It has been over 2 years since I reviewed the Popcorn Hour C-200 (boy how time flies), followed shortly afterwards by the Popcorn Hour A-200. The successor to the 200 series (namely the 300 series) has just been released, with the A-300 hitting first (slightly different from the 200 release where the higher model C-200 hit first). I have been using the PCH A-300 for over three weeks, so let’s take a closer look at to see what’s in store.
Price: USD 219 (available here)
- Bonjour,UPnP SSDP, UPnP AV, Windows Media Connect, Windows Media Player NSS, Samba,NFS
- Media Servers: myiHomeLite, myiHomeMS (UPnP)
- Third-Party Jukebox: Eversion/YAMJ, UMC
- BitTorrent P2P, Usenet downloader
- NAS Access : SMB, NFS, FTP
Supported Media File Formats
- Video containers: MPEG1/2/4 Elementary (M1V, M2V, M4V),MPEG1/2 PS (M2P, MPG, DAT, VOB),MPEG2 Transport Stream (TS, TP, TRP, M2T, M2TS, MTS),AVI, ASF, WMV,Matroska (MKV),MOV (H.264), MP4, RMP4
- Video Decoders: XVID SD/HD,MPEG-1,MPEG-2 MP@HL,MPEG-4.2 ASP@L5, 720p, 1-point GMC,MPEG-4.10 (H.264) : BP@L3, MP@L4.0, HP@L4.0, HP@L4.1,WMV9 : MP@HL,SMPTE 421M (VC-1) : MP@HL, AP@L3
- Audio Containers: AAC, M4A,MPEG audio (MP1, MP2, MP3, MPA),WAV,WMA,FLAC,OGG
- Audio Decoders: Dolby Digital,DTS,WMA, WMA Pro,MPEG-1 Layer 1, 2, 3,MPEG-4 AAC-LC,MPEG-4 HE-AAC,MPEG-4 BSAC,LPCM,FLAC,Vorbis,TrueAudio,APE Audio
- Audio Pass-Through: DTS, DTS-HD HR, DTS-HD MA,Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby True HD
- Other Formats: ISO, IFO navigation,AVCHD navigation,Simple BD navigation
- Photo Formats: JPEG, BMP, PNG, GIF
- Subtitle Formats: Opensubtitle support, SRT, MicroDVD SUB, SSA, SUB/IDX
- Cardea DRM (WMDRM-ND),Janus DRM (WMDRM-PD)
- Sigma Designs SMP8647 800MHz with L2 Cache.
- 512MB DDR2 DRAM, 256MB NAND Flash
- HDMI v1.3a, YPbPr, CVBS, Stereo Audio/PDIF, Digital Optical
- Power LED and Attention LED, 1x USB 2.0 Host Front and Back, 1 x USB 3.0 Slave, Internal mounting for 2.5″ or 3.5″ SATA HDD, Infra-Red Remote Control, Full power down, standby and power up by remote control, Service pin hole for TV Mode switching and shutting down without remote control.
- Ethernet 10/100/1000 Mbps
- 12V DC, 3A Max
- Width x Depth x Height : 265mm x 135mm x 45mm (10.4″ x 5.31″ x 1.77″)
- 1Kg (2.2 lbs)
- High Quality Vented Aluminum Case, Fanless Operation
- Popcorn Hour A-300 (HDD not included),IEC 60320 C13 power cord, 12V 3A AC-DC Adaptor, 1.5M length HDMI cable, USB cable,IR Remote Control with 2 “AAA” batteries,Screws for 2.5″ / 3.5″ HDD, Quick start guide,Installation Guide,There is 2 USB cables, one is a short cable for USB extension purpose, one is a USB slave cable.
- 12 Months
The box, what else can I say
At the front of the box you will find the IR LED and USB 2.0 port
If you look to the sides you will see vents have been cut out to allow for airflow (important note, the A300 is fanless)
To the back you will see your usual array of inputs and outputs.
