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Popcorn Hour's top-of-the-line media streamer

Popcorn Hour's top-of-the-line media streamer

Popcorn Hour's claim to fame is that it has the widest format and source support we've seen in any media streamer, and it includes popular video and photo sites like YouTube, MetaCafe, Veoh, Flickr and Picasa. Audio services and RSS feeds are equally well represented, with Live365, Shoutcast, Bloglines, CNN, and MSNBC, among others. (A complete list can be found on the Popcorn Hour home page.) We found video quality to be excellent with high-def sources, although standard-definition playback was often pixelated on our HDTV. Some HDTVs handle SD better than others, and your mileage may vary.

Popcorn Hour is a 5-by-10-inch metal box that unscrews easily to reveal a connector for an internal 3.5-inch IDE hard drive, onto which you can copy media files. (No drive, though, comes with the base unit.) Two USB ports on the front let you plug in external drives or thumb drives, and the box hooks up to your TV via HDMI, component, or S-video connectors. It has a 100-megabytes-per-second ethernet port, but no wireless networking. You could attach an ethernet-to-Wi-Fi bridge, but performance will likely not be satisfactory unless you have a strong 802.11n network--HD video is too demanding for regular Wi-Fi.

You can play back media files from the internal or external drives, from a networked PC or Mac, a UPnP or HTTP media server, or directly from the Web. With a hard disk installed, you eliminate buffering time before playback begins, and Popcorn Hour can also serve as a NAS drive. Unfortunately, actually setting up all these features and using them is Popcorn Hour's weakness. It often feels like a beta product: It has a lot of interface annoyances, such as a phone-type keypad for entering text, no bookmarking, and no way to go back in many areas--too often, you have to go to Home.

Another flaw is photo access--the A-100 has no thumbnails to ease browsing. Nevertheless, the interface, somewhat modeled after that of Windows Media Centre, is better than most, with nice icons, a wide-screen format, and reasonably fast response times.

The only documentation is a ten-page Quick Start guide; though ten pages may sound sufficient, it omits essential information such as what type of hard drive to install in the box, or even how to open the device. That said, the online support area, with its active user forums, has all the information you could want. We just wish it weren't such a chore to research and solve every little problem--for example, how to set permissions on our Vista PC media folders so as to stream files from them. Software to allow media access is available as a download. A constant parade of firmware updates reinforces the betaware impression. This box is definitely not for novices.

Yet Popcorn Hour is harder to snag than a Nintendo Wii; it's been perpetually sold out for months, and you have to get on a waiting list to buy it. Its low price (US$179), laundry list of media sources, and excellent 1080p video quality don't hurt, but we suspect the key attraction for many video enthusiasts is the built-in BitTorrent client, along with support for MKS and ISO files. MKS and ISO are favoured formats for file-swappers trading high-def movie rips, and the BitTorrent client makes it easy to download movies directly to the box, rather than through your PC.

If you can live with its interface limitations, Popcorn Hour delivers more media for your money than any other streamer.


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