The world of advanced networking and storage was previously reserved for the brain heavy or learn greedy. However Syabas, a company in Hong Kong, wanted nothing of it and released a box called the Popcorn Hour. Now we’re in advanced versions, coming with advancements such as a passively cooled design, better chipset and even wider file support, but is this the best media box available?
The box certainly thinks so, upon opening you will find all the essentials to get started. It even comes with an HDMI cable, which isn’t a given anymore. The bookwork is minimalistic but just enough to get you started. Syabas also included a plasticized card with instructions on how to change the HDD. I found the handling to be easy and straight forward, especially with the manual in hand. Finally the device comes with a USB extension cable, USB slave cable and an AC adapter and power cord of course. Overall I think the contents are enough to keep most users satisfied, despite falling short of the best.
The Popcorn Hour A-210 is the successor to the A-200, a player very well received with the exception of its plastic design. They responded to the cries and redesigned the A-210 from the ground up. This time you get an all-round brushed metal box that is completely passively cooled. That means no fans to ruin your movie experience. I adore syabas’ minimalistic approach and consider the Popcorn hour A-210 to be among the best looking players out there. That is, in no small part, thanks to the lack of buttons or indicators on the device. In addition, the dimensions are kind to small homes with 270mm x 132mm x 32mm, making it one of the smallest boxes available while still offering enough space for a bulky 3.5″ HDD.
Also inside is the Sigma Design SMP8643 667mhz CPU. This chipset is built specifically for playing media. The heart of the machine is supported by 512mb of DDR2 memory and 256mb of NAND flash. What does this all mean? Well in human terms it’s about a year short of the best but very comprehensible for all your media.
I can honestly not fault its design for anything. It looks very modern and clean, definitely a design I’d like to see in my devices. The fan-less approach doesn’t compromise cooling, now they only have one audible challenge left: the HDD.
Not from brushed metal is the remote. Syabas felt no reason to change it from the A-200 model, a risky move. My opinion about the remote is ambiguous because I actually like the look of it very much. The silver with black color scheme works very well, and this is one of the few backlit remotes on the market. The button layout takes some time to get used to but in the end feels pretty logical. With that said the buttons have so much wiggle room, it just doesn’t feel firm and modern. Overall it could’ve definitely been better; maybe they should copy some designs from the likes of LG, Samsung or Apple.
Popcorn Hour uses its very own and unique software package, which is great. Upgrading can be done by USB or the Internet, and often add plenty of new functionality or fixes to the device. Syabas has done a great job in creating its very own ecosystem of media player software.
I did experience some crashes along the way, especially while using the YouTube app. Very unfortunate because the device is very stable in general but these little kinks do limit the user experience.
Navigating the set of software is also kind of a mixed experience. Everything is wearing a NEON style suit, meaning that the design contains a lot of reflections, glows and colours from the outer rings of the colour spectrum. Whether that’s your thing is highly personal. I think it’s decent but not great, the style has probably passed its expiration date in favour for the slick and tight.
What’s more objective is the fact that navigating isn’t very intuitive at times. The home screen is stripped and simple shows the HDD layout of files and folders. Internet functionality and additional apps is a couple of menus away, which can be kind of a search. The media portal software is a nice touch, here all your media will be sorted with descriptions and covers, all automatic. It isn’t bullet proof and having clear titles definitely helps to progress along.
Luckily the most important bit of the OS is done right. The menus respond swiftly to the remote – a problem that has necked most media players in the past.
Popcorn Hour A-210 contains its very own app store (@Apple, or can’t I use that term?). It allows users to download a host of different apps to enhance the experience. The offering is extensive for a media player and I really love the initiative, but it obviously falls short compared to android/iOS platforms. My personal favourite is the CNET app, which grants access to all the tech shows they have including top5s, reviews and apple byte. The usual is also present including twitter, YouTube and Facebook, all of which work decent enough to be of use.
Maybe the most practical and useful application for the Popcorn Hour A-210 doesn’t even come from the device itself. People that own an iPhone, iPod touch or iPad (>70%?) can download an app and use it as a remote or streamer. It works instantly without any additional settings. I could even use my iPhone to browse YouTube and sending the video straight to my Popcorn Hour. This is great for family gatherings and testifies the fact that this media player enjoys great overall support from the community.
The NAS function of the device has proven to work extremely well. It was easy to set up apart from some difficulties with getting it to work with windows XP. The transfer speed over the cable is about 4-7mb per second, which equals the best I’ve seen over an Internet cable. I’ve experienced zero difficulties in terms of instability while using the device as storage; perfect scores here.
Music playback is still a very dumbed down experience. The popcorn hour doesn’t support playlists, equalizer or advanced things like lyrics, no karaoke here people! Syabas tried though by at least implementing music whilst navigating, signs that a perfect world of audio is just on the horizon. The sound quality isn’t outstanding; I’ve definitely heard better devices in my time.
Of course movie playback is where these devices are meant to shine, and the Popcorn hour does so with flare. It can play pretty much any format flawlessly. Avi, Mpeg, MKV; you name it, and it can probably play it. I did notice a couple of minor difficulties, most noticeable stutters and audio sync problems in some of the files. Remember though, that these problems are minor and occurred in about 1/20 of the movies.
The Popcorn Hour A-210 media box is a mature product that does what it says on the box – a whole lot. It’s a NAS (network access system) that can send and receive media from the entire living room and display it in perfect HD. A few problems do limit the experience, most noticeably the occasional instability and goofy user interface. Still Syabas has made the best media player available today, a title that is set to remain in Hong Kong for some time to come.