Another day, another PCH review This time, let’s take a look at the new Popcorn Hour A-400.
- Bonjour, UpnP SSDP, UPnP AV, Windows Media Connect, Windows Media Player NSS, Samba, NFS.
- 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, 3D BD ISO
- 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, Dolby Digital Plus, 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, Simple BD navigation
- Photo Formats: JPEG, BMP, PNG, GIF
- Subtitle Formats: Open-subtitle support, SRT, MicroDVD SUB, SSA, SUB/IDX
- Sigma Designs SMP8911 Dual-Core 800Mhz with 512KB L2 Cache with VXP Video Processor
- 512MB DDR2, 256MB SLC NAND Flash
- HDMI, Component, CVBS, Stereo Audio, S/PDIF, Digital Optical
- Power LED and Standby LED, 2x USB 2.0 Host, 1 x USB 3.0 Slave, 1 x eSATA, quick dock mounting for 2.5″ or 3.5″ SATA HDD, Infra-Red Remote Control, SD card reader.
- Ethernet 10/100/1000 Mbps
- 12V DC, 3.5A Max
- Width x Depth x Height : 182mm (W) x 158mm (L) x 56mm (H) (7.2″ x 6.2″ x 2.2″)
- 1.3kg (2.86lbs)
- Casing designed by Silverstone aluminum Case, fanless Operation
- 1 x Popcorn Hour A-400, 1 x Remote Control, 2 x AAA Battery,
1 x HDMI Cable, 1 x eSATA Cable, 1 x USB 3.0 Slave Cable, 1 x AC Power Adapter,
1 x Quick Start Guide, 1 x Warranty Card
The box …
At the front of the box you will find the IR LED
On the right side of the case is a tray for an internal hard drive along with a USB 2.0 connection.
The hard drive tray unlocks with t he use of a hex key. Simply remove, place hard drive in tray and secure, and put the tray back in the A-400.
To the back you will see your usual array of inputs and outputs.
Here is a picture of all the goods, which includes a USB 3.0 slave cable, HDMI cable, eSata cable, remote control w/ batteries, and power brick.
I must say to date this is my favorite case of all the PCH models. The silverstone aluminum case used has a very solid feel, it is fanless, and has a small footprint.
I am not going to spend much time addressing the UI of the A-400 since it is the same as the A-300 I reviewed . Here are a couple of shots from that review.
The A-400 no longer supports full Blu-ray menus, but instead relies on BD Lite menus (which you can see below)
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-400 to be responsive to the remote.
Navigating around I found the experience to be very similar to the A-300. Scrolling through a list was relatively fast, but would hang periodically for 5-10 seconds (so not completely fluid). The bigger issue I ran in to with navigating was the system hanging up, at times for over 1 minute as I tried to navigate around. I believe though this to be more a network related issue with the A-400
The PCH A-400 has a gigE NIC and 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 120 Mbps clip via smb and the 100 Mbps clip via nfs. I got the same results when using a jellyfish clip. The smb performance is markedly improved via smb over the A-300 (where I would top out at 70 Mbps).
Although these results seem rosy, there was some items worth noting. First off, it appears that NFS implementation is actually worse then smb (typically it is the other way around). When I tried to play the bird scene or jellyfish beyond 100 Mbps over nfs it would either lock up the A-400, or the screen would just go blank, and then return to the menu. Other users I have talked to as well have noted poor or inconsistent performance over NFS.
The bigger issue I encountered, and I touched on briefly in the section above, I would get the “loading circle” frequently when navigating around my files on the network . I am not even talking about playback, but just moving the cursor from one file to the next. At times this loading circle would run for over 1 minute before getting access back. This alone made reviewing the A-400 one of the most frustrating reviews I have done, to the extent that some days I would try testing, and within 5 minutes I just walked away.
