There aren't many products that can are good enough to become part of our long-term reference system. Generally speaking, only equipment that we truly love will make the cut. Our TV, for example, is still a , one of the highest-scoring sets we've ever tested. Since we tested the and media streamers, they've also formed part of our long-term testing environment, and we use one or other of them pretty much every day.
What makes the Popcorn Hour machines so useful is that they provide a solution to a problem that no other company has solved, making it as easy to play media from your PC or Mac on your TV as it is with products like , but without the horrible, oppressive restrictions that burden hardware from big companies. The A-100 and A-110 make video playback over a home network simple.
Now, the Popcorn Hour C-200 adds more features and an impressive new design. It's available in the UK for about �300, a considerable mark-up from its US price of $300 (�190).
This is a review of the C-200 as it was shipped to us by the manufacturer. The installed firmware worked pretty much flawlessly, but we've been led to believe that there are still a number of features and improvements that are going to be added in future firmware releases. As improvements occur, we'll update this review.
We'll also be adding a Blu-ray drive to our C-200 shortly. Once we've done it, we'll update this review with our thoughts about the process and how the C-200 works with it.
The first thing that struck us about the C-200 is that it's larger than the A-110. It's the size of a Blu-ray player, although it's slightly taller than most new stand-alone players. Its front has a large, monochrome display on the left-hand side and a slot on the other side that takes either a PC Blu-ray drive or a SATA hard disk using a supplied drive caddy.
Apart from those two main features, the front of the machine is quite plain. It also sports some basic controls. There's a power button, surrounded by a circular, three-colour LED, to the left of the display, and a button to dim the display and adjust the video output. You also get a simple navigation control that lets you use the C-200's display to navigate through menus. That's handy if you're just looking for some music to listen to.
Menus and responsiveness
Although we like the menus found on the Popcorn Hour A series, we certainly wouldn't argue that they're basic. To cheer everything up, the C-200 features a more impressive video processor, offering some graphically richer layouts. Sadly, these don't extend all the way through the user interface and, at the moment, the second-level playback menus are largely the same as the ones on the A-110. That said, there are strong rumours that this is simply because the first round of machines has early-version firmware installed, and future releases will make the system look more unified.
Even so, there are no major concerns in terms of the menus. Everything works as it should, and the speed of the system is much improved over that of the A-100 and A-110. Interestingly, the C-200 supports Adobe Flash, which none of its predecessors have. This opens up a whole new set of opportunities for graphically rich user interfaces. It's an exciting possibility, but, at the moment, that potential is unrealised.
Picture and sound quality
It always impressed us that the picture and sound quality of the A-100 and A-110 were so good. Audio and video quality is a big deal for us, as you can imagine, so we always use quite a broad range of video content, encoded at different bit rates, to get an idea of how a system can cope.
Our favourite footage originates from Blu-ray, and is provided by The Dark Knight. IMAX scenes in the most recent Batman movie have amazing clarity, and it's those that we looked at, along with some of the darker scenes, to see how the C-200 copes with high-definition video. This footage has been our non-disc-based 1080p test material for some time, and we're pleased to say that the C-200 played it perfectly. The early bank-robbery scene looked truly epic, as did footage shot on more traditional 35mm film stock.
Audio quality is also excellent, and the C-200 can decode Dolby Digital and DTS surround sound with no problems. If you want to hear DTS-HD MA and Dolby TrueHD, you'll need to hook the system up to a separate AV receiver, but the C-200 is happy to pass this audio, untouched, via the HDMI socket.
All media-playback devices rely very heavily on the source material being of high quality. The old adage 'garbage in, garbage out' holds true here. The C-200 won't make low-quality material look like it's HD, so you should make sure your video is of the highest possible quality.
Unlike the A-110, the C-200 comes with a radio-frequency remote control. There are several advantages in having an RF remote instead of an infrared model. The main benefit is that you don't need to have direct line of sight to control the player. This was an issue with the A-110, which wasn't anywhere near sensitive enough, incurring complaints from people who found the machine unresponsive to remote commands.
The problem with RF remotes is that they don't work with most universal remote controls. That's a problem for people who've built home-cinema systems that are reliant on something like a Logitech Harmony 1100. The good news is that you can order an IR remote and receiver dongle. Popcorn Hour also intends to add discrete IR codes too, which is another massive boon for people who want to more sophisticated control systems.
Like previous Popcorn Hour models, the C-200 offers plenty of options if you like tweaking and improving performance. On the hardware side, you can add a Wi-Fi card to give the C-200 access to your wireless network. Wireless connectivity is convenient, but it's not always the best choice for streaming HD media.
There are also good options for playing back media from USB storage. The four external USB sockets mean you can plug in hard drives and USB keys to watch video, listen to music or look at photos. There's also an internal USB socket, which is mainly designed to be used for persistent storage with a Blu-ray drive, and, indeed, if you're fitting a Blu-ray PC drive, you'll need a minimum of 2GB to act as persistent storage for Blu-ray discs.