With HD media streamers being a dime a dozen these days, when one particular one seems gain popularity we take notice. So we figured there was no better way to learn what all the fuss is about then to spend a little time with it. The main point of our curiosity was to go beyond the specs and to try and determine how usable it was. To learn what sets the Popcorn Hour apart from the rest, click on through.
When it comes to media streamers we don't expect much, as it's the content we're interested in, but the two most important factors -- temperature and noise -- were both easily covered by the A-110. The box is dead silent and doesn't seem to generate much heat at all. Next on the list is connectivity, and that is pretty good, too. There are two regular USB ports -- one on the front and one on the back -- for things like USB thumb drives and one USB-PC adapter that can be used to connect to a PC so if you installed an internal hard drive (it makes the A-110 an external HDD but EXT2 support on your computer is required).
There are of course component and HDMI (1.3a) HD outputs as well as standard def' ones like composite and S-Video. The only connector we'd like to see added is coaxial digital, but perhaps we're the only one that still uses that. The one thing that is missing though is built in WiFi, but there is an optional USB dongle that fills the gap. The only real gripe we have is with the remote. It is actually a pretty good looking remote, but without any programmable buttons like TV power and volume, it pretty much makes it a throw away for a programmable one. We also found the power LED lights confusing, red for off is obvious, but yellow for on had us scratching our head when we were troubleshooting some HDMI handshake issues and weren't sure if it was on or off.
More often then not, some of the coolest gadget ideas get killed in implementation because of bad software. The most impressive thing about the Popcorn Hour is its ability to play just about every file we tried -- ironically enough, everything except DVR-MS files from Windows Media Center -- and the many ways to access content. Of course it has the usual suspects, like places to plug in thumb drives and a network share, but when you add an internal hard drive (2.5 or 3.5 SATA) things get really interesting thanks to the built in BitTorrent and Usenet clients. Of course you can also copy files from your PC via USB or over the network thanks to the built in SMB file server and FTP server. But even without an internal drive, there are plenty of ways to get content. You can stream a bunch of stuff from the internet like Revision3 and Blip.tv, but you can also stream from the included myiHomeLite software (runs on PC, Mac and Linux) or from most other common media sharing protocols like UPnP (like PlayOn and TwonkyMedia) DLNA, and WMP Network Sharing.
The software isn't all good though, as it's missing eye candy like animated transitions and transparencies. There are a few really unusable parts of the UI as well, like the fact that we couldn't successfully enter our 25 character WPA key, even after 5 attempts -- yes we're persistent. You also can't can't rewind mkv files or skip backwards, but you can use the scrub bar and direction pad to skip 30 second intervals. But worst of all, the unit locked up on us a few times during setup and required us to power cycle it -- but it never did this while we were watching HD. The only other issue we had was trying to use the built in firmware update over the internet feature, so after one unsuccessful attempt, we just downloaded it manually and loaded it with a USB drive which was pretty painless. Overall we wouldn't say the Popcorn Hour software is bad, but isn't polished either. The bottom line is that it does work and it does do what it is supposed to, but it isn't beautiful.
Possibilities / hackability
The most impressive thing to us though is the flexibility of the device. Over at the community forum we found no shortage of really cool user plugins that do all kinds of things. The coolest was Yet Another MovieJukebox (YAMJ) which offered a really cool movie interface that included box art and metadata. But also cool was the HDHomeRun client and the media center extender clients for software like GB-PVR and MediaMVP. Installing plugins was pretty easy too, you could either load them via USB and click on the installer with the remote or telnet in and run a script. At the simplest level, the A-110 is a little Linux box, which really opens it up to hacking and thus many possibilities, and we really like that. In fact we feel compelled to pick one up if for no other reason then to get down and dirty and figure out how to make it do cool things.
Overall we have more good then bad to say about the A-110, and although it isn't perfect when we consider the possibilities, we would certainly recommend it to anyone who fits the geeky type. But its strongest feature is also its biggest drawback, as we would never recommend this to the simple type -- you know the general population. While it can do just about anything, we didn't find it super easy and wouldn't expect those without a fundamental knowledge of networking and video to be able figure how to make it do anything useful. But for those who like to tinker, you're in for a real treat.