Component Reviews

Popcorn Hour Networked Media Tank A-110

An inexpensive media controller device with problems which the seasoned computer user could probably handle.

Published on July 28, 2009

Popcorn Hour Networked Media Tank A-110

Popcorn Hour Networked
Media Tank A-110

SRP: $215

Syabas Technology, Inc.
41823 Albrae Street
Fremont, CA 94538
(510) 396-1451 Voice
(510) 979-1189 Fax
http://www.popcornhour.com/



Basic Description

Compact media player that accesses digital video, audio and photos for playback on a conventional TV.  Media sources for streaming or playback include: PC, Network Attached Storage (NAS), digital camera, USB mass storage devices (Flash drive, hard drive, DVD drive), internal SATA HardDrive (not included) and the Internet.  When a HD is installed the A-110 can download files from a NAS or function as a BitTorrent peer-to-peer downloader. Firmware upgradeable. Supports subtitles.  10.5” W x 5.25” D x 1.25” H, 2.2 pounds, remote control.

Audio/Video Outputs: HDMI v1.3a (up to 1080p), Component Video, S-Video, Composite Video, Stereo Analog Audio, S/PDIF Optical Digital Audio

Supported video formats: M1V, M2V, M4V, M2P, MPG, TS, TP, TRP, M2T, M2TS, MTS, VOB, AVI, ASF, WMV, MKV, MOV (H.264), MP4, RMP4, XVID SD/HD, MPEG-1/2/4.2, WMV9, H.264, VC-1

Web Services (video): YouTube, Revision 3 and Vuze, Veoh, Videocast, DLTV, Cranky Geeks, Bliptv, PodfinderUK, Break Podcast, CNN The Larry King Podcast, CNN Anderson Cooper 360, The CNN Daily, CNN In Case You Missed It, NBC Meet The Press, NBC Today, CBS Face the Nation, NBC Nightly News, Mevio

Web Services (audio): Live365 Radio, iPodcast, Radiobox, ABC News, BBC Podcast, CNN News, Indiefeed, Jamendo

Web Services (photo): Flickr, Picasaweb

RSS Feeds: Bloglines, Yahoo! Weather, Yahoo Traffic Alerts, Traffic Condition, Cinecast, Yahoo! News, MSNBC News

Peer-to-peer TV: SayaTV

Internet Radio: Shoutcast

Supported audio formats: AAC, M4A, MP1, MP2, MP3, MPA, WAV, WMA, FLAC, OGG, Dolby Digital, dts, WMA Pro, LPCM, Vorbis and audio pass through for dts, Dolby Digital, dts-HD MA, dts-HD HR, Dolby True HD, Dolby Digital Plus

Photo Formats: JPEG, BMP, PNG, GIF

Associated Equipment

Sony KDS-R60XBR1 60” Rear Projection SXRD TV, Samsung HPT5064 50” Plasma TV, Meridian 568 Preamplifier, Mark Levinson No. 29 Amplifier, Rotel RMB1048 Amplifier, Speakercraft Eazy6 Preamplifier, Oppo DV-980H DVD player, Monster HTPS7000 Signature, Home-brewed NAS (Server with Fujitsu hard drives), Audioquest cables, Linksys Ethernet Router.

Setup

My A110 didn’t come with a manual (either an oversight or…?)  In any case I downloaded the quick start guide online and connected a standard analog cable along with a component video cable (that runs through my matrix switcher).  The first item in the quick start guide is TV mode.  Although there is an auto mode I selected 1080i60 via component.  I notice there is a 1080p60 mode which should get some people excited as no other video component I know of passes 1080p through analog component video cables.

When I first started the machine up there was an initial startup display that took about one minute to load.  Afterwards I was confronted with a simple menu consisting of Media Source, Web Services, and a Setup page.  Icons run across the screen of a movie reel, music notes, a camera and a page of text.  These correspond to the machine’s functions.  First the Media Source location needs to be selected and then you select the photo, video, music, or the text file icon.  The device looks only for files of that type so it is important to first choose what you are looking to do.  Note:  There is a software program available called MyiHome (free) that can be installed on your PC to integrate media and make access from the A-110 easier—i.e. multiple hard drives containing similar media material can be consolidated without the use of computer shares (a way to consolidate multiple hard drives with the same information usually available as separate software to use with a server).

