When it comes to intuitive media streaming and integrated NAS (network attached storage) the family of Network Media Tank products from Popcorn Hour spring readily to mind.
Using simple but effective middleware from Syabas, these boxes have built a huge (and deserved reputation) for being easy to use and generally bomb-proof in a sector riddled with flakiness.
Indeed, the A-110 and the upmarket HDX-1000 variant from HD Digitech, remain firm favourites.
So when news of an upgraded version, the C-200, first began to filter through, I was undeniably excited. However, after using one for a couple of weeks, I've come to the conclusion that the C-200 may not be a clear step in the right direction.
Perhaps the most obvious first point of difference is the size of the unit. With this new iteration, Popcorn Hour has produced a full-sized component that's as wide as a standard DVD player and in some cases taller.
Unlike previous models, it ships with a multifunction drive bay. Users can plug in either a hard drive for local storage or a Blu-ray drive. I'm puzzled rather by the provision for the latter. The C-200 does not make much sense in its Blu-ray configuration, given the growing sophistication (and affordability) of standalone BD-spinners.
Shipped diskless, I installed a Seagate Barracuda 1TB drive into our review sample. Installing the HDD proved quick and easy, although it should be noted that the manual supplied with the unit is sparse and generally unhelpful.
The metal chassis inspires confi dence and component quality is high. Beneath the lid is a Sigma Designs SMP8643 chipset with 667MHz CPU, allied to 512MB of DD2 DRAM and 256MB of NAND flash memory.
Backside connectivity comprises a bunch of stuff, but you only really need to use the HDMI input and Gigabit Ethernet.
Unlike previous models, there's a helpful dot matrix LCD status display window.
Traditionally, NMTs have two siren-like attributes: extensive file support and access to IPTV-style content. The latter is great. Dig down into the community menus and you'll find plenty to stream and enjoy.
There are feeds to most of the familiar US-centric attractions (CNN, CBS) alongside TV treats less well travelled, such as the output of Revision 3, The Onion and more. When it comes to file playback, there's little audio-visual fare the C-200 can't playback.
Video containers like MKV, MOV H.264, AVI and MPEG transport streams and VOBs are supported, and there are decoders for most MPEG flavours and WMVs. Playback is astonishingly stable.
Sonically, it's equally happy with AAC, MP3, and OGG. Hi-res FLAC audio file support is available although it can be problematic. With the latest firmware I could play FLACs resident on the HDD, but not from a network location. A shame as audio jitter is low, meaning this unit will not disgrace itself in a high-end system.
To help you acquire AV content, there's a P2P utility as well as a Usenet downloader. The former is part of the web interface and relatively straightforward to use, but the latter is treated more like an Easter Egg than a regular feature. Most folk will probably not bother, concluding that it takes too much effort/online research.
At least the C-200 also communicates itself across your network with aplomb. It is DLNA/UPnP/Samba/Bonjour compliant, and so should turn up on anything you have connected – from PCs to games consoles.
However, while audio support is reasonably extensive, the C-200 would not be my first choice as a music jukebox. There's no visualiser function (essential if you're not to burn your plasma display), probably because it doesn't have the graphical horsepower to generate one, and search facilities are limited and slow.
In use, the unit is a tad less slick than its predecessors. The simple graphical structure of previous NMTs has been replaced with a crude looking circular menu that rather clumsily shuttles around. Many users will want to skin the device with a third-party theme sooner rather than later.
Also, my resident HDX box is much faster to respond to commands. This may be due to the IR remote, which has trouble imparting commands if it's not shoved right up the C-200's nose.
Staring at the space the Popcorn Hour C-200 takes up in my rack, I kind of think things have moved on. NAS/streaming solutions are moving into the mainstream and are beginning to appear with better interfaces and documentation.
Perhaps there are users out there who appreciate the battlefield build of the new model, and enjoy the fact that it is more a hobby project than consumer device, but I suspect that in this case, bigger has not proved to be better.
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