Here is a picture of all the goods, which includes a cat5e cable, HDMI cable, remote control w/ batteries, and power brick.
The A-300 can house an internal harddrive (2.5in or 3.5in). This can be done by removing the tray from underneath.
The tray slides out and allows you to install the internal drive before placing in the A-300.
The A-300 feels solid in the hand, most likely due to the aluminum casing. During operation the case would get warm but not hot to the touch (note, I did not test with an internal drive). Of course the case is a big step up from the horrid plastic case and fan that came with the A-200 (and the reason why I had to go with a case mod). Otherwise the only other significant difference between the A-200 and A-300 is the A-300 is running the SMP8647 800MHz with L2 Cache (versus the SMP8643, 667MHz CPU in the A-200). This is not a major upgrade but should allow for a snappier experience navigating around the UI. Also, the A-300 comes with one USB 3.0 slave for connecting the A-300 to a PC for file transfers.
The UI of the PCH A-300 has undergone a significant change/upgrade from the 200 series. What has changed you ask? Well, let’s dig a little deeper to see what we find.
The first thing you will notice is that main home screen now consists of several horizontal icons (as opposed to that circular type menu in the 200 series). The available icons are “Apps Market”, “Settings”, “Setup Wizard”, “Network Browser”, and “USB Attached Drives”. In the upper right hand corner is a Weather/Time widget. If the home screen looks familiar, it is most likely because you saw a very similar screen when you read my Popbox v8 review (there are a few other traits that both the Popbox v8 and PCH A-300 share which I will discuss shortly).
Going into the “Settings” screen are your typical options for adjusting your audio, video, and network settings. Nothing too exciting so I won’t be spending anymore time there
When it comes to viewing your local content, the A-300 comes equipped with two “jukeboxes”. The first uses the same “hybrid” jukebox that the Popbox v8 uses, and the second is a more feature rich jukebox called NMJ (Networked Media Jukebox). I will discuss the latter shortly, but for now let’s take a quick look at the “hybrid” jukebox.
The reason why I call it a “hybrid” jukebox is because some of the attributes are similar in feature to a standard jukebox (such as metadata/art) but some of the more advanced features (such as grouping across multiple shares/folders, advanced sorting, etc…) are not present. Accessing the hybrid jukebox is as simple as browsing your local content in file mode.
Where it gets tricky though is if you have a mixed structure. For example, in my Movies folder each movie is in its own folder. However, some movies are standalone files (such as mkv) whereas other movies are folder rips. For the folders with standalone files the A-300 will display cover if present ( i.e. folder.jpg). However, for a folder rip you will just see a generic icon as pictured below.
In order to pull up the metadata/art of a movie simply press the Info button (the caveat here is that for folder rips you simply press the info button when the folder is selected, whereas with standalone files you need to actually dig down and select the file before pressing the info button).
One nice feature is that if the wrong art or metadata is displayed, you can edit it by initiating a search for the correct movie. Note that in order for this to be done you must have write access to the share where the movie is located.
Another interesting feature is for those who use subtitles, you can actually download subtitles for any movie in question (in cooperation with opensubtitles.org)
Aside from the UI, it is worth pointing out that when it comes to playing back Blu-ray folder rips the PCH A-300 comes with the option to play back in either BDLite mode or Full Disc mode (some sort of attached storage is required). In BDLite mode (SimpleBD) the movie begins immediately (or at least whatever the longest playlist is will start). A menu bar can be accessed if you want to switch scenes, titles, audio, and subtitles. However, when looking to switch scenes or titles you will only see a generic timecode or chapter number and not full descriptions (so it may be a bit of a guessing game).
In Full BD menu mode (Full navigation) the Blu-ray rip (assuming it is a full disc rip) will play just as if you were playing from a Blu-ray player, with full access to the menus, trailers, features, etc…
Overall I have found the UI of the PCH A-300 to be improved over the 200 series. Much of the navigation is similar to the 200 series, but the removal of that main menu wheel in place of a horizontal menu along with some of the other nice touches like the hybrid jukebox make for a better experience. As I mentioned earlier, there is also the Networked Media Jukebox (NMJ) to take into account, and I will discuss that shortly.