In the Setup Menu there are multiple sub-menus.  Preferences allow you to adjust language (22), subtitles (22 and off), play mode, photo transition type, photo display interval, screen save time, remote key repeat and a Setup page lock.

The AV menu offers a video output adjustment for HDMI, component, and composite video.  I was unable to get component video and HDMI to work simultaneously on the TVs that I used.  There is a frame rate sync option, video zoom type, TV shape and colorspace select.  HDMI audio can be turned on and off and I successfully got audio through the Sony TV with it.  There is a surround mode selection for stereo and 5.1 audio as well as individual settings for analog, digital (raw), and DTS-HD (raw) settings for DTS, AC3 (or DD as it is commonly known), AAC, and WMA Pro.

Network lets you select manual or auto-wired IP address, time zone, time server, daylight savings on/off and there is a section for configuring IP.  The Network share area I set up in a snap.  I browsed for the hard drives on my server and selected what I wanted to access and named them.  I initially had my drives set to spin down when not in use, but this did not work with the Popcorn Hour.  It either froze up when trying to access the drive or it was unable to locate the drive when it was spun down.  When I changed this setting in my server I didn’t have this problem.

There is a section called DVD/Audio CD that lets you set parental control level, autoplay, audio, subtitle and a password.

The maintenance section let’s you update firmware or perform a reset.  I updated and the process took a few minutes to get to 01-17-090204-15-POP-403-000.

Overall, it wasn’t that much more complicated than what you find in a typical AV receiver and DVD player setup menu.  I like the remote control, but it is not backlit and I currently work my equipment from a remote location, so I programmed the functions into a Universal Remote MX-900.  It took only a few minutes and I was able to use the device from the other room via an RF connection.

Part I – Web Services

The Web Services section offers Internet Radio, Media Service Portal, MSP Community and Saya TV.  The first lets you browse by genre, country or language.  There are 34 genre options.  The stations are segmented by datarate: below 96 kbps, 96-160 kbps, and over 160 kbps.  When I selected “Disco” as the genre there were 17 stations under 96, 69 between 96-160 and 9 above 160.  Some stations would not come in and the on-screen display said “buffering…” but nothing ever happened.  I resorted to a hard reset which is located on the front of the A-110—you’ll need it.  Next I selected a Polish jazz station.  Although music played there is no information fed to the TV (unlike Internet radio on the computer) so you can’t tell what song is playing, the artist or album name—nothing.  The STOP button takes you back to the last selection screen and the SKIP BACK button moves you back a screen at a time.

Some channels came on immediately while others took a short time.  Occasionally the Popcorn Hour would say “buffering…” and just when I thought all was lost pressing STOP repeatedly worked and I was able to select something else.  If you have an account then you can get to additional stations.

The Media Service Portal offered…you guessed it—even more media!  It is divided up into video, audio, photo and RSS feeds.  YouTube is one of the video services.  If you’re already addicted, then prepare to waste away hour after hour on the big screen.  Audio feeds including more radio stations and Live365 (which I’ve used in the past for music listening on the computer), CNN and ABC News to name a few.  The photo service offers Flickr access and loads in seconds.  10 photos are displayed on screen to select and then you can advance to 10 more and 10 more and 10 more, etc.  The RSS feeds are just news feeds like those available normally online.  

It would take literally days just to see all the stuff available on here.  The MSP Community has weather forecasts, comics, a TV guide, a Netflix application to sort your queue, etc. and there are even scriptures!

The Saya TV section gives normal people a chance to put their own video on the web, but in more of a TV channel format.  Some of the channels wouldn’t play, but it might be of interest to some, especially as more people use the service.


Part II – Music

I added an entire drive of music to be accessed from the Popcorn Hour that resides on my server.  I have it divided up by genre and then by artist and album.  The process to select music with the A-110 is fairly straightforward and consists of nested folders.  Go through the directory structure until you get to what you want to play.  Most standard CD player controls apply, so hitting PLAY when the songs of an album are displayed will play the entire directory while hitting SELECT will only play the selected song.  Start time is a few seconds and track and timing is displayed.  Pushing a number will advance to the corresponding percentage of the song, i.e. hitting 5 moves to the halfway mark of the track.  The only information visible in the standard interface is the track information and timing.

