Review: Popcorn Hour A-110 vs. XBMC on AppleTV

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.

popcorn_hour_a-110_front popcorn_hour_a-110_back

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.

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Pop-Corn Hour A-110 main menu (left), AppleTV XBMC main menu (right)

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…

popcorn_hour_a-110_back_open
Popcorn Hour A-110 with 3,5″ S-ATA HDD

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Popcorn Hour A-110 mainboard

32 thoughts on “Review: Popcorn Hour A-110 vs. XBMC on AppleTV

  1. agreed with Francois,

    there are Two same looking but different inside player, one is only SD player which is WDTV live and one is HD player (WDTV live Plus)

    WDTV live plus, is the best media player i ever used, i have appleTV its good on some points but,,

    why we need a media player, that is a question and if you know why then WDTV live plus is the best,

    it dose not play 90% of WMV and fly, but other all formats are pretty good, i have mostly AVI, MP4 and MKV, diffrent bitrate mostly 720P ore 1080P with DTS and multi audio. working perfect with full HD TV and Yamaha AVR, its has Optical audio, HDMI, component, and AV output, Ethernet & Two usb can support upto 4TB(i have 2TB x 2) it load both drives in seconds, with some resin it docent play some media and you can still figure it, for example it dosent play some MKV 5% of all my MKV collection, i blame my WDTV for that, these were only few files so i never took it seriously, but then later i found why it wont play some MKV because MKV with header compression that problem is with remux who ever rip this video, i use MKVmerge to remove that, takes 5 minutes for 10GB video, and its back,

    can play media from other computer via network thats also fast and can use youtube but its not good for online use,

    its a tiny player but very very fast, process even faster i have max 15 GB video and this player play it like butter, fast foreword, resume play back, very nice main menu, menu is not better then ATV but i put posters in each folder and it display very nice,

    price is 5 times less then Apple TV,,

    at last in short,,,,,just to feel you have a nice product is Apple TV but to Enjoy your TV and sound is WDTV live plus,

    i apologies if my comments are not understand able for some fellows,

  2. I’ve used the PCH for over 2 years. I consider it the best thing I ever bought. really. it plays everything and anything I have ever downloaded. nothing else can make this claim. and XBMC uses software to do the decoding, PCH hardware decoding performance cannot be touched by XBMC.
    XBMC on PCH – now that would be sick!

  3. I have a PCH-A110 and a ATV. I find the ATV/XBMC interface and end user experience much more elegant and speedy, however it has trouble (read: sync, stutter, audio issues) with all but a few compression formats and bit rates.

    Bottom line: I prefer the PCH as it plays my data files, any bit rate, any audio, any compression without stutter.

  4. This is a great post … I’m still waiting for the ultimate media player that plays all my SD/HD files and easily integrates with my audio and photo content.

    Really looking forward to replacing my PCH with ATV version 2 if they get it right.

  5. AppleTV might get Full HD 1080p playback support as soon as guys around xbmc figure out the drivers for the Broadcom PCI-E HD accelerator card for AppleTV. Check out the xbmc forums. After it is done, the decision will be no-brainer.

  6. Thanks for th review. I am hoping for more to come …. It seems difficult to decide.

    Honestly I am hoping for a MacMini or other apparatus to work both as a computer & as video playback/media center for the HDTV using HDMI (pref at the same time).

  7. I have had the original PCH A-100 for a while now and still completely love it!. I use it to watch gorgeous 1080P movies and not for admiring cover art.

  8. I have both an AppleTV and a Mac Mini (09) hooked up to an HDTV. The PCH-110 seems quite intriguing and I might just get one for comparison’s sake and I like fiddling with stuff. Another option might be the Mediagate MG-800HD. The WD HD player lacks networking so that rules ot out for me, but it is certainly priced right. Anyway, I feel that the Apple TV is really underrated. My Mini with Plex is very nice and the computer doubles as a work system for me so I think that’s pretty hard to beat. I thought the ATV would pale in comarison but it does not. While XBMC is very neat on the ATV it doesn’t make use of the video card. Native files play just fine at 720p. I don’t have any 1080p files and I think for most people that is still a non-issue. Now, if you don’t want to install XBMC just install nitoTV to the ATV and Perian and you;ll be able to play anything. While I prefer streaming from either smb/afp servers I have attached a USB hard drive to the ATV and videos play great from it. The process of installing everything takes 20 minutes at most and is free. For some odd reason I actually prefer using the ATV than my Mini which is far more capable. Both solutions are very elegant and the ATV is cheaper than the PCH-110.