The remote control is IR based which means direct line of sight is needed. The layout is exactly what you would expect from a PCH remote, and being backlit is always a positive. I found the A-300 to be very responsive to the remote and didn’t find myself having to click multiple times just to send a command over.
As far as navigating around, this is the one advantage the 300 series with the newer Sigma chip has over the 200 series. Navigating around is noticeably faster. Not lightning fast, but an improvement. It was much quicker to scroll through the file browser, although I did find that when scrolling through a list the A-300 would pause/load for a few seconds after going through around 8-10 items (so it wasn’t completely fluid).
The PCH A-300 has a gigE NIC. The 200 series were also advertised as gigE but I believe there was an issue where for many people gigE did not work, or it did not live up to anywhere near expectations of what file transfer speeds should be. Although from reading around on the forums it appears transfer speeds on the A-300 has improved, it appears that true gigE speeds is still not achieved. When it comes to video playback this is irrelevant and really should only matter for those who are transferring files to/from their A-300 over the network (I did not have a spare hard drive to test this). The PCH A-300 was able to recognize both smb and nfs set up on my Windows Home Server. Using the infamous “bird scene” from Planet Earth I was able to play back without issue the 70 Mbps clip via smb and the 100 Mbps clip via nfs. I also did not encounter any issues accessing my network shares.
I tested playback using the latest PCH A300 public firmware at the time of this post (7-Dec-2011), and below are the results:
- mkv w/ chapters – (PASS)
- mkv w/ 480p internal IDX/SUB subtitles (PASS)
- mkv w/multiple SSA subtitles (PASS)
- mkv w/ internal PGS subtitles (PASS)
- HD Audio downmix to stereo – DTS(MA) (PASS) / TrueHD (PASS)
- mkv w/ forced subtitles – (PASS)
- mkv/(m2)ts with DTS(MA) – bitstreamed without issue (PASS)
- mkv/(m2)ts with TrueHD Audio Track – bitstreamed without issue (PASS)
- mkv/(m2)ts with Dolby Digital Plus – bitstreamed without issue (PASS)
- mkv w/ VC-1 encoded video – played without issue (PASS)
- Forced Subtitles in a BluRay Structure – (PASS/FAIL)*
- BluRay ISO (main movie only) – played without issue (PASS)
- BluRay Folder (entire disc) – played movie, only main movie with bd lite menu support (PASS) or full menus (PASS/FAIL)*. However, if the BluRay is a seamless branch (i.e. the main movie is broken up into multiple files) playback issues were encountered (PASS/FAIL)*
- DVD ISO and/or Folder Structure – played with full menus (PASS)
- 1080p quicktime (.mov) trailer – played without issue (PASS)
- 1080p WMV w/ WMAPro Audio – (PASS)
- avi/mpeg/m4v clips – played without issue (PASS)
- mkv w/ FLAC – played w/ multi channel PCM (PASS)
- mkv w/ header compression – played without issue (PASS)
- 3D SBS mkv – played with autoswitch (PASS)
- 1080p60 mkvs- played without issue (PASS)
- L5.1 mkvs – played without issue (PASS)
- 16 Reference Frame mkvs – - played without issue (PASS)
As you can see, the A300 played just about everything I threw at it, and in most cases playback was flawless. However, I did run into several issues that weren’t show stoppers, but were bugs at the time of my review:
1) Audio issues with HD Audio – I tried playing back my Star Wars main movie Blu-ray rips, and as soon as the opening sequence starts I would get some horrible crackling/audio distortion (this is from downmixing HD audio to stereo). As soon as I switched to the secondary AC3 track the crackling went away. Many of my other movies did not have this issue, but it is an issue nonetheless, and I believe Syabas has confirmed as well.
