Popcorn Hour A-400 review

4 out of 5
£270

For

Picture quality, fantastic build quality, plays things other players can't, loads of networking options, fantastic connectivity, can take a 3.5-inch hard drive for media storage

Against

Quite expensive, have to provide your own internal storage, online services still not that compelling

There was a time when the Popcorn Hour was THE media player to have. Not only did it do everything, it also managed to produce excellent quality pictures and sound. In recent years though, things have become much more competitive in this media playing market. For one, others have broken into the media player market, companies like Western Digital and Sony all releasing solid products. And secondly, TVs and games consoles are all getting more and more media playing skills, rending these boxes almost redundant.

But there's still a lot being offered here, and the Popcorn Hour has always been a brilliant product, updated constantly through firmware updates and with some unique features that you can't find on other media players. We're interested to see how this little machine stacks up.

Design

Unlike the C-series Popcorn Hour players like the C-300, the A-400 follows the smaller form factor. The company - formally Syabas, now Cloud Media - has also changed the way these smaller models look, and the A-series now use cases built by Silverstone, and it's a really solid feeling design too.

On the right-hand side, there's a slot which can accept a hard drive. This is a fabulous idea, and one that we're impressed by here, because the drive will go into a machine that barely seems big enough to contain it. The caddy system is smart too, and it gives you a simpler way to get a drive into the Popcorn Hour, and quickly move your media library onto your TV.

Also on the right, there's an SD card slot, for total convenience you can't really beat this as it means you've got a really quick way of getting video onto your TV. While the point of the Popcorn Hour is to use your network, for some people that won't be possible, so we love this flexibility.

There are two USB sockets on the A-400, the first on the right side, the second on the back of the unit. These allow you to add portable hard drives, or flash drives with media on. They are detected by the player pretty much instantly too, so they're another good way to play media. At the back, there is also a socket marked USB 3.0 slave. This connection allows you to connect the A-400 to a PC, via a USB 3.0 socket, and transfer files to the internal storage. It essentially becomes like a media playing portable hard drive.

On the back, you get the HDMI socket you'd expect for an HD media player, along with both coaxial and optical digital outputs for sound. There's component and composite RCA jacks too, for those who want HD via analogue, or have non-HD TVs and want standard definition pictures. And there's eSATA for connecting hard drives, and Ethernet to get you on your home network.

Network playback

Not much has changed here since the last Popcorn Hour we reviewed. There are still the two ways to browse media, either through the rich media interface, or through the network browser.

Personally, we tend to use the network browser to find our DLNA server. We use Plex, but there are many, many DLNA servers available for not just PCs and Macs, but also Android devices and almost every other kind of thing with storage, NAS drives, and even some Freeview boxes. This is by far the easiest way of using the box though, and it means you don't need to mess about with passwords or tracking down a network share.

If, however, you want to keep control over your media yourself, you can map network locations to the A-400 and simply browse through lists of your files. This will appeal to some, and indeed the Popcorn Hour originally used this system for file playback, and there was even a dedicated server app for your computer that was designed to make it a bit easier. This app has now gone, and doesn't work on the new players, but the powerful browsing of network shares still works well.

There is also the jukebox, which does a similar job to most media centres. It will download cover art from the internet, and produce an interface that is much more interesting than a list of files. It's nice enough, but we have to say it really lags behind Plex on a PC or Mac by quite a long way. It's also more sluggish than Plex, which flies along on even a reasonably modest PC. While it looks good, we still think there's a long way to go here. Honestly, we bang on about this so much, but if the front end of the Popcorn Hour was powered by Plex, it would be unstoppable.

Internet services and apps

One area we do think the Popcorn Hour lacks is in the online services. This has been the case for a while, but it's an interesting problem the firm has. For a start, the infrastructure for online apps is actually quite good. Like most modern AV companies, there is an API to develop for the platform, and a way of hosting apps so people can find them. The problem seems to be that it's the wrong apps getting developed.

There are, for example, loads of IPTV services like the brilliant TWiT and Revision3 that have apps to access their video services. There is loads of great long-form content here to watch, and much of it is really good. YouTube is here too, which will come as no surprise to anyone.

One app we did find was for Plex, and this is very welcome indeed. The problem with this app though, is that it seems very limited. We could only play the first episode from a series, which was annoying. Still, it's quite likely that such bugs will be fixed, and Plex interaction is still possible via the DLNA server built into that program.

