As we outlined in our first hands-on with the PCH A-400, this media centre has an all-metal casing. The finish is very good quality and cooling is entirely passive (there's no fan). A 3.5" or 2.5" hard drive can be slotted into a built-in rack (with the disk laying flat), although seeing as you need a special key (supplied) to remove the rack before screwing the disk in place with a screwdriver, this system isn't hugely practical.
The remote control (infra-red) hasn't changed much compared with the one supplied with previous Syabas media centres. It's therefore as excellent as ever and has handy backlit buttons. Note that you can also control this Popcorn Hour media centre using the NMJ Navigator app, available to download free for iOS and Android, but this only works with files managed via the built-in NMJ multimedia jukebox software.
A Nice Interface, But Nothing NewAlthough not everyone's a fan of the NMJ jukebox manager, we like it for its user-friendliness. This software makes a catalogue of all the files on your media centre (music, videos, photos) and then displays them as a wall of thumbnails. The tag data contained in audio files can be used to browse music by categories such as album, artist, date, etc. but you'll need to make sure that your files are tagged properly. You'll also need to add album covers because these aren't retrieved automatically online. The real strong point of the NMJ jukebox is the video section, as movie posters/DVD covers for films and TV series are automatically retrieved online, along with plot summaries and cast lists.
This time though, we found that the media jukebox left us wanting more. The manufacturer hasn't added anything new to this year's version, with no noteworthy changes or extra functions. The only real difference here is that the more powerful processor in the Popcorn Hour A-400 makes browsing through the system slightly smoother and surfing through your content slightly faster. That's all.
However, we can think of plenty of things Syabas could have done to make its NMJ jukebox even better. How about automatically retrieving album covers? What about offering several skins for different jukebox layouts? Or why not rework the section for TV series, seeing as you still have to press the remote four times to launch the latest unseen episode from a given series? We would also have liked to see a kind of "constant content monitoring" system, so that each new file added is automatically displayed in the jukebox—in the A-400 you still have to manually launch a search for new files to get the latest additions to show up in the wall of thumbnail tiles.
Note that a more simple interface based on file directories and file names in text only is on hand if you'd rather just cut to the chase.
It's not too surprising to see that all the current multimedia file formats are supported here. With the Sigma Designs SMP8911 video processing chip onboard, the Popcorn Hour A-400 can play ripped 3D Blu-ray files and 3D videos in MKV and MK3D containers (SbS, TaB in Full HD). DTS HD MA and Dolby TrueHD are supported and can be decoded directly by the device or bitstreamed to an external amp.
Good Multimedia Player, But Still a Few Bugs
The new chip brings with it Sigma's VXP video engine. Note that there's no way of deactivating this, but it upscales SD sources with slightly better quality than usual.
On top of that, there's the usual host of extras that we're always pleased to see in Popcorn Hour media centres, including options for managing audio lip-synch and subtitles, an autoframerate function (for 24p in particular), replacement menus for ripped Blu-ray discs (BD-Lite) and a system for flagging videos you've already watched.
In our tests, we noticed a few bugs in this media centre that really need fixing (see inset, below). For example, we found that the audio signal cuts out when you use the fast-forward function. To get it back again you have to rewind for a few seconds.
We noticed some pretty heavy latency when changing audio tracks or activating subtitles. And subtitles have the annoying habit of staying onscreen for a bit too long at the end of a sentence. Finally, the autoframerate function currently doesn't work with 3D movies and we experienced a few tiny audio cut-outs with Dobly TrueHD soundtracks.
Plenty of Connections, Decent Networking SpeedThe Popcorn Hour A-400 has a good range of connections, with HDMI 1.4, composite, component, optical and coaxial audio/video outputs. An SDHC card reader and a USB 2.0 host port are on hand for access to multimedia files on memory cards or external storage peripherals.
The A-400 can be connected to a network via Gigabit Ethernet. You can therefore transfer files from a networked computer onto the device via FTP or a file manager. Data transfer speeds are up by about 20% on last year's 300-series model, reaching around 25 MBps. Streaming therefore works just fine, even with heavyweight video files.
Note that a small Popcorn Hour application store can be accessed via the A-400. This, however, remains pretty limited in terms of choice, and is mainly geared up for North-American users rather than European users. There's no sign of certain favourites like Deezer or Spotify, for example.