Of course, the main question, how does the A-400 handle playback of high bitrate content over the network, in particular Blu-ray and 3D Blu-ray rips. Using smb, 2D Blu-ray played back with very little issue. However, 3D Blu-ray was a completely different story with some very inconsistent results. Some 3D Blu-ray ISOs were unwatchable from the start (stuttering, loading cirle,etc…), such as The Avengers while others played with only occasional stutters. I played back the same files using an attached drive and they played fine, so it is definitely a network issue.
On a positive note, so far I have not noticed any issues with dropped network connections. On the A-300 and Popbox v8, periodically the device completely loses connection to my network and requires a reboot, nothing so far with the A-400.
I tested playback using the latest PCH A400 public firmware at the time of this post (18-Jan-2012 / 05-01-130118-24-POP-422-000), and below are the results:
- mkv w/ chapters – (PASS)
- mkv w/ 480p internal IDX/SUB subtitles (PASS)
- mkv w/ 1080p internal IDX/SUB subtitles (FAIL)
- mkv w/multiple SSA subtitles – subtitles are not displayed properly (PASS/FAIL)
- mkv w/ internal PGS subtitles (PASS)
- HD Audio downmix to stereo – DTS(MA) (PASS) / TrueHD (PASS)
- HD Audio downmix to multi channel PCM (over HDMI) – DTS(MA) (FAIL)/ TrueHD (FAIL)
- mkv w/ forced subtitles – (PASS)
- mkv/(m2)ts with DTS(MA) – bitstreamed - (PASS)
- mkv/(m2)ts with TrueHD Audio Track – bitstreamed - (PASS/FAIL)
- mkv/(m2)ts with Dolby Digital Plus – bitstreamed - (PASS)
- mkv w/ VC-1 encoded video – played without issue (PASS)
- Forced Subtitles in a BluRay Structure (2D and 3D) – (FAIL)
- BluRay ISO (main movie only) – played (PASS)
- BluRay Folder/ISO (entire disc, both 2D and 3D) – played movie, only main movie with bd lite menu support (PASS). However, if the BluRay is a seamless branch (i.e. the main movie is broken up into multiple files) playback issues were encountered (FAIL)
- DVD ISO and/or Folder Structure – played with full menus (PASS)
- 1080p quicktime (.mov) trailer – played (PASS)
- 1080p WMV w/ WMAPro Audio – (PASS)
- avi/mpeg/m4v/mp4 clips – played (PASS)
- mkv w/ FLAC – played w/ multi channel PCM (PASS)
- mkv w/ header compression – played (PASS)
- 3D SBS mkv – played (PASS), and signal to switch TV to 3D mode sent as long as file is named properly (filename.3DSBS.mkv / filename.3DTAB.mkv)
- 3D mvc mkv – plays only in 2D (FAIL)
- 1080p60 mkvs- played (PASS)
- L5.1 mkvs – played (PASS)
- 16 Reference Frame mkvs – – played (PASS)
Although the A-400 was able to play back a large majority of files, it was a bit of a mixed bag.
1) Audio issues with HD Audio – when the A-400 was first released, it suffered from the DTS(MA) audio bug, which for me at least made the A-400 unusable since a large portion of my library is Blu ray rips with DTS(MA). Close to a month after release the bug was finally corrected (although still present in the 300 series), so that was a big fix IMO. However, it appears along with this fix there are now some issues with TrueHD (audio sync and audio drop issues). Syabas has acknowledged these issues in the latest firmware release notes, so hopefully a fix is right around the corner.
2) Using my Toy Story 3 Blu-ray rip for seamless branch testing, the A-400 would pause for a few seconds in between each jump to the next m2ts file. Right now this seems to affect all players that rely on BD lite for playback. This applies to both 2D and 3D Blu-ray rips (Folder and ISO)
3) Forced subtitles did not appear to work on Blu-ray folder rips (using District 9 as my test). Similar to point #2, this seems to be a common issue with BD Lite. This applies to both 2D and 3D Blu-ray rips (Folder and ISO)
4) For HD Audio over HDMI, the A-400 can either bitstream or downmix to 2ch stereo (an issue for those who want the HD Audio decoded to multi channel PCM).
