The Popcorn Hour series of network media streamers have become cult classics, thanks to their excellent format support and abundance of features. The re-jigged line-up of devices includes this top-of-the-range model, the C-300. It's so smart it can act as a server for other media players on your network.
With many smart TVs and Blu-ray players now capable of handling digital media quite well, is there still room for dedicated media streamers, especially ones that leave you little change from £350?
Popcorn Hour has completely changed the user interface on the C-300 compared to the previous Xbox 360, but at least they're not completely static. There are scrolling transitions as you move from one entry to another.and models. Turn on the player and you're presented with a banner across the middle of the screen that contains five icons for Apps Market, Local Media, Network Content, Settings and a Set-up Wizard. The design of the menus is quite basic, especially compared to the or
The set-up wizard helps you to initially get up and running by guiding you through the network configuration as well as setting the time and location. After that, there isn't much by way of hand holding, so you'll need to dive into the pretty detailed manual to find out how to make use of most of the streamer's features.
Personally, I found the interface was not intuitive to use. It's needlessly complicated in places and non-technically minded users are likely to throw their hands up in frustration when trying to do relatively simple things, such as working out how to get the jukebox feature working.
Speaking of which, the jukebox feature is one of the tricks that made the previous Popcorn Hour products so popular. It's present here too, and basically allows the C-300 to pull metadata from the Internet for movie and TV files that you've got stored on your hard drives. It then uses this to display poster art and plot summaries for each video instead of merely presenting you with a list of file names.
Previously you had to use a PC to first categorise your files and create a database that the Popcorn Hour products would then access. But the C-300 can create this database itself. This is very straightforward to do with local content -- drives slot into the unit's 3.5-inch bay or are attached via USB ports. You just plug in the drive and select Jukebox in the Local menu. It takes a long time to categorise the files -- over half an hour on bigger drives -- but the results are generally accurate and browsing through your movies by poster art is very satisfying.
Getting it to work with network shares from my NAS drive proved much more difficult. It involved mounting the network share and then having the player scan the contents to build the database. The first time I tried it the player built the database and then said it wasn't compatible with it! After a firmware update and a lot of faffing about, I eventually got it to work, but it took some perseverance.
This problem aside, the user interface isn't actually that good anyway. There are too many vague sub-menus and it's annoying the way the menu navigation randomly jumps between standard D-pad control and requiring you to use the four coloured buttons above the D-pad.
Design and connections
If you're used to looking at mainstream AV products from big-name brands like Sony, Panasonic and Samsung, the design of the C-300 will come as something of a shock. It looks less like a polished AV product and more akin to something you'd expect to see in a school science lab. It's also far from neatly housed, with wide, tall and deep dimensions. At least Popcorn Hour has chosen a brushed metal finish on the front that's attractive.
The front is also home to a rather large 3.5-inch backlit colour screen and a quick-release hard drive bay that you can slot a 3.5-inch hard drive or Blu-ray player into. There's a secondary 2.5-inch bay inside the unit and getting at this is pretty easy as you only have to remove one screw to release the C-300's cover.
The player can share files across a network from its drives so you can use it as a server for other media streamers in your home. Also, a benefit of the C-300's large size is that it allows for the streamer to be passively cooled -- there's no fan inside, whirring away when you're watching a movie.