Published on December 1st, 2009 | by Greg0
We Bow To Our New Media Overlord, The Popcorn Hour C-200
If you’re not using a media box of some sort for your entertainment, there’s a good chance you’re simply not getting as much out of your television, and certainly not out of your wireless network and internet connection, as you could be. Long gone are the days when you have to wait for our favorite television show to air, and then suffer through commercials to watch it. TiVo it if you’re impatient, or wait, and get the whole season on BluRay; either by buying it, ordering it off of Netflix, or downloading it from Amazon or iTunes. Do a little research and it doesn’t take long to figure out how to get some of the harder to find shows, music or movies from some of the darker corners of the internet. The problem is that once you have all of this wonderful entertainment media, you still need to have equipment that handles it.
Sure, there are the AppleTVs and Roku boxes which will play streaming media from the aforementioned sources. They are easy to use and they perform the functions they were created for well. Most game consoles also can handle your media to various degress of adeptness- the PS3 and XBox 360 all are equipped to play BluRay or DVD movies (or even HD-DVDs for those behind the times), as well as work over the wireless network to stream media from your computer through a media server like WMP or TVersity. The best bet though, to ensure that your media box will handle any audio and visual file you throw at it, is to build your own. However, not everyone has the time, resources or knowledge to build a PC dedicated to handling media, and there are plenty of issues with hardware, drivers, and codecs that can make even experts wish they could just reach for the remote. This is exactly where Popcorn Hour comes in.
We looked at the Popcorn Hour A-110 just about a year ago, and we were pleased with the overall product, but wished it had wireless support. Today we’re going to look at the Popcorn Hour C-200 and it’s a bit like our dearest holiday wishes came true- Santa himself must think we’ve been good boys and girls. The C-200 builds on the already successful A-110 platform, but has added in some upgrades like a new Sigma SMP8643 667 Mhz processor, HDMI 1.3 out, two SATA slots, a drive bay for mounting your own HDD (please take note that the Popcorn Hour C-200 does NOT come with a HDD), and a DVD or even Blu-ray drive (requires an internal HDD or 1GB USB stick, untested). The remote uses RF, which means it will work as long as it’s in range- it doesn’t have to have a direct line of sight to the device like your other remotes. An optional infrared remote kit makes it easy to use your universal remotes as well. We found it worked just fine even from the other room in our small office. There is also the wireless connectivity we were hoping for on the previous model, a miniPCI MII interface for a WiFi card that can support 802.11 a/b/g and even n! It’s optional, but it’s there!
Operators will also get better control of sound with the ability to downmix HD audio, and the LED panel on the front of the box is large enough to do all of your menu navigation without using the TV if you don’t care to. Never fear, the backlight can be dimmed all they way down so that the light doesn’t interfere with your movie watching experience. SATA drives go in and out as easy as your media collection will grow to devour your hard drive space. It’s still a very efficient BitTorrent server/client, and the list of Web services is impressive, including YouTube, CNN, NBC, CBS and so on. Notably missing from the list is Hulu, but there’s a PlayOn workaround that makes it possible to stream Hulu. You can grab media from multiple sources, including USB thumb drives, or network storage like our Seagate NAS or our other one from QNAP. And we enjoyed not just video content, but audio and images as well- AAC, WAV, MP3, WMA, and even OGG and FLAC (!) are supported along with the usual suspects for images (JPG, PNG, TIFF, but no RAW sadly).
The Popcorn Hour C-200 retails for $300 and can be ordered directly from their website. If that seems a bit pricey, remember that you’re basically paying for a top-notch home theater PC and dedicated media server. This is absolutely the best one out there for the general public, and even hackers will find plenty to love in the hardware. We have to admit that the box is a bit large, utilitarian, and bulky- think a receiver not a Wii- and could have used some rounded edges. It fits in well in your TV cabinet though and offers plenty of USB ports and every audio and video connector known to man (optical, composite, component, s-video, along with the HDMI). All we have to say is: thank you Santa, thank you Popcorn Hour, and god bless inexpensive hard drives.