I am a lazy man. A lazy man with a large collection of TV series on DVD. It's always annoyed me that I've had to pull the DVD box off the shelf, pull apart several layers of packaging, find out which disc has the episode I want to watch on it and then put that disc in my DVD player. Surely there must be an easier way of watching video in the digital age?
With this in mind, I've investigating ways in which I can create a digital video jukebox for my DVDs. After a bit of research, I narrowed it down to four choices:
Microsoft Media Extender:
I already own a PC running Windows XP Media Center Edition and an Xbox 360. Initially this appeared to be the perfect solution without me ever needing to spend a penny. Sadly, it wasn't. After a lot of effort, and the purchase of a set of homeplugs, I managed to get my PC and Xbox 360 speaking to each other. Even then, I found playing video much harder than it should have been. Codec support over MCE was very limited and I didn't like the idea of having keep my PC switched on permanently.
Apple TV was the next logical step up. It had the streaming capabilities of the Xbox 360 but added a hard-drive for playback when your computer isn't on. Again though, the codec support was limited and £269 for the160GB version isn't what I'd call value for money. What really killed the idea for me was, ironically enough, the fact that I already had a large collection of video in my iTunes collection for use with my iPod touch. With my existing iTunes video collection being speficially encoded for my iPod, I would need two copies of everything in iTunes. The thought of having two copies of every video in my library was too messy for my tastes.
Build a HTPC:
Being a geek, this option appealed to me greatly. I could get all of the flexibility of a PC and watch video from my couch at the same time. The added bonus was that I could use the UK's growing number of online TV services, such as BBC iPlayer and 4OD. After further research, I estimated that I could build a fairly decent unit for £450 ($900 USD). However, I had concerns that the HTPC would be too complicated and unwieldy to operate. I decided that waiting for a PC to boot wasn't acceptable for my purposes and neither did I want to leave it on permanently.
Popcorn Hour A-100:
Whilst Googling for HTPCs, I came across a few recommendations for the Popcorn Hour A-100 (here-in referred to as PCH). The PCH appeared ideal at first glance. It was small, the codec support looked great, I could fit a massive hard-drive into it for offline playback and it was relatively cheap.
With all the other options ruled out, I ordered a PCH and waited for it to arrive.
It's impossible to talk about the PCH without using the word 'enthusiast'. This is not a unit for the mainstream like the Apple TV and requires a level of technical knowledge. My PCH required a few extras in order to complete the unit.
My total bill was as follows:
Popcorn Hour A-100
(inc. $45 intl shipping fee) - £113.64
750GB Seagate IDE HDD - £103.04
Digital Coax cable - £4.49
Silicon Washers - £1.49
Component cable, network cable, UK mains cable - I had these laying around
Total cost - £222.66 inc. tax (~$445 USD)
I was lucky not to pay import duty on my PCH unit. I've heard that import duty plus admin fees usually amount to around £20. Overall, I saved over £50 compared to buying an Apple TV and got almost five times as much disk space. Bargain!
So here's the lovely box it comes in. I know, incredibly exciting stuff.
And here's the other items I needed to get the most out of my PCH. This includes a hard-drive, component cable, digital coax cable, Ethernet cable, UK mains cable and silicon washers.
Inside the box is the PCH itself, a remote and some very brief instructions. Everything in the instructions is self-explanatory and the online community provides a far better guide for less obvious functionality. Note the lack of any popcorn. Some of the review units came with some microwavable popcorn in the box – I was sorely disappointed that mine didn't!
Here's everything that came in the box - the PCH unit, remote, batteries, power supply, US mains cable and HDMI cable. It's good to see a HDMI cable included even if I had no intention of using it.
Picking up the PCH, it feels very light and dare I say flimsy. Unscrewing the top revealed that the sides slotted into place with nothing but the top to keep them in place. Again, hardly an attribute of a mainstream device.
A look inside confirms why it feels so light - it's a practically empty box. The electronics take up a small fraction of the metal enclosure, so the PCH obviously isn't the best solution for anyone who doesn't want to use an internal hard-drive.
And here's the PCH with a hard-drive inside it. I used some silicon washers underneath the hard-drive in order to reduce vibrations. I had heard a lot of users complaining about the level of noise generated by 3.5” hard-drives but the washers did their job perfectly. To my Xbox 360-trained ears, at least! Sadly, that's a PATA IDE drive in the photo and not a more recent SATA unit. The PCH only supports IDE drives and so PCH users are limited to an expensive 750GB hard-drive at the moment.
Around the back we see all of the connections that the PCH provides. From left to right; component video, S-video, composite video, analogue audio, S/PDIF digital audio, HDMI and Ethernet. It should be noted that the PCH does not provide any wireless networking out-of-the-box but a USB 802.11n adapter can be purchased as an add-on for $37.
Here's the mess behind my A/V stand. Way too many cables!
