In home cinema, 2010 has been the year of the media streamer, that's undeniable. With new devices from Boxee and some interesting hardware from that costs less than all the competition and does just as much, the market is becoming crowded.
For us, the Popcorn Hour series has led the charge, with excellent hardware that performs every time. Made by a company called Syabas, based in Hong Kong, its most interesting piece of hardware so far has been the, which had its fair share of teething troubles to start with, but after regular firmware updates has become our firm favourite.
The A-210 is available now to order direct from Popcorn Hour for $199 (�125), but remember you'll have to add international shipping and import duty. UK resellers are yet to stock it, but Advanced MP3 Players sells earlier models for around the �200 mark, so keep an eye out.
The mysterious case of the new case
The A-210 we're looking at here is basically the same as the older A-200, which had a plastic shell that users complained wasn't up to the standard they'd come to expect from Popcorn Hour hardware.
The Popcorn Hour A-210 has a gorgeous brushed metal case instead. As well as satisfying our delicate aesthetic sensibilities, this is an improvement in one important way. The older model needed a fan in order to stay cool -- with the new metal case, heat is dissipated naturally, so there's no need for a fan. This keeps noise to a minimum.
The A-210 has a plethora of video and audio outputs to keep every type of user happy. For standard definition, there's composite and S-Video outputs as well as stereo RCA jacks for audio. Component video gives you HD video in analogue form, up to 1080i. It's a good solution for people with older TVs that can handle HD, but have a limited number of HDMI inputs.
As you would expect, there's HDMI output for HD video. The Popcorn Hour can pump out virtually any video format, so if your TV doesn't support 1080/24p, you can select 1080/30p instead. There are options for every HD format, as well as an auto mode, which will negotiate with your TV for the best video option.
Audio is also available in digital form via coaxial and optical sockets. These can both pass Dolby Digital and DTS surround sound to a compatible AV receiver. The HDMI socket can also pass audio, including Dolby Digital, DTS and the newer lossless formats Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD MA. If your receiver can't support DTS or Dolby Digital over HDMI, the Popcorn Hour can decode both and pass them as LPCM, which has great compatibility.
USB is provided in abundance too. There are two standard USB sockets, one on the back and one on the front. These enable you to plug in thumb drives and other USB devices, such as portable hard drives. The A-210 will find these, and allow you to play media from them. There's also a USB target socket, which allows you to connect the Popcorn Hour to a PC and copy files on to the optional SATA hard drive.
Media playback -- comprehensively simple
Name a type of video, and we pretty much promise the Popcorn Hour can play it. There are some exceptions of course, and it's impossible for a player to support every file from the past and future. But for now, we don't think there's much on the market that betters the Popcorn Hour in this respect.
All your media files are listed by their text file names. This is possibly one of the less beautiful choices the Popcorn Hour people made, but we really like it. It's simple, there's no lag while it loads thumbnails and you can scroll around the list quickly and find what you're looking for. The file names are also presented in full, which is rare on a media player, and when you've got dozens of episodes of a particular TV show, it makes a huge amount of sense.
Apple lovers will always find the Popcorn Hour style less impressive than Cupertino's alternatives. The fact is though, this box is more functional than theand plays far more files, so we're happy to accept its less inspiring design elements in return for a box that's useful for more than just propping a door open.
Treat yourself, add a hard drive
Many modern media streamers have their own built-in storage, or the option to add a hard drive if you choose. The Popcorn Hour A-210 is no different, but adding a drive now is a slightly more elegant process. On the underside of the unit are four screws -- once removed these allow a plastic portion of the case to be slid out and a hard drive fitted.
You can install either a 2.5-inch laptop drive, or a 3.5-inch desktop drive. As many people will have a spare hard disk knocking about, this is a pretty good idea, and as long as your drive uses SATA, you'll have no problem fitting it. Simply screw the drive into the caddy with the supplied screws, slide it in and screw the removable section back into place. The action of sliding the caddy in also engages the hard drive, so there's no cables to mess with.
Adding a hard drive is worthwhile because it also allows you to run some additional apps. There are BitTorrent, Newsgroup and FTP options that become available when a hard drive is fitted, which we think you'll find incredibly useful. Once you've got a drive in, you can also use the A-210 to share media with other devices on your network.
Ooh! Optional server software!
If your main use for the Popcorn Hour is to view videos streamed from your PC, you have a number of options available. As you'd expect, the Popcorn Hour can access Windows shares, and for that matter, any 'Samba' network share you care to set up -- on virtually any operating system.