Accessing the video on your home network, or playing files from USB devices is one of the growth areas for home cinema. And no device offers more options than the Popcorn Hour C-300, with incredible video format support and outstanding upgrade options, it is certainly one of the most flexible media players on the market.
But this all comes with a pretty steep price tag of £370. Do you get enough for your money to warrant such a large outlay?
Larger than most media players
The C-300 is a Blu-ray player-sized box. And not a slim player, one of the first -generation ones. This size is all down to the hard drive and Blu-ray player capacity. A much smaller version, called the A-300, is available too, buy lacks the Blu-ray drive support and can accommodate only one internal drive. Dropping the Blu-ray means it's cheaper though, as the licences for that are fairly expensive.
Connections are excellent: there's HDMI, component video out, gigabit Ethernet and both optical and coaxial digital audio outputs. There are also two front-mounted USB sockets and another two at the rear.
The supplied remote control uses RF - that's why there's an antenna on the back of the C-300 - which should work even when the player is tucked away. In a change from the C-200, an IR sensor is now included in the chassis of the C-300. Previously, if you wanted to use the optional IR remote, you had to plug in a cable at the rear of the C-200. An IR remote is not included, but you can buy one online for a reasonably modest sum.
We have had trouble with RF in the past, so we continue to use the IR remote. All of the previous Popcorn Hour controllers work though, so if you're replacing one with the C-300, hang on to the controller as you'll still be able to use it.
Also changed is the old monochrome screen, which has been replaced with a smaller, colour LCD. This is useful, because it gives far more information than the old screen, including the file name, progress through video and album art when you're listening to music.
Apple fans might sneer, but the Popcorn Hour has a wonderfully designed user interface. The new style, evolved from the C-200, is especially pleasing to the eye. For one, things have been simplified greatly.
In the old players, you would select a source for video, be it USB, built-in hard drive or network. You'd then have to select the type of media you were going to play. That could be video, audio or photos. But that's all gone now, along with the proprietary streaming server offered with the previous generation of player.
Now you simply go to your source and select any type of file. Much better all around, and reduces the need to plan what you're going to do. In the past, you'd have to back out to the media menu to pick again if you wanted to switch from video to audio. Silly indeed, and we're glad that system has gone.
We were initially concerned about the removal of support for the streaming server - called MyiHome - but actually, the new system is simpler in the long term, and means you no longer need a PC to serve media. Files can be kept on a NAS more simply too.
Full Blu-ray support
The C-300 is a certified Blu-ray player. That means, if you buy a PC Blu-ray drive and install it, you'll be able to watch movies. Of course, not all Blu-ray drives will work, but there is a Wiki maintained by users that will point you in the direction of those that have been tested and do work.
You can use a full-sized Blu-ray drive, if you fancy it, but that will require you to remove the 3.5-inch drive bay and fit the Blu-ray drive in its place. The other solution is to get a slimline drive and install it in the small slot above the 3.5-inch drive bay.
Some techies might have heard of something called Cinavia, and we're happy to say that the C-300 does not include this system. Put simply, Cinavia is a copy-protection system built in to new Blu-ray players. Devices designed and sold this year will be required to support it in order to get a Blu-ray licence. It works using a code embedded within audio tracks. This code can't be removed easily, and will trigger a Cinavia player to stop playback of "pirated" movies.
It's caused quite a fuss this system, but the C-300 avoids it. It's not clear if future players will have to include it, but if they do, we suspect that will signal the end of Blu-ray support for Popcorn Hour players.
Plays everything, mostly
When it comes to codec and file support, the Popcorn Hour is hard to beat. Out of the box, it will play pretty much anything. There are no issues with 1080p playback and every kind of MPEG-4 is supported, including files that are contained in MKV wrappers.
This is big news, because MKV files offer a lot of flexibility, including built-in subtitles and multiple audio tracks. They are also very common on the internet, and have been the choice for HD video downloads for some time.
We have had some problems getting certain files to play. This isn't format specific though, and despite our investigating what's going wrong, we're unable to work out why some files have issues. Especially when those files play well on other devices. This problem is likely to be resolved in future firmware updates, but that won't be much use to people who buy the first run of machines that are currently shipping.
Setting up network drives
If you have content stored on your PC or NAS drives, then the Popcorn Hour makes it pretty easy to store your favourite shares, and return to them easily each time you settle down to use the machine.
The best way to access content is via Samba. This is a network share standard that you will find supported on every operating system. In Windows, just using the share function on a folder is sufficient. You can tell the C-300 to use a specific username and password if you want, but it's probably easier to add "everyone" to the share and give them read access. This makes accessing those shares from the C-300 nice and easy.
Once you've shared your PC folders out, then you'll need either to enter their locations manually, or browse for them. We suggest just browsing your network to track them down. On ours, we found the workgroup our PC resides on, and then selected the computer name. All the shares we'd made were listed, and a quick press of the yellow button bookmarks them, so they are listed on the "network" locations page without the need to browse around your whole network.