    It will be interesting to see where Apple goes with the ATV. They are on the right track. The reason why the restrictions (which are truly easy to get around) are there is because of the video establishment. Western Digital, Mediagate, PCH, etc…don’t need to worry about that as they don’t sell/rent video/audio. Whether that will haunt them one day is unknown. It seems to me that they are temporary solutions. At the end of the day Sony’s PS3, Microsoft’s XBox or something else and Apple with the ATV/Mini/? will be the one’s left standing.

    One final note. In Canada it is totally unknown as to how you’d get service for a PCH A-110. Apple, Sony and Microsoft at least back their products and that is an important issue. Perhaps it’s better in the US.

    Still tempting though :)

    pmcd

  9. Well, I can tell you that the new resume/bookmark feature doesn’t work at all in my case even its listed in the release notes. And for everything else it’s pretty much the same.

  10. Need help, I have a mac power book G4 version 10.4.11 and even though I eventually got to transfer movies across(after a hell of a time going through all the forums).I hit a major problem,my computer shut down while I was transfering a movie across from my external harddrive to the popcorn 110 and now cant transfer or even connect to the popcorn.Have tried to re connect through FINDER,the go with no connection.Sorry if I’m in the wrong room but desperate now. Need help asap.

  11. Sorry I meant ‘free VNC client’ not VPN client. You can log into OSX using VNC for windows and still watch the monitor on the big screen while you control the computer. I tried using a Windows Media Center PC but when you Remote Desktop into Windows to use your keyboard then the TV goes blank and gets kicked off. OSX lets you remote in and still view the screen on the TV. (Bluetooth and Wireless keyboards kept loosing the signal or had too much lag.)

  12. I was dis-satisfied with the speed of the appletv trying to run boxee and hulu, and the restrictions of still not being able to run video from some sites such as http://www.abc.com to watch Scrubs. So, I replaced it with the new Mac Mini for $550 after educ. discount. I use the free VPN client to log into it from my windows machine while I work and I run any format video on my big screen from my NAS, iTunes, or from any online site with no compatibility issues since it’s a full computer with full browser, yet it’s silent and only uses 10 watts at idle. It’s much faster than the other small appliances, and I use the Apple Remote to wake it up so I can remote into it from my machine to use the full mouse and keyboard as I sit in my lazyboy. I realize not everyone has an iMac sitting next to their lazyboy, but since I work all the time I do, and I found this setup to be far superior than all of the other half-way options I’ve tried. Hulu runs full screen HD now from Safari, instead of jerky through boxee through appletv.

  13. Jan –

    The new firmware fixes many of the points you had above, including: resume feature, improving loading and buffering times, iso loading, video ts loading, etc.

  14. Are you dreaming? What does the latest firmware fix regarding the points above? Or do you mean “fixes” like writing to read-only volumes for resume-bookmarks?! Come on…

  15. the new firmware released on 26/02/2009 (01-17-090125-15-POP-403-000) fixes pretty much all the negative things in this review, you should do a re-review.

  16. All things considered, I looked into AppleTV, PCH, Divco, and even WD for my media solution. But their lack of compatibility with all of my various media files cause me to go a different route. I ended up building my own htpc for about the same cost as a PCH (if you were to add in the cost of a 1tb HDD) and I am able to run everything I have flawlessly using Mediaportal as my frontend. whodathunk?

  17. Hi, Thanks for the info. I also have a PCH and am looking to buy a DM600 or DM800, there is not much HD broadcast right now and given what you say about MPEG2-TS playback the DM600 may be a better choice. Did you setup the DM600 to record files directly to the PCH? Is it possible?

  18. Thanks for the write up. Glad to say I just ordered my PCH A-110, and will no doubt have tons of fun seeking out and playing with the jukebox stuff, setting up a killer media tank that even my wife / kids can use, and all friends will want. [Sorry, not a crApple/Macintrash/Ipoo fanboy…] ;-)

  19. I think we’ll have to agree to disagree. I’ve never used the XBMC on apple tv, but from what i gather its something you have to search out and install as a user and not officially supported by Apple either. Which puts it on par with the jukeboxes available for the popcornhour.