5) 3D mvc mkvs are a relatively new product. When first released, the A-400 would play this file with only audio and no video. With a recent firmware update, this file plays back now, but only in 2D.
6) There are some conflicting reports with SSA subtitles. The sample file I test with does not play back properly on my A-400. The subs start to appear and then stall. If i stop the file and restart the subs appear again, but appear to play catch up and eventually overlap. Another user tested the same file. The subs appeared exactly as expected, although he did notice overlapping towards the end.
7) Just to clarify, the tests above for BD structures and HD Audio relate to both 2D Blu-ray rips (folders/ISOs) and 3D Blu-ray rips (ISOs). Over the network 3D Blu-ray ISOs struggled to play back properly, but once connected directly to the PCH A400 (using a USB 2.0 drive) they played fine.
Overall, the A-400 did a solid job at playing back a majority of the files tested. The DTS(MA) bug which was present at launch and the type of bug I considered a show stopper has been fixed, although it appears at the sacrifice of TrueHD in some cases. Hopefully in the near future proper support for all HD Audio codecs can be addressed, cleaning up nagging issues with the implementation of BD Lite (seamless branch, forced subtitles), and full 3D support for mvc mkvs.
Now keep in mind, there is no way I can test every possible file, and once you start getting down to files that have been encoded there are a myriad of variables involved that can affect the playback and compatibility (so just because I show for example an mp4 file as passing doesn’t mean all mp4 files out there will pass since an mp4 is simply the container). To be consistent I try to use the same files for all my testing while adding in some new ones over time.
Networked Media Jukebox:
The A-400 comes with its own internal jukebox called NMJ. Since I already covered this in my A-300 review, I won’t go into here (see screenshot below for UI). Instead, I will take a look at the NMJ Navigator App, which is available for both iOS and Android.
So what exactly is the NMJ Navigator App
The new NMJ Navigator screen app allows you to browse your movies and music collections with ease. Just connect your iPad® to your LAN with your Popcorn Hour A-400. The NMJ Navigator also acts as a soft remote, allowing you to have complete control over your Popcorn Hour A-400 with your iPad® or Android tablet. With Interactive menus, you can easily sort your collection, share what you are watching with your friends on social network sites, or browse for movie information.
Listening to music is also interactive! You can listen to your favorite album without turning on your TV, just scroll through the list on your iPad® while connected through your LAN to your Popcorn Hour A-400 and listen to it on your audio system.
The first thing to mention, even if you don’t plan on using NMJ on your PCH, you need to have it set up and running to use the App. Once you have NMJ set up on the PCH, launch the app on your mobile device (I tested with an iPad). Assuming both the PCH and the tablet are on the same network the app should automatically locate your PCH. From there you can choose between your TV Show and Movie library.
Unfortunately NMJ did a pretty poor job with its metadata retrieval on my sample library (i.e. only half of the shows below are actually TV Shows). If you want to edit you will need to go back into NMJ on the PCH (i.e. you cannot edit directly from the NMJ app)
When you select a TV Show and season you will be brought up to the main synopsis for that show
Clicking on the “Episode” button in the upper right hand corner will bring up a list of all episodes to choose from for playback (personally I am not a fan of this type of layout for TV Shows, but that is just my personal preference).
Here is a view for Movies.
Similar to TV Shows, once you select a movie the movie synopsis will appear from which you can initiate playback.
If you want to turn your tablet into a remote for the PCH simply click on the “More” button and choose the “Remote Control” option.
If you are looking to use your tablet to view and initiate playback on your PCH, the NMJ app does a nice job. It can take some work to actually maintain the jukebox (although there are 3rd party tools available to assist such as NMJ Toolkit), but it is a step in the right direction. Of course it should be noted that you cannot actually play back your library on your tablet, this is solely for viewing and initiating playback of your library on the PCH.
