Review: Popcorn Hour A-300

Our score: 5/5
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Published: October 5, 2011 11:00 PM
By Régis Jehl
The Popcorn Hour 300 media centre series is here! Taking over from the much appreciated 200 series, it brings its lot of changes, beginning with an entirely new interface. The first through the lab is the A-300, with its new interface and surprising features.

Worthy descendant of the PCH A-210, the PCH A-300 has, it has to be said, the same stamp of quality. The casing is still entirely in aluminium and you can only tell the A-210 and the A-300 apart by the air vents. The A-300 runs in perfect silence as there's no fan.

Either a 3.5 or 2.5-inch hard drive can be easily inserted but it is a shame that screws and screwdrivers are needed to mount it. We'd have preferred a rack system without any screws.

Popcorn Hour A300 review
It's easy enough to install your hard drive...
but it requires a screwdriver.

The infrared remote is identical to the one used on the 200 series and quite right too! It's a high end model that we particularly like: excellent handling, a soft touch coating on the back and, above all, backlit buttons.

Power consumption hasn't really changed in comparison to the old generation and there are still two standby modes. Prolonged pressure on the On/Off remote button turns the device off completely (0.7 Watts) and it then takes 20 seconds to turn it back on. Pressing on the button for a short time puts the A-300 into the standby mode (7.8 Watts) from which the machine can be turned on in 2 seconds.

New, faster menu

Surely Syabas didn't simply add four or five holes to the casing and release their new Popcorn Hour under a different model number did they? Of course not! First of all, the navigation interface has been revisited somewhat. It's now the same as the one used on the Popbox V8 and has been designed using Flash.

Popcorn Hour A300 review - interface Popcorn Hour A300 review - interface
The home screen with the weather for the week and the standard display.

It's quite fast to move between the various menus and display of files is particularly well handled. You just hold down the 'Info' button while you're over a film or series episode to view a full info page (plot summary, poster, actors, illustrative image).

Though this information is retrieved online on request, it comes up pretty quickly. You can download the different elements so you don't have to go get them online each time you consult your titles. An edit option allows you to choose the cover or background screen or correct the films or series that haven't been properly recognised.

Popcorn Hour A300 review - jukebox Popcorn Hour A300 review - movies
Pressing on the 'info' button means files are automatically retrieved online.
You can then choose a poster or correct errors...

For music, both internal and external album covers are recognised, as is track information (excepting M4A). The only sin is that the photo interface can only be displayed in list form.

Popcorn Hour A300 review test

NMJ v2: the true strength of the A-300

So much for the basic interface... because, yes, there is another one, the NMJ interface. The NMJ (Network Media Jukebox) is in fact an automated catalogue system of all types of files. It allows you, for example, to display photos in the form of thumbnails or consult your music in the form of a wall of album covers, which then allows you to carry out searches by various criteria: date, genre, artist and so on.

Popcorn Hour A300 review - thumbnails Popcorn Hour A300 review
There are several types of display available for photos.

For films and series, cataloguing is also included with various display possibilities and the option to refine search results by changing a poster or the name of a film. A little marker flags up when you've watched a film or episode of a series.

Cataloguing is of course a demanding exercise for the media centre's processor but it is nevertheless faster than on the 200 series (around 20% more processing power) and a good deal less time is required.

Popcorn Hour A300 review - music Popcorn Hour A300 review
Display of music album covers... as long as you have them!
One of three types of film display.

The first catalogue is nevertheless long and varies according to the number and type of files to be indexed. In our case, for our test files, it took an hour and a half to carry out the operation: 1322 audio files, 103 videos (films and series) and 3403 photos. A second test on 500 videos (films and series) took twenty five minutes. The new files were indexed automatically in under five minutes.

Not everything worked perfectly however. First of all, missing music album covers aren't downloaded automatically, unlike on the D-Link Boxee Box. Next, as the interface for series is similar to that for films, it isn't as well adapted to this type of video as it could be and you have to click four times in succession to start an episode.

Popcorn Hour A300 review - DVD covers Popcorn Hour A300 review - film info page
Display of series in the form of a wall of posters, then access to the series page.

Menus of saved Blu-ray files are displayed

Mammoth throughput Full-HD videos, multiple audio tracks, subtitling, the Popcorn Hour A-300 (like its predecessors) handles it all without blinking an eye. There's support for side-by-side 3D video but MVC format of 3D Blu-rays isn't always supported.

Popcorn Hour A300 review - interface Popcorn Hour A300 review - menu
Title and length of series episodes is displayed.
Menus for saved Blu-ray files are displayed!

DTS and Dolby can be decoded or sent to an external audio amp in bitstream. The same goes for the lossless formats, namely DTS HD MA/HR and Dolby TrueHD. The best discovery was however that there's support for saved Blu-ray files. This was quite unexpected and very welcome. While PiP mode is supported, BD Live is not. Note also, heavy menus (Java type) aren't always displayed fluidly.

You still get various other welcome features such as automatic detection of video image throughput (23.976, 25p and so on), lip sync, subtitle synching and online retrieval of subtitling.

Increased Gigabit mode speed

While the absence of a card reader is still regrettable, we do salute the introduction of a USB 3.0 port. It's in micro-USB format (a cable comes with) and allows you to link the media centre up to a computer. This is practical when you want to copy large amounts of data: throughput jumps to around 60 MB/s in comparison to barely 10 MB/s using USB 2 via an external peripheral (USB key or USB HDD).

Popcorn Hour A300 review
Find all our readings in the media centre face-off

You still get an Ethernet Gigabit socket for the network and speeds have been more or less doubled to 20 MB/s. This is a good deal better than what you get with pretty much any of the competition but quite a bit down on the maximum possible with this network mode. The reason for this is that the processor used can't support anything faster, in spite of the fact that it's a high end chip.

To sum up then, no surprises here. Syabas has given us another excellent media centre. Although not perfect, you won't find better anywhere else. Nevertheless, we're still hungry for more! The innovations in comparison to the old generation and the advances from the A-200 or A-210 to the new A-300 only just justify a new release.
5/5 Popcorn Hour A-300 DigitalVersus 2011-10-06 00:00:00

Pros

  • Excellent multimedia compatibility
  • Intuitive, attractive interface
  • Built-in video jukebox
  • Applications market adapted to TV usage
  • Advanced options / high-end remote

Cons

  • No memory card reader
  • Screws required for installation of hard drive

Conclusion

Syabas confirms its status as a serious player on the media centre market with the release of an excellent interface that greatly simplifies use of its products. While not much more than a simple refresh on the previous model, the innovations are there and the built-in jukebox is a real added value.

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