and A-200's menu options made setting up the A-200 a breeze. After a few short minutes, we managed to add some network shares to complement the media stored on our transplanted hard drive.
During our time with the A-200, we tried a large number of files and found that on the whole, the experience was, as expected, much like that of the C-200.
The A-200 played back two Blu-Ray ISOs we procured flawlessly, albeit with "simple" menus. Simple menus are best described as a basic way to navigate content, whereas display of full menus allows all the nice title specific GUI each Blu-ray contains to be displayed. This inability of the A-200 to display full Blu-Ray menus is probably the only noticeable on screen difference between the A-200 and the C-200.
It is worth noting that after our initial C-200 review, we attempted to playback one of these Blu-Ray ISOs to little success. With updated firmware however, both ISOs tested on the A-200 now work perfectly on the C-200. And unlike the A-200, these Blu-Ray ISOs played back with "full" menus.
The Blu-Ray ISOs tested had a variety of audio formats which the A-200 passed on to our Pioneer receiver via HDMI without issue: Linear PCM, DTS Master Audio and Dolby Digital HD, all worked perfectly.
Interestingly, MKV files containing HD audio - DTS-MA specifically - were not passed through correctly and resulted in only the DTS core to register on our receiver. MKV files with all other audio encoding (DTS, Dolby Digital, Stereo, etc.) all played back without issue.
Like the Blu-Ray ISO issues we encountered on the C-200, we are confident a firmware update will solve this issue in the near future.
Beyond this, we had no issues with playback of media bar one bug which we were also able to reproduce on our twin C-200 also: When a video containing stereo sound is played following one that is encoded with Dolby Digital (and vice versa), video output occurs without sound (audio passthrough).
While we have discovered that cycling the input on our receiver returns audio, we would suggest a firmware update will fix this in the near future.
All the other usual file formats: MKV, AVI, WMV, DVD ISOs, etc. all played back as expected as they have done with previous Popcorn Hours. FLV files however, continue to buck the trend and refused to play.
For all intents and purposes, the A-200 on screen experience - both menus and playback - are identical to that of the C-200. To this end, we suggest you take a look at the C-200 review for additional information on playback compatibility and the basic on screen experience.
The new plastic case never got hot enough to warrant mentioning and while the active cooling did result in a low audible hum, the sound produced was relatively negligible once the unit was placed in a cabinet.
As a media server, the A-200 performed much like the A-110 and C-200 before it. Despite its Gigabit Ethernet port, the A-200 still works as only a 100Mbit one. While this isn't ideal, streaming full Blu-Ray ISOs worked without issue so unless you are transferring data to or from an internal drive, this shouldn't really be of concern. For large file transfers, USB Slave is supported via the USB B port on the rear of the unit, in any case.
Like the C-200, the A-200 supports UPnP, FTP, myiHome, Samba and NFS connectivity.
As for the remote, beyond the silver colour the A-200's remote control is nearly identical to that of the C-200. The only difference is that the backlight on the A-200's remote is white (orange on C-200) and the A-200 remote works via Infra-Red as opposed to the C-200's RF. Having gotten used to the non-linear nature of the C-200's RF, pointing the A-200's remote at the unit was a little cumbersome, but in fairness, it was no more so than using any other IR remote.