Third Party Jukebox:
Nothing has changed here from the A-300 in terms of support for 3rd party jukeboxes, with the most common one used being YAMJ/Eversion.
My only request would be the option to boot directly into a 3rd party jukebox instead of having to launch via the App Market.
Once again, nothing has changed here from the A-300
As usual the first question that typically gets asked is “Can I get Netflix, Hulu +, Vudu, etc…). At this moment the answer is still no.
There are a couple other items I wanted to touch on:
1. VXP Video Processor – one of the big selling points of the SMP8911 chip is the inclusion of the VXP Video Processor.
The Popcorn Hour A-400 features an all new Sigma Designs 8911 dual core 800MHz CPU with 512KB L2 Cache with VXP Video Processor, bringing video quality to the next level. By offering a best in class video processor for deinterlacing, scaling and image enhancement, separate video post-processing is no longer required.
From what I could tell, I saw no visible improvements when using the VXP Video Processor (but I would expect this would be geared towards SD content which I don’t view much of anymore). However, from what I have heard other members comment on who have used VXP Video Processing features in the past, this could in part due to not all of the VXP features being fully utilized in the A-400. Also, there could be potential conflicts along the chain that could make the output even worse (for example if the video signal from your A-400 goes through a separate device such as an AVR that does video post-processing as well). I just opted to leave this feature disabled.
2. 2D / 3D Playback – One thing I liked about the Mede8er 1000X3D is the ability to switch between 2D and 3D by simply bringing up the BD Lite menu during movie playback. With the A-400, to do this you actually have to go into the settings and turn 3D Output on or off (as you can see from the screenshot above) which is rather inconvenient. Hopefully this is something that can be implemented into the BD Lite menu down the road.
3. AirPlay – I personally see very little use for AirPlay, but I decided to give it a test on my iPad with the A-400. For the most part (and I don’t know if this is normal with other devices that support AirPlay) I found it to be rather clunky and unstable. I was able to send a YouTube video from the iPad to the A-400, but after that kept getting failure messages for any subsequent videos I wanted to play. I tested out AirPlay by sending a movie stored on my iPad to the A-400 and it just hung up. I am not knocking the A-400 for this because I never use AirPlay and cannot comment on where the fault lies (iOS, PCH, or both), but I thought it was worth mentioning.
4. Full Blu-ray menu support – The A-400 does not support Blu-ray menus. This is expected as adding support for would mean also bringing in Cinavia (which would be a deal breaker for most people looking at the A-400)
At the end of the day what are we left with when looking at the PCH A-400. On the outside there is a lot of appeal. A sturdy/fanless aluminum case with a small footprint, support for HD audio, support for Blu-ray 3D, internal jukebox with corresponding tablet app, high end VXP video processing, to name a few. However, when you dig deeper things are a bit more unsettled. Putting all the bells and whistles aside, the most important thing to ask (at least what matters to me most), can the A-400 play back my video library reliably? At this juncture unfortunately the answer is no. Blu-ray 3D playback over the network is a mess. There are still HD Audio issues (although between the two I would rather have TrueHD issues over DTS(MA), granted no issues would be optimal). Trying to navigate around at times is an incredibly frustrating experience (so much so that I had to walk away from the device while trying to test).
Now this doesn’t mean that things can’t get better, and by all accounts they have gotten better since first release. However, that is not going to make anyone feel better who purchased the A-400 only to have it sitting around as a paperweight in hopes of a fix. I do realize that not everyone is looking to play back Blu Ray 3Ds, Blu ray rips with HD Audio, etc… so they may not be affected in the same way. The fact of the matter though, playback of Blu-ray rips, HD Audio, and Blu-ray 3D is a big selling point of the A-400 IMO, and an area where it should have excelled in from the start, not piecemeal over months with firmware updates.