Much has been written about the “plays-it-all” Popcorn Hour A-110 media player. After digging through a lot of mostly very positive reviews I decided to get one too. My movie collection mainly consists of ripped DVDs (VIDEO_TS), .M4V H.264 MPEG4 files, lots and lots of MPEG2-TS files from my Dreambox DM800 HD cable tuner and a few .FLV and .XVID files. All these video formats play instantly and with no problems on my XBMC-enhanced Apple TV including digital audio passthrough to my A/V receiver.
After unboxing the Popcorn Hour A-110 and connecting it to my home network it told me there’s a new firmware upgrade available. I decided to apply it via network update but after a few minutes of “programming” the display stayed blank. That’s quite a bad start I thought. Luckily, there’s a post about how to recover from a failed firmware upgrade on the manufacturer’s support site. Unfortunately, this procedure involves connecting the media player to a non-HDMI Component or Composite display. In the end, I found out that the upgrade process didn’t fail but the new firmware did something to the HDMI-output that made it incompatible with my 22″ Samsung PC LCD display.
Anyway, it works fine using HDMI 1080p on my large Philips TV LCD display which is where I intend to use it.
Please keep in mind that if you fool around with the resolution settings, there’s no fallback-timer if you switch to an unsupported display resolution. If the display stays blank, try pressing TV-Mode, wait for 2 seconds, press 0. If that doesn’t get you any visible image you may have to connect the device to a Composite or Component display.
Standby power consumption & boot time
- Cold boot time: 55 seconds
- Power off power usage: 7W (just the power supply with the PCH turned off with the red switch)
- Standby power usage: 16W (19W with an external 2,5″ USB hard drive attached)
Pros & cons
What I like about the PCH A-110:
- It’s silent (no fan)
- Network support for SMB and NFS shares
- Support for HDMI 1.3 and 1080p (but no Deep Color capability)
- Support for high-bitrate HD content (this is where many other media players fail miserably)
- Ability to insert 3,5″ and 2,5″ S-ATA drives
- Two USB ports to add even more media content on external hard drives
- A real power switch (although the external power supply still eats 7W)
- Disks spin down when not in use to conserve energy
What I don’t like:
- Crude, bare-bone GUI (it really needs some love)
- No resume capability, playback always starts at the beginning
- Buffering from external USB hard drives takes too long compared to XBMC on AppleTV
- Loading a VIDEO_TS folder from an external USB hard drive takes way too long (around 12 seconds, compared to 3 seconds on XBMC on AppleTV)
- Copying is extremely slow! The PCH A-110 transfers data from my WD Passport 2,5″ USB drive at 7 MB/s whereas the same drive on my Notebook transfers 25 MB/s.
- Scrolling with the file browser is a pain in the ***, it takes seconds to jump to the previous/next page. There’s no option to sort entries other than alphabetical (and only ascending). Once there’s a large amount of files or directories it will take ages to find a particular one.
- YouTube and other portal integration loads slow (shows ugly empty rectangles)
- 10/100 Mbps Ethernet is a joke on such a device, a decent 1 Gbps port can’t be that expensive nowadays?! Transferring files over FTP yields in about 6.5 MB/s, SMB 4 MB/s
- Randomly disconnects the FTP connection while transferring large amounts of files to the internal hard drive
- Bulky remote control: Way too many buttons! Look at Apple TV’s remote or the WD TV remote, that’s what I call a useful and simple remote for a media player.
- File browser could be more responsive when switching directories (again, XBMC on AppleTV is fast and instant)
- No ability to jump directly to the DVD menu on ripped DVDs (VIDEO_TS), the movie has to be started first in order to jump to the DVD menu.
- Unfortunately, it doesn’t play Flash video .FLV files (to be fair: it doesn’t advertise to do so)
- Hangs up on many of my MPEG2-TS files from my Dreambox DM800 HD cable tuner. The screen stays black and there’s no audio. Interestingly, it plays all MPEG2-TS files from an older Dreambox DM600 (non-HD) cable tuner.
- There’s no audio (using S/PDIF) when playing .M4V H.264 MPEG4 files with AC3 digital audio. This means I can’t watch any of my ripped and Handbrake-encoded DVDs.
- Doesn’t see any MP3 files with ID-Tags written by iTunes
- Aborted FTP sessions lead to files which I’m unable to delete (several GB of data!)
- Auto-resolution detection mode seems to be broken in current firmware for some HDMI capable displays (display stays blank)
- Gets very hot while playing high-bitrate 1080p HD content from an internal 3,5″ S-ATA hard drive. Some people started to install their own fans.
- No status indicator for new or watched movies
- No ssh or telnet
- The box crashed more than once while I played around with different video formats
And the winner is…
The Popcorn Hour A-110 media player may be good at playing back high-definition and high-bitrate content but in almost every other aspect, speed is definitely an issue. It seems to be quite picky when it comes to various popular video/audio encoding combinations. Be prepared to remux and reencode your existing content to different containers and formats to be able to play it on the PCH A-110.
Even though the A-110 is on the market for half a year, I feel like I trapped into the infamous early adopter trap. I was particularly misled by the positive reviews about the A-110. If you own Apple-related content like iTunes .MP3 files and handbraked .M4V DVD rips you better stay clear of this media player for now. The Popcorn Hour A-110 has way to go firmware-wise. I consider this a beta product at best.
With AppleTV and XBMC, speed never is an issue but playing back high-bitrate HD content isn’t possible without stuttering due to limitations in AppleTV’s video processing power. On the other hand it plays almost every content I throw at it. As I don’t have a lot of high bitrate video content, my almost two year old AppleTV with XBMC clearly is the more flexible, more reliable and faster media player.
While I prefer AppleTV with XBMC over the Popcorn Hour A-110, the quest for the ultimate, plays-it-all media player still goes on…