The first thing that you notice when you get your hands on the C-200 is the size of the box. Most multimedia hard drives arrive in small packages, but with the C-200, you feel more like you're unpacking a 22'' monitor. And it's not just a cheap trick to bulk out the box so it looks impressive on the shelves: the device itself really is big. Its dimensions are closer to those of a DVD or Blu-ray player than a hard drive enclosure.
One of the A-110's weak points was its design and general aesthetic, and the manufacturer seems to have taken note, with a much more stylish look for this new model. The impressive C-200 is finished entirely in metal, resulting in a rather heavy object. The front panel is in black brushed aluminum. The whole thing has an excellent finish, and gives a great impression even before you switch it on.
The multimedia hard drive that's also a Blu-ray and DVD player
There are two very important elements on the front of the device. First of all is the rack for the hard drive. That's where you can insert a standard-sized hard drive. There's no need to use a screwdriver: all you need to do is slide the storage unit into the bay, close the cover and away you go. It's a very practical installation method that avoids taking the product apart to change the drive. The alternative is to remove the rack (which does require unscrewing the case), and replace it with a Blu-ray disc player.
Doing so will allow you to play retail Blu-ray and DVD discs. It's a great idea, but it's a shame that the manufacturer didn't think to give the front of the Blu-ray player the same brushed aluminum finish. Once you've installed it, the optical drive stands out, making the whole facade look less attractive. It also means that you can't also install a standard 3.5'' hard drive. Instead, you have to use a laptop-sized 2.5'' hard drive in its place if you want to keep your multimedia files on the device itself.
The other important item to note on the front of the screen is a large LCD display, with black text on a blue background. It's very accurate and allows you to scroll through the menus without having to switch your TV on. And although it's not in colour like the screen on the Cibox Cinebox Wireless Premium, it's a lot bigger and a resolution of 192 x 64 pixels means you can read it from the sofa. Unfortunately, though, when you view it from above, it very quickly appears white, unlike the traditional black of TN panels found in monitors. It's also worth pointing out that while you can turn the display off by using the buttons on the front of the C-200, you can't--for the time being--do so using either the remote control or the menus.
Visual film library
Let's take a look at the menus, the library and the remote controls. We could write an entire article about any of these given the vast array of choices offered by the C-200, but we'll stick to the essential points. Firstly, the interface is very similar to the one found on the A-110, but it uses a few more transparency effects and there are some new options like being able to choose an audio track to play when accessing a different folder.
Navigating through the interface is much more responsive than before, no doubt thanks to the new processor, but there are still one or two points that frustrate us. For instance, photos saved on the device itself can't be displayed as thumbnails, but those that you share from your computer using the MyiHome software can be. And while album covers are displayed on screen while you're listening to music, you can't flick through tour whole collection by looking at covers like you can in iTunes.
Another area worthy of an article in itself is the way the interface displays films using their covers, sorted into categories with a full synopsis. It's a great feature, and the very active user community continues to contribute extra themes. It takes a while to set up, though, and isn't for everybody.
That leaves the question of power consumption: while playing back films in HD, we measured between 15 W and 25 W. There are two standby modes. You can start the first by pressing the On/Off button on the remote, and results in a basic standby; the device still requires between 10 W and 12 W, but it can be switched on in under a second. You can turn it off entirely by pressing and holding the same button, which means energy consumption falls to around 0.4 W, with between 15 and 20 seconds required to start up again.
An excellent RF remote, with an infrared option
Let's finish this general look around the device with the remote control. The standard version of the C-200 comes with a black remote. It's excellently crafted, with well spaced out buttons and is backlit. Backlighting, which works better than glow in the dark buttons, allows you to use the remote even in the dark. One important aspect of this remote is that it doesn't use infrared, but instead communicates with the device using radio waves. That means you don't have to point the remote directly at the C-200 for it to work. If you'd rather a traditional remote--you might suffer from interference, although we didn't--you can buy an infrared remote for $12 on the manufacturer's website. The only thing that's different about it is that its white; all of the other buttons and features are the same.
Decoding: H.264, HD, MKV, Blu-ray and DVD
With this new model, PopcornHour is marking the debut of a new Sigma Designs chip, the SMP8643. It's even faster than the excellent SMP8635, and includes compatibility with Blu-ray content. For other formats, the level is excellent, and you really can't do better.
Let's get down to details with the video codecs it supports: MPEG-1, MPEG-2, MPEG-4 ASP (DivX, XviD), MPEG-4 AVC (H.264, x264) and VC-1 (WMV). All of them are supported not just in standard definition, but also in high definition. The list of container formats--files with a video track, one or more audio streams and one or more sets of subtitles--supported by the C-200 is equally impressive: AVI, DIVX, MP4, MKV, WMV, MOV, MTS, M2TS and RMP4. Microsoft video with DRM is also supported (WMDRM-ND/PD), as are DVD and Blu-ray discs ripped to ISOs or the RIP (VOB, M2TS) format. Regular Blu-ray discs and DVDs can be played, as long you either have an external optical drive or install one in the the C-200 (see above).
Next up, the audio formats also hit the spot, with MP3, WMA, AAC and OGG all supported. Support for FLAC files should be added later with a firmware update. Of course, like with the A-110, a DTS and Dolby Digital decoder allows you can play these audio streams via your TV's speakers (downmixed stereo). A pass-through mode also allows you to access DRS HD HR/MA and Dolby Digital Plus/True HD formats, but for that you'll need an external decoder, like an amp.
Subtitles are handled perfectly, whether it's within container formats, or in separate files like SRT, SUB, SSA or IDX. Finally, photos can be displayed in the JPG, BMP, PNG, GIF and TIF formats. Very high resolution photos didn't pose any problems, although you sometimes need to wait between three or four seconds to move from one to the other.
Connectivity: HDMI 1.3, network, USB and optional WiFi
In short, the connectivity options on the C-200 are pretty traditional. The usual inputs and outputs are there, including HDMI 1.3a, composite and component video, S-Video, optical audio and coaxial. There are no fewer than five USB host connectors though. Two are at the back, one is inside and the other two or on the front. It's a sensible strategy as it means you don't have to go all the way round to the back to plug in a USB key or an external hard drive.
The ports at the back are useful for connecting an external DVD player. However, despite the high price of the C-200, WiFi is still only an optional extra. And it you don't connect a USB dongle with WiFi, which doesn't work (although a later firmware update might add support for that). Instead, you need to install a miniPCI MII inside the C-200. It might have a tricky name, but it's simpler than it sounds, as it's a format used in a lot of laptops. The manufacturer plans to launch this extra hardware option soon, although the price is not yet known. The WiFi card will support the 802.11n standard, and will have three antenna, the holes for which are already drilled in the back of the C-200. Finally, a Gigabit network port (10/100/1000 Mbps) is also included.
- Unrivalled multimedia compatibility, including DTS and Dolby Digital
- Can become a Blu-ray/DVD player
- Large LCD screen (but poor viewing angles)
- Library interface
- Excellent updates
- No WiFi by default
- No SDHC card reader
- Very expensive
- Not all options are easy to use
- No HD TV tuner or recording
This multimedia hard drive sets new standards. The active support and development from the manufacturer, new features and rich compatibility make it the ideal product for somebody who wants to commit to a quality product. The price, though, remains (too?) high, and there are some features--like WiFi--that remain to be included.