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Popcorn Hour A-210 review

In recent years Popcorn Hour has become the face of open source media playback and streaming. We take a look at the latest offering in the A-210 and see what exactly Sybas has been up to since the C-200...

This article originally appeared in issue 95 of Linux User & Developer magazine.

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Processor Sigma Designs SMP8643, 667MHz CPU
Memory 512MB DDR2 DRAM, 256MB flash ROM
Dimensions 270 x 132 x 32mm
Weight 1kg
Connectivity HDMI v1.3a, component video,S-Video, composite video, stereo
analogue Audio, S/PDIF optical and coaxial digital audio, 2x USB 2.0
Price: 130

Pros: The chassis design is considerably more attractive and build quality is infinitely more solid than previous efforts. The NMJ, too, is a step in the right direction
Cons: The hardware on board hasn’t moved on for a while now, and the bundled Network Media Jukebox is far from faultless and no match for YAMJ jukeboxes

Popcorn Hour is a brand that has been carving a niche in the media playback and network streaming business since creator Syabas first coined the phrase Network Media Tank (NMT) with the release of the game-changing A-100. With the release of the A-200, the open source software-powered media player was really starting to make an impact on the burgeoning home cinema market and Popcorn Hour was fast becoming a force to be reckoned with in terms of incredible file format compatibility and usability.

The brains behind the latest Popcorn Hour are confident they’ve really nailed it with the A-210, which appears to have taken a lot of the criticism of their previous players on board and rectified more than a few old niggles. Of course, in the three-or-so years since the first Popcorn Hour first touched down, the landscape has changed quite considerably. Apple’s recently revamped Apple TV and D-Link’s Boxee Box (reviewed on pages 74-75) are just two examples of major players setting their sights on this fast-growing sector.

This being the case, Syabas has had to raised its game, but you only have to lift the A-210 out of the box to see how much trouble the company has gone to in fixing the first fundamental flaw of previous Popcorn Hour players. Gone is the cheap black plastic of the A-200 and the cheap, wonky buttons that plagued the C-200. The A-210’s chassis is sleek, sturdy and seriously attractive. The brushed metal finish won’t look out of place in any lounge or den, though it is small and unassuming enough to hide neatly away should you feel the need.

Stripped back to the core, the hardware on offer is still essentially the same as its most recent predecessor, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The backbone is already more than enough to take on the toughest 1080p challenger and (true to Popcorn Hour’s previous form) it will play just about any file or format you’d care to send its way. Connectivity too is well catered for – see ‘specs’ at the top of the page for a full breakdown.

Instead of beefing up the hardware and putting an unnecessary premium on the price, Syabas has made the right decision in concentrating on chassis design and software support. A sexy new look is one thing, but with the A‑210 Syabas has also been able to do away with the noisy fan that featured in the A-200 – one of its biggest bugbears.

Of course, Popcorn Hour players are known for much more than flawless local playback and network streaming capabilities. With a hard drive fitted and a healthy dose of excellent open source software support, they’re also capable of handing BitTorrent downloads, Samba shares, Usenet, FTP access and internet TV streaming. To take things up a notch, users are being treated to a new front end with the world’s first native NMT jukebox software solution which has been specifically designed to prettify the Popcorn Hour’s previously dour front end.

It offers a more dynamic and visually appealing user experience with DVD sleeves, movie details and more being automatically scraped from the Internet Movie Database. While the A-210 is the first Popcorn Hour to feature the Network Media Jukebox (NMJ), Syabas  (in its unusually open fashion) has also included it in its most recent firmware update for A and C-200 customers.

To cut a long story short, however, as amazing as the Sigma processor is for video playback, it’s no general-purpose CPU, so it simply can’t conjure up a pretty front end in the manner to which home theatre enthusiasts are accustomed. This being the case, while the new Network Media Jukebox is certainly revolutionary, it’s no replacement for more dynamic solutions like the jukeboxes you can create from your computer with something like YAMJ (Yet Another Media Jukebox).

Verdict: 4/5
The Popcorn Hour A-210 offers a vast improvement over the cult A-200 NMT in terms of both build quality and looks. While the hardware under the hood is essentially the same, Popcorn Hour still deserve plaudits for managing to create a silent-running solution much more in tune with today’s aesthetic sensibilities.