There is an optical digital audio output and standard RCA analog audio output for connection to the sound system.  The multi-room audio system in my house is strictly an analog, two-channel system (like most), so I ran the audio outputs into my preamp and then switched to the DVD player connection to compare audio quality.  After listening to quite a few CDs and comparing back and forth it was clear the analog audio out of the Popcorn Hour was not as good as the Oppo.  The Toslink would be a better choice unless you have a very cheap AV receiver (with mediocre digital to analog decoding).  If you have a two-channel system and intend to use the A-110 then I would suggest one of the many digital to analog convertors that are available today—many are $300 or less.

A small complaint with the navigation is the time it takes to get to a particular CD that is in the middle of the alphabet.  I have over 500 rock ‘n’ roll discs that reside in a folder called “ROCK.”  To get to a disc that was 300 for example took multiple button pushes as only 11 are shown at one time.  Pushing the button 20 times was a pain, but it was more the issue of the time it took for the machine to actually cycle through page by page to get to the one I wanted.  If there was a search function that would be much, much better.  And what about directories that just had songs in it with more than 2000 songs?!

Part III – Video

My wife has been bugging me about an easy way to watch her TV show DVDs on the TV in the living room and bedroom without constantly having to get up and switch discs.  Many of the DVDs were transferred to the computer, but previously the only way to access and view them was via the computer in our office.  I have been working on a new Home Theater PC for a year now and just haven’t had the time to integrate it easily with the remote and make it stable.  Enter the Popcorn Hour…Of all the features that the Popcorn Hour offers, this was the most interesting to me.  I could always make playlists or select music to listen to directly from our computer (which is always on) and play it through the house, but watching downloaded videos and ripped DVDs on the TV was not possible.

There have been many articles on the best way to rip a DVD to the computer, so I won’t go into too much detail in this review.  There is a guide on the NMT website on the recommended way to rip DVDs using AnyDVD or DVD Shrink and ImgBurn.  The first two create multiple files from a DVD that is in a folder called VIDEO_TS.  The last utility creates a single file (.ISO) that contains all the information present on the DVD.  The guide also explains how to take out previews, audio tracks, etc. to reduce the amount of space the disc takes up on the hard drive.  There is a separate guide on how to compress the files into the H264 format to reduce the size even more.  The guide recommends storing the movies in the .ISO format as opposed to splitting up the disc into smaller files (i.e. the VIDEO_TS method).

Aside from the programs listed above, I have used DVD Decryptor (free) to rip discs and ImgTool Classic (free) to convert to an .ISO.  Since I’ve had movies on a hard drive for years and had chosen to keep complete files in VIDEO_TS folders I just converted one to an .ISO to make sure the Popcorn Hour had no problem reading it.  Having a consistent storage structure is important, because some programs/products have trouble recognizing variances in how the data is arranged.  The Popcorn Hour is no exception.

When .VOB files (the video files under the VIDEO_TS directory that make up the video portion of the DVD) are directly nested under a movie folder strange things occur.  Everything started like normal, but once I got to the screen with a Columbia TriStar logo, the portion of the video repeated, lost sound, and then repeated indefinitely.  I was able to play .VOB files directly (as one of the folders I have contains sound and video trailers in this format).

Movies with VIDEO_TS folders nested under the movie title played fine as did the .ISO file I created.  AVI files played fine as well as some 720p TV material I downloaded.  The AVI files I had in Xvid format were okay quality and looked that way.  There was no jerkiness and audio worked fine.  The HD files looked gorgeous—clear, sharp and colorful.

The Popcorn Hour has the ability to stream Blu-ray movies from the hard drive as well, but I had no easy way to get them onto the server, so I didn’t test this feature.  However, this should come as a comfort to those who wish to take advantage of the newest and best home video technology.

Part IV – Photo

The time and wipe style for slideshows is adjustable from the Setup Menu.  PLAY will start a slideshow in the current directory while select will display just one picture.  High resolution pictures I had looked fantastic and even mediocre pictures still looked quite good.  I had the same issues with navigating through tons of files as I did with any of the media types.

Part V – Text

There isn’t a whole lot to say about this feature, but for those who want to view text files on the TV, then this will do it.  Even on the 1080p Sony I found it a bit difficult to read text on the screen.

Extras

I went in search of additional features/upgrades to the Popcorn Hour and ended up on the site: http://www.networkedmediatank.com/.  The first thing to read is the wiki that includes documentation on how to use the device as well as tons of extra information.  The first useful item I discovered is how to set up the device wirelessly—a configuration that many would opt to utilize.

