Syabas Technology's Popcorn Hour A-110 "networked media tank" is a feature-packed media streamer, but it isn't for the faint of heart.
Strong community support means this media steamer can be expanded through third-party applications, but both the Popcorn Hour A-110 itself and its applications can be difficult to set up and use.
The Popcorn Hour A-110 media streamer is quite small, but it's packed full of connectivity. For audiovisual outputs alone you get component, composite, HDMI, S-Video and optical audio connections. To add to this there is an Ethernet port as well as two USB ports that can connect to external hard drives, USB flash memory and even external optical drives.
A third USB port connects to PCs, but the media streamer's internal hard drive can't be read by Windows or Mac OS X systems. The only thing this media streamer lacks is Wi-Fi.
The Popcorn Hour A-110 can access media files over a network. It can also play files from an internal SATA2 hard drive, but it doesn't come with one installed. We found the SATA connection occasionally became loose and disconnected the hard drive during use. When this happens the Popcorn Hour A-110 will automatically revert to network-only mode.
Using the Popcorn Hour A-110 as a network media streamer requires you to install the NMT Applications suite. This lets the device use Windows and Apple network protocols, and adds UPnP and BitTorrent capabilities. The applications can be installed either over Ethernet or via a USB flash drive, and the former also allows you to update the media streamer's firmware. The applications are disabled by default and must be enabled individually.
Unlike the Apple TV, the Popcorn Hour A-110 can't automatically sync media like Apple's iTunes. Instead, you can configure shared folders on the network and UPnP-compatible computers as permanent media sources. This allows you to access files as if they were on the device's hard drive.
The media streamer's interface is attractive and generally quite speedy, though it can lag when browsing shared folders on a network. Nevertheless, the Popcorn Hour A-110 is quick to buffer and play media from both the hard drive and over a network. During testing, standard-definition and high-definition AVI and MKV files both played flawlessly.
Several quirks with the remote control may make using it a little frustrating. For example, the remote sometimes won't work (when the Popcorn Hour A-110 is buffering and playing the first few seconds of a file, for example). You can't go to the home screen when playing content; you must first press "Stop" and then "Home" to do this. The remote glows in the dark, which makes it easy use in a room with the lights off (although it can be distracting).
One of the attractive things about the Popcorn Hour A-110 media streamer is the ability to install third-party applications. Like the NMT Applications, they can expand the media streamer's features by adding web services such as internet radio, podcast directories and Usenet compatibility. There is no central repository to find these applications, and they can often be difficult to install. Nevertheless, should you need a specific media function, chances are there is an application for it.
Like the Chumby, the Popcorn Hour A-110 media streamer lends itself to enthusiasts rather than the average consumer. There is plenty to like about this media player, and the ability to expand its features through third-party applications adds to its appeal.
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