    I’ve installed and used every jukebox available, and personally thought as long as you can grasp the concept of local path vs popcornhour path then they’re all very easy and straight forward to setup. A few of them even have GUI installations available now too. And they’re all much faster to navigate then the stock UI.

    But thats just my opinion :)

  20. Hi!
    This was a great review! Thank you! I just purchased PCH110 and I really like it. But the hang-ups and poor navigation speed annoys me a lot!
    The function for downloading torrents are great and I haven’t had any problems in that part.

    It does get a bit warm with the HDD installed. It really doesn’t bother me much, but I do have a few other things in there, so I can’t say I want the heat progress too much!

    All in all, I’m quite satisfied with the PCH, but the small form factor on the Apple TV and the XBMC support, maybe I will switch if they manage to get 1080p resolution on future hardware.

  21. James, I have to disagree. A PCH user has to search, find and to manually install those unofficial “skins”. Navigation is not faster when they’re installed and the installation process itself is a PITA.

  22. To be completely fair, if you’re going to compare the Apple tv with the XBMC gui add-on then you should add in that the popcornhour has plenty of its own skins available for quicker/better navigation.

  23. Hi!Great review but I have to disagree.
    I Bought my Popcorn Hour A-110 2 weeks ago.
    I´m using HDMI for picture and SPDIF(optical) for sound.
    Have sound in all movies with SPDIF.
    Installed a 1Gb internal Sata hd, and upgraded the firmware.
    Also installed the Jukebox software so I can see
    imdb movie info. and use movie covers as icons.
    (Just love xbmc and wanted my A-110 to be as close to the xbmc layout as possible).
    Evrything work like a dream.
    Mainly playing 1080p movies form my cpu and from the internal HD.
    Usualy transfer my new movies from my cpu to the int.HD over my samba network, it´s not fast but it have never disconnected.

    A-110 laks resume capability but the new firm uppdate for a-100 lets you resume so you will
    most likly find this function in next firmw. uppdate.
    The remote works but I use my “Logitech Harmony One” instead.

    Another great thing is that my A-110 with the internal HD works as a NAS-HD.

    I use Xboxe´s with XBMC in my other rooms and now I can stream all my media (except HD) from my A-110 to my xbmc machines without having to turn on my computer :)

    Oh, almost forgot:
    I also use my A-110 to download all my torrent files and download all my usenet files.

  24. Thanks for the review. What a surprise. Years ago it used to be that there were lots of wonderful, expensive, cool things out there to buy, if only you had the money for everything you wanted. Today, everybody wants and is willing to pay for a media player that can read all standard formats while being able to play them smoothly, but it’s been a few years now and no manufacturer anywhere is able to supply one? I don’t get it. Is ‘copy protection’ turning into another name for ‘sales repellant’, like a media-equivalent of Windows Vista’s UAP ? (User Account Protection gets in the way of trying to use the computer.)

  25. Echoing everyone else, thanks for this info. I’ve been suspicious of the lack of actual user reviews. I have all of my video files in VOB on a network attached media server streaming to an x360 MC extender. I was hoping to overcome some of the format limitations by streaming to PCH, instead, and then to the TV.

    While 1080p playback is important many of the other issues that you mention add up, and ultimately gravely impact the user experience. I will wait for future generations.

    As for Apple TV – well, I gave up on Apple a long time ago. Their proprietary file formats are just a big pain in the arse.

    Whoever finally boxes and sells the “plays-it-all” device will have many, many, many devout followers.

  26. Thanks for the comparison. Exactly what I was looking for a couple of hours before buying a Popcorn. I will now stay with my iMac with Plex (XBMC) and upgrade as soon as new iMacs or/and Apple TV/Mac Mini is available to “fix” the 1080p issue. Popcorn just doesn’t make sense and the interface is plain ugly.

  27. Sorry but I disagree. I’d rather WATCH flawless 1080p video than elegantly BROWSE in 720p.

    No 1080p = FAIL.
    And for the record: AppleTV WITHOUT xbmc = EPIC FAIL.

  28. Thanks for the real world post! I have been scouring the web looking at devices such as the PCH and XMBC and ATV, and have been baffled by the lack of clarity and comparison.

    ATV with XBMC at 720p seems to be a better and safer bet then trying to get 1080p on PCH.

    Thanks!!

    James

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