The standard on-screen display of the Popcorn Hour is a bit sparse (pictures included).  In order to take advantage of the available skins (or design your own) you’ll want to put a hard drive in the A-110.  I didn’t, but included some of the available skins in the review to see.  For the uninitiated, skins are themes that change the look of the display—dramatically.  In addition, there are a few open-source (free) applications like a jukebox application that can be added (pictures included).  I wasn’t able to use any of these due to the lack of a hard drive.  Anyone who purchases one of the A-110 should plan on adding one.

As I researched I was reminded of one of the biggest advantages of opening up a product to customization by others.  Most of the applications have step by step installation instructions and tons of user support on the forums.  In a worst case situation if the company disappears off the face of the earth, the DIYers out there can still “upgrade” the product.

Conclusion

The last media controller device I reviewed was years ago.  Since then there have been many, many changes.  Where streaming video was a dream back in those days it is now commonplace.  There are also a multitude of devices selling (mainly from computer companies) for a few hundred dollars that can manipulate media libraries and integrate music, movies, TV, photos, etc. into a conventional audio/video system when in the past the only solution was a computer.  No device I read about (until recently) seemed reliable enough or met my needs for a device that was easy to set up, could stream video and movies from a server, could play music in the FLAC format and view photos, offered high quality audio and video and had some sort of user support.

Of the devices I found only two seemed of interest.  The first was by a company called SageTV.  They’ve been making media software for years (and I used their PVR program on my computer years ago to record from a satellite box).  They offer a program that works like Windows Media Center and can be used on a HTPC (Home Theater PC).  My past experience with the company led me to them first.  I tried and tried to get the software to work and even with emails back and forth to tech support could not get it working within the 30 day trial period.  When I asked for an extension I was told this was not possible.  Either I could buy it, but if I couldn’t get it working I was stuck, or I could move on.  I moved on.  I have since been trying to get a free program called MediaPortal to work on my HTPC.

My less than satisfactory experience with SageTV software did not stop me from asking for a sample of their media extender, the SageTV HD Theater ($199).  But I never got a reply.  So, when the other company I contacted, Syabas Technology, agreed to send me an A-110 for review I jumped on the chance.

The Popcorn Hour turned out to be a mixed bag.  My concerns one by one:

1)    Setup – I was able to set up the unit almost entirely without any instructions— good because my unit didn’t come with any.  Anything more advanced than the basic configuration or customization requires online reading, guides, fellow user support AND a hard drive.  Basically, the idea of the A-110 as a set-top box is too simplistic.  To get the most out of the Popcorn Hour you need to do some work.  Also, knowledge of computers is a huge plus.  This piece is probably not for the complete novice.

2)    Appearance – The user interface wasn’t the best and the design was very plain.  This can be upgraded as mentioned above, however some of the issues I complained about in relation to navigating large libraries of media do not seem to have a good solution with this device.  The standard interface offers no way to display movie posters or album covers, etc.


3)    Operation – Aside from some delays between selected media and navigating screens the A-110 was pretty good in terms of operational speed.  However, a day did not go by without needing a reset.  My wife suggested putting a reset button on the remote (which is a good idea), but really there shouldn’t be a need for it so often.  Just last night I left the unit on and when I came in to use it in the morning it was frozen and required a reset.  Whenever I tried to do something that the Popcorn Hour didn’t like it would freeze up and multiple button pushes did nothing.  Sometimes it would unfreeze, but usually I would just go straight for the closet to push the reset.  Also, the reset button is a small recessed button (to avoid an accidental push), so I had to leave a screw nearby when I needed to reset it.  I should mention I never have had any problem accessing the exact same media from a computer for the last year and a half.


4)    Picture – Very good except I was not able to connect the unit with both the HDMI and component outputs and have the unit work consistently.


5)    Audio – From the analog outputs the sound was worse than a sub-$300 standalone CD player, so if sound quality is important then I would recommend a D/A converter or using the decoding in a receiver or preamp.

Just about every issue I had with the Popcorn Hour A-110 could be overcome with the exception of the multiple freezing and crashes.  Since there are others successfully using the A-110 I have to assume it is something specific to my system causing the problem, but the Popcorn Hour “as is” can’t get a recommendation from me due to the consistency of the problems.  Buy at your own risk!

– Brian Bloom        big_brian_b@hotmail.com




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