Lastly, here's the PCH in-situ with the rest of my AV gear. In-case anyone is interested, the rest of my set-up is as follows:
Samsung 26" 720P/1080i LCD TV
Denon AVR-1906 AV Receiver
Denon DVD-1740 DVD player
Tvonics DVR-250 digital Freeview recorder
Xbox 360 Premium
Mordaunt-Short Genie AV speakers
Soundstyle WG4 HiFi Stand
Set-up took quite a while on first boot. The PCH formats the hard-drive, looks for updates and installs web applications to the hard-drive. This was all incredibly painless.
The UI is fairly basic but generally does the job its intended to do. Here it lists the internal hard-drive but it automatically picks up external USB drives and network shares too.
The set-up options are clunky to say the least. There's a save button on each screen and it must be pressed before proceeding to the next screen.
Now this is where I first hit trouble.
The video output resolutions are comprehensive but not perfect. I tried switching from "AUTO" to "Component - 720P/60Hz". This is a resolution and frequency I know that my TV supports. It's exactly the same combination I use with my Xbox 360 and works flawlessly when playing games.
Unfortunately, selecting this option caused a garbled screen to be shown. To make matters worse, there was no recovering from the garbled screen from within UI. I would have expected the UI to preview the new resolution for 20 seconds before asking the user to confirm the selection. However, the change on the PCH was permanent without any preview. Thankfully, screen resolutions can be changed from the remote and so I managed to recover back to the AUTO setting with a few trial-and-error button presses. A further bit of fiddling revealed that I could only use the AUTO or PAL settings from the menu.
This shouldn't have been too much of a problem but playing a DVD .iso file resulted in the film being played at the wrong ratio. I was beginning to see why this box was labeled 'enthusiast only' in the press.
After a bit of head scratching, I decided to swap from using component to HDMI. I was initially reluctant to use HDMI as my TV only has one HDMI input and my receiver doesn't support HDMI at all. My DVD player was currently using the only HDMI input I had.
The swap made all the difference though. Suddenly, all of the menus were in glorious high definition and video played at the correct ratio. Image quality was all round improved as well. A success!
From my PC, it was a simple task to map the PCH's hard-drive to a network drive under My Computer. As I mentioned earlier, I have my PC and PCH connected via a set of homeplugs. For anyone not familiar with homeplugs, they are an alternative to WiFi use your property's electrical mains ring to transfer data.
I've got a pair of Netgear 200Mbps adapters
. Of course, 200Mbps is the theoretical limit and in practice the speeds I experience are around 80Mbps. Transferring data from my PC to the PCH was a slow business. Even PCH's own literature states a maximum transfer limit of 42Mbps and it took me 30 minutes to transfer a 5.5GB DVD .iso file. It's going to take me a long time to fill that 750GB hard-drive.
Setting up and trouble shooting my PCH took an evening. By the end of my first evening, I had video and sound working perfectly and a small amount of content on the hard-drive.
Video playback is the main selling point of the PCH and it does so superbly over HDMI. The picture looks just as good, if not better, than with my mid-range Denon DVD player. Video takes a few seconds to start but certainly no longer than it takes for a DVD disc to spin up. So far I've tried a DVD .iso, H.264 and DivX. The PCH has played each one without any issues.
Despite the fantastic video playback, music proved to be a step too far for the PCH. The music player is incredibly limited and misses out many features that most people take for granted. It's hard to know where to start with the complaints. The most fundamental is that the PCH uses the archaic method of file directory trees for music browsing. To make matters worse, there's not even a search functionality. Add that to the lack of album art or even a screen-saver whilst playing music and you start understanding why the PCH is a total failure as a music playback device.
Well, not completely. The PCH also supports a range of HTTP streaming services, including myiHome. MyiHome was painless to install on my PC and has great support for iTunes libraries.
Jumping back on the PCH, the new myiHome streaming service was automatically detected.
I was able to access my entire iTunes music collection; including all of my playlists. Once playing music, myiHome displays pictures from your photo collection. As far as I could tell, there's no support for album art.
MyiHome is still not perfect though. It can be very slow at times and it completely froze once whilst I was viewing photos. It's a fine solution for the odd bit of music playback but I wouldn't rely on it day-to-day.
There's a few features I haven't tried yet - photo viewing, HD video content and the web services. I hear that they're a mixed bag. HD video support is very good but photo viewing and the web services are just as primitive as the PCH's music playback.
Just browsing the web service icons was incredibly slow. They look very nice when loaded though!
Overall I'm very happy with my PCH. It was one of the cheapest options available to me and its a very capable little box. Video playback is undoubtedly its outstanding feature but I was also impressed by the quality of the remote and how easy the PCH was to network. The amount of heat generated is concerning but I haven't experienced the noise problems that other people have reported. I wish PCH's music playback was better and maybe it will be improved with later firmware releases. The PCH has proved the right tool to solve my dilemma.
Just remember that it's an 'enthusiast' device before purchasing. If you've got the time and effort to invest in it then it's a great unit. Just don't expect plug'n'play or a complete reference manual.
If you have any questions, fire them away and I'll try my best to answer them.
After a few months, I'm still very happy with the device. To their credit, the Popcorn Hour guys have continued to release firmware updates and have fixed a number of issues that were bugging [sic] me. A newer model, the A-110 also includes SATA support now.