2) As I was testing out various movies I would randomly get an error message “10353 could not play”, and playback would not work. I would either have to restart the A300 or switch playback modes.
3) I use Toy Story 3 as my seamless branch test. When I tried playback in SimpleBD mode I had a lot of issues with the audio, getting similar crackling noises. I switched to the AC3 track and then crackling went away, but then it appears when the movie moved on to the next m2ts it switched the audio track back to the Original HD Audio track (with the crackling). When I switched from BDLite to Full Disc mode the issue went away.
4) I don’t have too many full disc rips, but I switched to full disc mode and played back a couple of test files (District 9 and Disney WOW). With District 9 it would just get caught in a loop during the opening trailers. With Disney WOW once I got to the main menu everything would go into extreme slow mode
5) I encountered issues with Forced Subtitles being displayed for my Avatar 3D Blu-ray disc (the 2D version is on the same disc). When in Full Navigation mode the full English subtitles would appear (not just the forced). If I switched the subtitles to off then the French forced subs would appear. If I then switched back to the English subtitle track at this point only the English subtitles appear. When I played back in SimpleBD mode I could not get the forced subtitles only to appear, and even worse whenever subtitles would come on the screen the entire picture would go black with the exception of the subtitles which would appear encased in a yellow box.
6) On various occasions I would lose audio altogether, requiring a reboot of the A-300
So overall the A-300 did a great job at playing nearly everything I threw at it. Downmix of TrueHD works which is something that was missing in the 200 series. The A-300 is not without bugs though, and although not showstoppers, hopefully something that gets addressed in a firmware update relatively quick.
Networked Media Jukebox:
One feature of the PCH A-300 is access to an internal jukebox called NMJ (Networked Media Jukebox). Instead of having to rely on a third party jukebox which requires maintenance on a separate PC, you can use NMJ to manage your jukebox directly from the PCH. After creating your media shares you simply highlight and choose the “J” option which will begin the NMJ process. As you can see below a message appears warning you that this process can take a while, all depending on the size of your library.
When you start up the Jukebox manager you will have the option to either have the entire folder you selected scanned, or filter down what folders are scanned.
Once the scan is complete you should hopefully now have a pleasant looking jukebox waiting for your.
From here you will have 3 different views available, Category (pictured above), Wall (pictured directly below), and List (the second picture below)
Selecting a movie will bring up a synopsis and additional information
From within the jukebox you can further filter your video collection by categories such as Genre, Movie and TV Series.
Here is a view for TV Series as well as episode view
NMJ doesn’t just apply to videos but it also applies to music and photos. The concept and views is nearly the same, so instead of going into more detail here are a few more screenshots.
NMJ is a step in the right direction, especially since I have always been overly critical of media players focusing little to no attention on the UI. To be honest NMJ is not really my cup of tea as I find trying to manage a jukebox on a media player via a remote very cumbersome (even though there are tools to help manage from a PC) and at times navigating around to be a little sluggish , but for someone who doesn’t want to deal with a secondary PC to manage this may be ideal. The process of editing movie information/artwork is the same as with the “hybrid” jukebox, although I did notice that for my Blu-ray folder rips no poster or backdrop was showing (and when I tried to update/edit via NMJ) I would get a message that two of the three processed failed (i.e. getting the metadata worked but poster/fanart failed). I tested this on a standalone mkv and in this case had no issues, so I am assuming this is a bug related to how NMJ interacts with Blu-ray rips.
Third Party Jukebox:
The first item worth mentioning, and a big difference from the 100 and 200 series, is that the 300 series no longer supports HTML jukeboxes (such as the Aeon jukebox I wrote about a few years ago). Instead you will need to use a Flash based jukebox such as YAMJ/Eversion (my fave), the brainchild of Omertron via YAMJ and Accident via Eversion, or UMC. Installing YAMJ was a piece of cake on the A-300, simply go to the App store, download, and install. Once installed, launch it (and assuming you actually have YAMJ/Eversion set up on your server/PC) Eversion should appear.
