It's easy to fail when you're making a media streamer. Many have tried to do it and almost all have come unstuck. Even Apple, masters of good design and intuitive user interfaces, fell at virtually the first hurdle with.
When we heard about an American product called the A-100 from a company called Popcorn Hour, we couldn't help but get excited. Here was something that offered support for every major -- and a good number of minor -- codecs, had loads of flexibility and didn't cost the Earth. With fingers crossed, we dove into the hype.
The Popcorn Hour A-100 is not currently available for purchase in the UK, but it's available through European and US suppliers. It costs around �185 with VAT but not including any importing charges.
When people see the A-100 -- or as it proudly proclaims across the front, 'networked media tank' -- their reactions are usually the same: "why is it called Popcorn Hour?" and "it looks like an external hard drive". We think it's fair to say it's not the swankiest looking device. Of course, Apple had its chance to make a beautiful media streamer and we got stuck with Apple TV. Now it's the turn of function over form to win the battle for our hearts.
At the front of the machine are two USB sockets, which can be used for memory sticks, a USB keyboard (handy for some tasks) or even external hard drives. Apart from that, there is nothing else on the front panel -- not even a power button.
The back is slightly more intriguing. There is a power socket, Ethernet, HDMI in, S/PDIF out, stereo RCA and composite video RCA outputs, S-Video and component video out.
The supplied remote control is light and comfortable. It has glow-in-the-dark buttons, which are a real blessing if you're going to watch a film in a dimly lit room. During our tests we found that the button layout on the controller was pretty logical. There were some oddities like having to press the stop button when playing a video instead of being able to press the return button to get back to the file list. Still, this is a very minor point.
The key to a good media streamer is flexibility to get files on to the device and then play them. The A-100 supports most video file types and containers, which is a good news. A full list of the supported files is on the Popcorn Hour Web site, but the highlights include MPEG-4 (DivX, XviD and H.264/X.264) and MPEG-2 at both standard and high definition.
The only feature that's very clearly missing from the A-100 is wireless. We have mixed feelings about the decision not to include Wi-Fi: on the one hand, it's convenient and tidier than Ethernet, but having experienced 802.11g to watch streaming video with ourbox, it can be unreliable and quite annoying.
The most obvious method for getting video on to the A-100 is to connect it to your network and stream files from your PC. To do this, you'll need to use a piece of software called myiHome. It's not complicated to use: you feed in the location of your photos, music and video and then the Popcorn Hour can play them.
If you've opted to fit a hard drive to the A-100, it can join your home network and you can simply copy files to the disk for playback later. You can also connect to the A-100 via FTP, which might appeal if you want to send files to it from a laptop or even from another machine on the Internet. If you don't fit a hard disk, then by far the best solution for you will be to use USB storage -- either a memory stick or external hard drive.
For a device like this, it's quite important that the user interface is simple and easy to use. Popcorn Hour has done a good job here. When you first turn the machine on you will be presented with a simple screen. From here, you can select to use video, audio or photos. There is also a link to select the media source (USB, hard disk or network device), access the Web services or configure the box.