Windows Media Connect
Windows Media Player NSS
Media Servers: myiHome, myiHomeLite, myiHomeMS (UPnP), MSP Portal
Third-party media servers: WizD, SwissCenter, Llink, GB-PVR
NAS Access : SMB, NFS, FTP
Casgle iDVR RSS feed downloader
Video : Revision 3, Videocast, CNET TV, Mediafly, Mevio, Bliptv, Break Podcast, CBS Evening News, CNN Anderson Cooper 360 Daily, CNN The Larry King Podcast, NBC Today Show, The CNN Daily, CNN In Case You Missed It, NBC Nightly News, NBC Meet The Press, CBS Face the Nation, Podfinder UK, Motorz
Audio : Jamendo, iPodcast, BBC Podcast, Indiefeed, CNN News, ABC News
Photos : Flickr, Picasaweb, Pikeo, 23, Photobucket, SmugMug
RSS feed : Yahoo! Weather, NMT Forum, Bloglines, Cinecast, MSNBC News, Traffice Condition, Yahoo! Traffic Alerts, Yahoo! News, Weather Bug
Peer-to-peer TV : SayaTV
Internet Radio : SHOUTCast™ Radio, Radiobox, Live365 Radio
Supported Media File Formats
MPEG1/2/4 Elementary (M1V, M2V, M4V)
MPEG1/2 PS (M2P, MPG, DAT, VOB)
MPEG2 Transport Stream (TS, TP, TRP, M2T, M2TS, MTS)
AVI, ASF, WMV
MOV (H.264), MP4, RMP4
MPEG-4.2 ASP@L5, 720p, 1-point GMC
MPEG-4.10 (H.264) : BP@L3, MP@L4.0, HP@L4.0, HP@L4.1
WMV9 : MP@HL
SMPTE 421M (VC-1) : MP@HL, AP@L3
MPEG audio (MP1, MP2, MP3, MPA)
WMA, WMA Pro
MPEG-1 Layer 1, 2, 3
DTS, DTS-HD HR, DTS-HD MA
Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby True HD
ISO, IFO navigation
Simple BD navigation
JPEG, BMP, PNG, GIF
SRT, MicroDVD SUB, SSA, SUB/IDX
Cardea DRM (WMDRM-ND)
Janus DRM (WMDRM-PD)
Sigma Designs SMP8643, 667MHz CPU with floating point coprocessor.
512MB DDR2 DRAM, 256MB NAND Flash
HDMI v1.3a, 36bpp deep color, 12-bit xvYCC processing and HDCP 1.2 content protection
Stereo Analog Audio
S/PDIF Optical and Coaxial Digital Audio
Power LED and Attention LED
1x USB 2.0 host at the front
1x USB 2.0 host at the back
1x USB 2.0 slave at the back
Internal mounting for 2.5" or 3.5" SATA HDD
Infra-Red Remote Control
Full power down, standby and power up by remote control
Service pin hole for TV Mode switching and shutting down without remote control
Special designed fan that generate very low noise
Ethernet 10/100/1000 Mbps Compatibility_Lists
**Gigabit support depends on Switch/Router compatibility
Input 100~240V AC, 50~60 Hz
Output 12V DC, 3A max
typical : 8 W (no additional device installed/attached)
maximum : 36 W
Width x Depth x Height : 270mm x 150mm x 50mm (10.63" x 5.90" x 1.97")
Popcorn Hour A-200 (HDD not included)
IEC 60320 C13 power cord
12V 3A AC-DC Adaptor
1.5M length HDMI cable
IR Remote Control with 2 "AAA" batteries
Screws for 2.5" / 3.5" HDD
Quick start guide
Last minute notes
For a comparison between the A-200, C-200 and the (previous generation) A-110, be sure to take a look here.
Overall, the A-200 is simply a C-200 wrapped in a plastic shell that has rudimentary Blu-Ray support. The outer case isn't the prettiest thing on the planet, but behind a glass cabinet it doesn't really bear mentioning. This also goes for the new active cooling which was barely audible at worst.
We did mention some small niggles (DTSMA in MKV containers) and the strange audio switching issue, but like many other small problems, we're confident updated firmware will put these to bed.
Playback support was as good as it ever was and despite its current user interface being better than average, the coming soon Rich UI will only solidify Popcorn Hour's seat on the Network Media Streaming throne.
Overall, the A-200 is a solid performer and depending specifically on your Blu-Ray playback needs, a good alternative to the top of the range C-200.
The A-200 is available now from Popcorn Hour's website and will set you back $179US.
Our rating? 8/10.