Missing though are UK apps for catch-up services. So there's no iPlayer or 4oD. Perhaps not much of a surprise considering most of the world doesn't live in the UK, but a shame nonetheless. Also, there's no Netflix - at least not in the UK - so you can't access that service, which we think is a massive shame. The US Netflix works in a different way, and has an API, so it's not impossible for there to be an app that works in America.

It still amazes us that there are so few media players and smart TVs that have access to all of the UK's catch-up services. To be quite honest, the PS3 remains by far the best system for getting these, and is also a pretty capable media server.

Picture quality

Good news: the A-400 continues the tradition of offering pretty much the best quality video you'll see in this arena. We mostly use - and we say this a lot - Plex media centre on our Samsung PC connected via HDMI. We honestly think that the image quality of the Popcorn Hour is better, and far sharper than pretty much anything else we've tested.

What you also get on the Popcorn Hour is a real ability to handle different framerates of video. While laptops will happily put a film on your TV, there's a pretty good chance it won't do it at 24p like a Blu-ray player would. With the A-400, the player can play the original format, at the original framerate. That includes 24p, all the way up to 60p. With the power on the A-400's processor, it can handle a lot of data far more than a PC could before choking up.

What that framerate support means, is that you get very smooth video, and you should never see any motion problems, which is something that causes problems on PC (and Mac) based solutions.

You also get the ability to play 1080p 3D too, which is a new addition. Previously, Popcorn Hour players could only handle side-by-side, but the new box has had an HDMI upgrade to 1.4 which allows it to send 3D video to a compatible TV. We don't have one, so we can't actually tell you how it works.

In terms of general file playback, there is almost nothing - bar perhaps some obscure formats used for Anime - that this thing can't play. Containers like MKV are widely supported on most devices now, but the Popcorn Hour was the first, and there's still great support for the format and all the extras that brings over standard MP4s or AVIs.

Sound quality

Sound, as always with Popcorn Hour devices, is solid. How it handles audio will depend on what you're trying to play. Internally, it will decode Dolby Digital and DTS for stereo playback on your TV if you don't have an AV receiver that can do that for you. Formats like AAC, FLAC and OGG can also be decoded internally, giving you a lot of music options.

If you have a modern AV receiver, then you can feed it pretty much any audio it supports, via HDMI. So Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD MA can both be sent in this way, and decoded by your AVR. You also need to use the HDMI for this, because the optical and coaxial outputs don't have enough bandwidth for this HD audio formats.

What you get out is very impressive as these are formats that have more than enough bitrate available to blow you away. Downmixing works fine too, and we didn't hear any problems with the audio handled in this way.

Apps for phones

To boost functionality, there are also a couple of apps for phones. We tested the Android versions of NMJ Navigator and mobileRC. The former allows you to find files on either the A-400 from the internal hard drive, or USB storage and play it, or you can browse for network media too. It is a slightly limited app as you can't see certain servers - Plex refused to show - and can only browse your network for Windows and NFS shares. It's okay, but if your media is served on a DLNA device, it's not so hot. We also found it didn't work brilliantly on our Galaxy Note 2, we had to have the phone in landscape to see the whole app. Clumsy. Also, we had to manually enter the IP address of the Popcorn Hour manually each time, it wouldn't remember it, and wouldn't auto-discover either.

The remote app is a lot simpler and does work with automatic discovery, which is a bit weird considering the Navigator doesn't. It allows you to control the A-400 from your phone's touchscreen, and it offers a good alternative for those who want to lock their player away from IR remotes.

Verdict

There are some things the Popcorn Hour does incredibly well - for example, picture quality. It's very good here and neglected on other media players and especially on laptops and the like. Plus, you get the power needed to play 3D or 1080p video flawlessly. Many laptops can still choke on high bitrate HD video. Oh, and let's not forget the fact that it's far more reliable than a PC-based solution.

The problems still exist though, Wi-Fi is an optional extra. Although it's not expensive to add, we'd really expect to see it built in by now on a device that competes in an arena where almost everything is wireless. At £270, it's also a little bit expensive considering a lot of media players are less than £100 now, and much of this functionality exists in smart TVs.

With all that said though, the A-400 is still the gold standard for media players. It's picture and sound quality will likely not be matched on any TV or other device. It might seem limited, in terms of modern media players, but the focus is still on picture quality more than it is on anything else, and there are more features here - like 3D and ripped Blu-ray playback - than you'd get on most players.