I have talked plenty of Eversion/YAMJ in the past so no need to go into further details. Here are a few more screenshots for your viewing enjoyment.
One of the benefits of the A-300 over the 200 series is that Eversion does run quicker due to the newer Sigma. It is not quote up to HTPC standards by any means, but it is a nice upgrade nonetheless. I have never tried UMC so I cannot comment on, but the ability to add a third party jukebox can only be seen as a benefit as it gives the user more options on how they want to view and manage their library. Right now the third party jukeboxes are strictly for videos, but hopefully down the road we will see some local music and photos jukebox apps emerge as well.
Next up is the App market. Before I dive into this, let’s get this out in the open first. There is no Netflix, there is no Hulu, there is no Vudu, there is no Amazon on demand. For many U.S. Customers that is usually one of the first things asked when talking about the online experience of a media player. I don’t know whether it is a possibility that any of these services will be added down the road, so the best bet for anyone interested in the PCH A-300 is to assume that none of these services will be added, and if they are later on consider it a pleasant surprise.
The App store experience should be nearly identical that that of the 200 series and Popbox v8. You can choose from over 60 free and premium apps (typical ones being Youtube, Shoutcast, YAMJ, Revision3, etc…). Installation takes merely seconds to do, and the layout is very clear/concise.
Once an App is installed it will show under your “My Apps” section. Simply click on an App to launch and away you go.
Of course one of my favorite Apps to test out is Revision3, and sure enough I had no issues accessing HDNation, with a very easy to navigate UI.
The App market is a nice addition to the PCH. Premium content for the U.S market is missing, but there are plenty of apps to choose from if you are looking to kill a little time. Right now it appears that most of the premium content is geared towards the European market (such as Kartina.tv and OnlineTVRecorder.com). There have been some interesting Apps just added such as Youtube Leanback (I think my boys will get a quick out of this since they are always on Youtube watching Thomas the Tank videos). This is an area where if Syabas can grow and bring on board more premium content could be a big selling point for the PCH series.
Overall I feel that Syabas has done a solid job with the PCH A-300. If you recall from my 200 series reviews, it was a bit of a disaster at first launch, with bugs that simply made the players unusable. Although the A-300 is not without bugs, I would say none of them are show stoppers, and the A-300 already has a mature feel to it. The 300 series is not quite the next gen player I am sure some people were hoping for (as usual there were a few gripes about it not being HDMI 1.4 and not supporting Blu-ray 3D, but there is no Sigma chip out that currently supports so it is a bit of a moot point), but it is a nice step up from the 200 series, especially for people who are looking to add a media player to their home setup. If Syabas can continue to update firmware to address all bugs and expand their online offerings via the App market, then the A-300 could end up being a very well rounded player.
Now this brings up two questions which have been asked to me. The first question is whether it is worth upgrading from a 200 series to a 300 series. For the most part I would say no as the change from Sigma chips is marginal. However, for someone like myself it is worth the upgrade for one specific item, TrueHD downmix. Unfortunately I don’t have an AVR and killer speaker setup in every room in my house, so being able to downmix HD audio becomes critical. With the 200 series I would have to resort to switching to a secondary AC3 track (and more importantly making sure I included one in the first place). With the A-300 I no longer have to worry about this, which goes a long way when I have the wife or other family members operating.
The second question is whether or not it is worth paying the premium for the A-300 over the Popbox v8. This is a little more of a challenging question to answer. The Popbox v8 runs on the Sigma SMP8671, so that means it will be running a different firmware versus the A-300, and thus may have its own upgrade cycle and/or bugs. Looking at the specs the v8 can also only play files up to Level 4.1 and limited to 4 reference frames. For those people who just have plain vanilla Blu-ray and DVD rips this is not a problem. However, if you rely on “external” sources for content it is not uncommon to run across files that are above these specs. And of course, the obvious item, if you are looking to use an internal hard drive or use the player as a bittorrent client, then the A-300 is the one for you.