We've long moaned that there's no such thing as the perfect media streamer. We've tested , which is hopeless unless you exist totally in the Apple universe, and even then only if you're a US resident. We enjoyed the , but noted it's far from perfect, and like Apple TV, won't play many formats out of the box. Now we've found another system, called the Popcorn Hour A-100, which promises to do everything we want -- and we're properly excited.
For a start, it will play everything. Yes, that's right. It's not the product of a multinational corporation, so it doesn't have a media file agenda to push. You get support for QuickTime, MPEG-4 in all its flavours, including things wrapped in MKV containers. You can also play MPEG-2, WMV and DivX -- including their HD variants, up to resolutions of 1080p.
The A-100 will also connect to your network via Ethernet. There's no wireless option, so if you must go wire-free, you'll need to use a solution of your own to achieve that, or use. You can also plug in a hard disk -- the unit doesn't ship with one, but the installation is easy and tool-free.
You also get access to online services such as YouTube, Flickr and a metric tonne of news and other stuff. You can even download torrent files, which opens up a multitude of options for accessing media.
If you opt to install a hard drive, the A-100 then becomes a network-accessible storage device, and you can copy files direct to the drive. If not, you can still play media over the network from a PC, or you can simply use USB to store and play media.
Buying an A-100 in the UK is not without some minor challenges. There are a few European companies importing it, who will ship to the UK. Or you can opt to buy it direct and have it shipped over here. The unit costs around $180, which is about £100, but you'll need to pay import duty and postage on top of that. -Ian Morris
Update: Read our full
When our review sample arrived we were quite literally salivating with excitement. Sure, it was possible our hopes and dreams would be smashed when we turned the thing on, but the specification of the A-100 and the buzz online suggested that really wouldn't be the case at all.
Everything you need comes in the box, including an HDMI cable, which we were really impressed by. The power cord is a US type, but that's actually not an issue as you can simply plug a UK kettle lead into the power brick.
The remote control is sturdy and has buttons for absolutely every function. The unit itself doesn't have any controls anywhere on it, so don't lose this or you'll be in a considerable amount of trouble.
Installing a hard drive is no bother at all: the top of the A-100 is secured by thumbscrews and an IDE drive will simply slide into the built-in connector, and is secured by screws on the underside of the machine.
To connect it to your TV you can either use the HDMI socket, which can output at 1080p and some other custom resolutions aimed at computer monitors, or make use of component, S-Video or composite. There are analogue audio RCA jacks and an optical digital output too.
The interface is really simple and you'll be up and running in no time at all. Media is selected based on its location, so if you want to watch something on the network, you select the network device and you will be returned to the main screen, where you can pick the type of media you want to use, be it video, music or photos.