Popcorn Hour C-300 £341
22nd Mar 2012 | 15:06
Media jukebox goes up in price, but not in stature
Overview and features
The dedicated media streamer has thus far been a niche product, but that's changing fast. With the latest Apple TV embracing 1080p streaming for the first time, consider the ante well and truly upped in the world of media streamers.
The new Popcorn Hour C-300's maker Syabas is a regular class leader, priced at £340 in the UK and $350 in the US.
With smart TVs able to stream files over Wi-Fi and games consoles, tablet apps and £99 components also getting in on the act, some might wonder why we need a dedicated streamer.
The simple answer is that this player - an update on 2010's Popcorn Hour C-200 - can also act as a NAS drive, decode almost any file in your collection, provides apps, and displays an entire media library complete with cover art.
The only real trouble with the forerunning Popcorn Hour C-200 was a rather horrid user interface, but on the Popcorn Hour C-300 there's a completely refreshed version, alongside new Networked Media Jukebox software for handling its arty side.
Across the front of the Popcorn Hour C-300 is a 2.5-inch display that can be activated to control music without needing a TV to be switched on, something that's never really made sense.
However, the hard-button navigation controls have disappeared.
Features and performance
Out of the box the Popcorn Hour C-300 has a Continental European plug, which we immediately needed to replace, and no user manual, although we did find an online manual. Elsewhere, it's more comprehensive.
Able to play "virtually all" music and video formats, the Popcorn Hour C-300 is the first Popcorn Hour device to support Blu-ray ISO images, so you can keep a playable personal copy of discs on the machine's HDD.
Talking of which, there are several options to extend from the 512MB of Flash storage, by fitting a 2.5-inch or 3.5-inch HDD or a Blu-ray ROM drive. You have to do this yourself, which is fine, but there ought to be an off-the-shelf all-in-one option.
The Popcorn Hour C-300 can be accessed as a NAS drive in its own right, although it's a wired affair.
The back is fitted with HDMI, composite, S-video and component video outputs, optical, coaxial and phono outputs, and a wired Ethernet LAN port, although Popcorn Hour provides a WN-160 USB Wi-Fi dongle, purely as an optional extra, for around £20.
There are also four USB 2.0 ports, two on the back and two on the front, although one on the front failed to work in our test.
The Popcorn Hour C-300's biggest claim to fame is its comprehensive file support, which is said to handle all media codec and file containers, including MKV3D files, which use the side-by-side 3D format.
It also supports Bit Torrent and Usenet, and it's a cinch to move, rename, delete or copy files between USB, network and HDD.
We've no complaints about the file support; music included M4A and excellent FLAC support in our tests, and the likes of H.264, DivX, Xvid, MKV HD and WMV are lapped up.
However, streaming isn't quite as comprehensive as we'd hoped, with just AVC HD, AVI, MOV and MP4 video files successfully playing from an iMac running UPnP software.
In our test we attached an HDD stuffed with random music, video and photo files, which the Networked Media Jukebox software gradually downloaded and assigned cover art to.
We did experience a few bugs, with a "Failed to connect" message appearing regularly, despite the Popcorn Hour C-300 having a secure broadband connection.
When it does work (you simply hover over a movie file and press 'Info' to refresh and reload covert art, a synopsis and cast information), it's slick, quick and ultimately fabulous. Some digital movie files, whatever their origin, are presented with cover art and text over a fullscreen still from the movie. It can even fetch subtitles from the internet.
At its best it's all quite stunning, although not all files are correctly tagged; some are ignored, receive blank covers, or even end the process with a completely different filename. It leaves the main screen of movie cover art to scroll through looking patchy at best.
The Networked Media Jukebox software can freeze, too - especially when downloading cover art and suchlike - and isn't quite as slick-looking or acting as it should be.
Graphics aren't as nuanced as they could be for using with big HD TVs.
However, most of the blame falls at the feet of the remote control.
Aside from being nicely weighted and backlit from the moment you touch the buttons (an awesome feature for home cinemas), the crucial 'Source' and 'Return' keys are tiny, and the 'Home' key is totally anonymous.
Meanwhile, the Popcorn Hour Apps Market is a nice idea, but it has little must-have content.
Apps such as YouTube (here in its swish 'Leanback' version), Flickr, Picasa, Twitter, Facebook, Photobucket and SmugMug are good to see, but tragically Netflix and the BBC iPlayer - which are available on other Popcorn Hour devices - aren't accessible.
This is presumably a bug that will soon be fixed, but it leaves the Popcorn Hour C-300's web video apps looking scant indeed.
The name 'Popcorn Hour' may conjure thoughts of long nights streaming movies from the internet and elsewhere, but the reality of using the Popcorn Hour C-300 is somewhat more complex.
The Flash-based user interface is reasonably attractive and easy to navigate, while at its best the Networked Media Jukebox software's downloading of cover art and spotless presentation is simply awesome.
FLAC support for music is great, and general codec compatibility across the board is better than average.
It's vital that media streamers such as the Popcorn Hour C-300 go much further than a smart TV in all regards (otherwise, what's the point of them?), but here that applies only to file compatibility and the multimedia treatment.
The lack of Lovefilm, Netflix, BBC iPlayer and any movie-streaming apps makes the Popcorn Hour C-300 something of a compromise on a smart television. The killer blow is the lack of built-in Wi-Fi, which to our mind makes the C-300 little more than a novelty Blu-ray player with unusually vast digital file support.
Also, the remote and user interface don't communicate quick enough to make the Popcorn Hour C-300 enjoyable to use, and there are a few bugs that make this a machine strictly for DIY tech types.
A great piece of kit for AV enthusiasts looking for an expandable and adaptable streamer that can ultimately double as a Blu-ray player, the Popcorn Hour C-300 requires some careful choices to be made.
However, it lacks Wi-Fi, must-have apps and a bulletproof architecture.
If you have an iPhone/iPad and want to keep things simple and get an interface that doesn't skip a beat, best plump for an Apple TV, although that will be way too restrictive for some.
Those not interested in a Blu-ray mod should head for the cheaper Popcorn Hour A-300.