This is an improvement on the old MyiHome system, which was never able properly to send filenames to the Popcorn Hour, and wouldn't allow you to resume files from where you left them. These features now work brilliantly, and it makes for a much better device.
You can also set any drives you add to the Popcorn Hour to be shares on your network. This is handy, and you can then copy big files across, in advance of watching them. This means you can turn off your PC too, which might be a big help to power consumption.
There are also services which you can run on the C-300 when a hard drive is installed. These include a torrent client, which allows you to download and then seed content from the internet.
Storing files on local drives
There are a total of two hard drive bays built in to the Popcorn Hour C-300. The first is for a laptop-style 2.5-inch drive. To fit this, you'll need to open up the C-300, remote the drive caddy section and screw the drive to the base of the unit. This is actually a lot easier than it sounds, and should take no time at all.
If you don't fancy that, then there's some really good news. On the front of the C-300 is a door, which covers a bay that can accept a 3.5-inch hard drive. Simply open the cover, slide a drive in - probably best to have the power off for this - then close the door. The C-300 will auto-detect your drive, and you'll be able to read files from it, or copy things to it over the network.
It's a great feature, and one that could make archiving old content a lot slicker than burning things to DVD or Blu-ray.
The biggest downside to the C-300 is that it does not come with Wi-Fi. It is possible to obtain a wireless card, which slots on to a connector on the motherboard - again, you'll need to pop the lid to get to this. And there's also a low-cost USB dongle available, albeit with a much shorter range than the internal card system, which includes three external antennas.
If you're happy to be wired, then the good news is there's a gigabit Ethernet socket included. Transfer speeds to the C-300 aren't always as fast as you might hope, there are lots of other limiting factors here, but we've had no problems streaming 1080p movies, with DTS sound over our home network.
Set up is simple - the C-300 will get an IP address automatically, or you can assign it one manually. Neither approach is better, although if you're mapping drives to the Popcorn Hour internal storage, then you might get better reliability from setting a fixed IP.
Jukebox adds style
With the introduction of players that could handle Flash, the Popcorn Hour also gained a "Jukebox" service. This was designed to search through your movie collection and generate thumbnails of all your films. It was utterly dreadful before, but happily it's much improved in this release.
We did find it was a touch slow at times. If you have a lot of DVDs that you've ripped to your hard drive, for personal enjoyment, then you'll probably really like the way this is presented. It's very much aimed at the movie buff and home cinema fanatic.
It's still a little slow though, and you still have to manually select it when you want to view your library in this way. As nice as it is to look at, we honestly can't actually see ourselves ever really using it.
Stunning picture and sound
There's no denying it, the picture quality on the C-300 is fantastic. Other media players do a good job, but the Popcorn Hour has a sharpness and detail that is incredibly pleasing to us. Take a look at our much-used Star Trek clip, and you'll see detail that you might have missed at the cinema. It's a feast for the eyes, and that alone helps justify that price tag.
Of course, feed it rubbish, and it will look rubbish, but with a Blu-ray disc, or 1080p video from the internet, you can really see why you spent the extra money to get one of these players over the competition.
Sound support is comprehensive too, so if you don't have an AV receiver, you'll still be able to listen to downsampled DTS and Dolby Digital without any problems. As usual with these impressive digital soundtracks, if you feed them to a decent amp, you'll be amazed by the audio you get out.
Not much in the way of premium content
The biggest letdown for us, now, with the Popcorn Hour is the lack of services from the likes of iPlayer, ITV Player, Sky Go and Netflix. When the first Popcorn Hour came out, these services were either in their infancy or hadn't even launched. Now though, they are crucial for entertainment. We hear iPlayer is supposed to be on the C-300 - it's on the C-200 and A-300 - but there may be a technical problem stopping it from showing in the app store.
To some extent, the Popcorn Hour is better pitched at people who rip their own DVDs, download video from the Internet or have large home movie collections they like to watch on a regular basis. It's fair to say that people who download movies and TV shows from torrent sites are a big part of the audience here. We won't tell you what you should, and should not do online and we're quite sure you understand the legal aspects to copyright infringement.
Of course, the Blu-ray compatibility does add a lot of legitimacy, but this is an awfully expensive Blu-ray player, even if the C-300 does do a really good job of it.
Not much has changed in the Popcorn Hour mentality since it launched its first player many years ago. That's a good thing, but it can also be a bad thing. There's no doubt that the flexibility offered by these devices is the best you can lay your hands on. Codec support is outstanding, and you can build a media centre that meets your needs perfectly.
Where it falls down slightly is in the way these devices are released with software that still has some glitches. We've found this with both the C-200 and now the C-300. The 300 is much better than the 200 was when it launched, there are far fewer major problems and what you're getting here is a very accomplished media player. Some files won't play, and there are little irritations about how long it takes to load a network source at times, and other usability glitches.
Overall though, if you have a lot of video to play, and you want to bring together content from all your computers, network storage and even drives built in to the Popcorn Hour itself, then this is the player for you. It may not be perfect, but we've not used anything else that is as comprehensive in its format support. And having certified Blu-ray playback is the icing on the cake.