Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Popcorn Hour C200 Media Player Review – Awesome Hardware

Popcornhour C200

Those of you who follow me on GeekTonic know that I spend a lot of time with HTPCs, Media Players and all gadgets that can play back media.  When Syabas announced the new Popcorn Hour C-200 I was intrigued.  From the specs it was clear that this device came to the party prepared.  It touts the ability to play back a multitude of different media file formats and it comes in a sleek-looking set-top device as well.  So how well does this new Popcorn Hour C200 perform?  Read on to find out.

I’ve used the earlier version of the Popcorn Hour A-110 a little and have used the SageTV HD Theater as a media player (it works as both media player and/or full-blown HTPC), but until now have never seen a media player with as much promise and capability in the hardware department as the PCH C-200.  I had a short post up when my review unit PCH C-200 arrived and originally planned to have the review out shortly after that, but I ran into a few bumps – partly due to firmware update issues and partly because of a rough patch in my schedule.  Regardless I have a lot to share about this incredibly media player and a lot of information you’ll find useful when deciding whether this is the one for you. 

Read on for all of the details and photos after the jump


What’s Included with the C-200


  • Popcorn Hour C-200 (HDD not included)
  • Power cord
  • 2 AAA Batteries
  • 1.5M HDMI Cable
  • Quick Start Guide
  • RF Remote Control with 2 aaa batteries
  • RF Antenna
  • Screws for mounting optional drive


  • Chipset - Sigma Designs SMP8643 chipset - 667MHz CPU with floating point coprocessor
  • Dimensions: 16.73" x 11.42" x 3.14" and 8.3 lbs
  • Memory: 512MB DDR2 DRAM, 256MB NAND Flash
  • A/V Outputs: HDMI v1.3a with CEC, 36bpp deep color, 12-bit xvYCC processing and HDCP 1.2 content protection
    Component Video, S-Video, Composite Video, Stereo Analog Audio, S/PDIF Optical and Coaxial Digital Audio
  • 2x USB 2.0 host on front and 2x USB host on back
  • 1x USB 2.0 internal
  • 2x SATA (one occupied by HDD tray
  • 3.5" HDD Tray
  • Internal mounting for 2.5" HDD
  • LCD display for quickly searching, streaming and/or downloading content - useful for listening to music without the TV on!!!
  • 2.4GHz RF Remote Control (IR Remote Control available as an option for $12 – this would include both remote controls)
  • IR Remote Control port
  • Network: Ethernet 10/100/1000 and miniPCI MII inteface for optional 11n WiFi card
  • Connectity options: Bonjour, UPnP SSDP, UPnP AV, Windows Media Connect, Windows Media Player NSS, Samba, NFS
  • Media Servers: myiHome, myiHomeLite, myiHomeMS (UPnP), MSP Portal
  • Third Party Media Servers: GB-PVR, BitTorrent P2P, Usenet downloader, WizD, SwissCenter, Llink,
  • NAS access: SMB, NFS, FTP
  • Video Containers supported: MPEG1/2/4 Elementary (M1V, M2V, M4V), MPEG1/2 PS (M2P, MPG, DAT, VOB), MPEG2 Transport Stream (TS, TP, TRP, M2T, M2TS, MTS), AVI, ASF, WMV, Matroska (MKV), MOV (H.264), MP4, RMP4
  • Video Decoders supported: XVID SD/HD, MPEG-1, MPEG-2 MP@HL, MPEG-4.2 ASP@L5, 720p, 1-point GMC
    MPEG-4.10 (H.264), BP@L3, MP@L4.0, HP@L4.0, HP@L4.1, WMV9, MP@HL, SMPTE 421M (VC-1), MP@HL, AP@L3
  • Audio Containers supported: AC, M4A, MPEG audio (MP1, MP2, MP3, MPA), WAV, WMA, FLAC, OGG
  • Audio Decoders supported: Dolby Digital, DTS, WMA, WMA Pro, MPEG-1 Layer 1, 2, 3, MPEG-4 AAC-LC, MPEG-4 HE-AAC, MPEG-4 BSAC, LPCM, FLAC, Vorbis
  • Audio pass-through: DTS, DTS-HD HR, DTS-HD MA, Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby True HD
  • Other formats: ISO, IFO navigation, Rich Object Based Interactive Graphics, AVCHD navigation, Blu-ray ready (requires addition of compatible BD-ROM and at least 1GB USB stick or internal HDD)
  • Photo Formats supported: JPEG, BMP, PNG, GIF
  • Subtitle formats supported: SRT, MicroDVD SUB, SSA, SUB/IDX

Whew!  As you can see the hardware on the Popcorn Hour C-200 is the equivalent of the Suisse knife of Media Players.  It can handle just about any video or audio format you throw at it, includes HDMI 1.3a (a big deal if you want Hi-Fi audio), Gigabit ethernet & Wifi connectivity and allows you to throw in a hard drive and Blu-ray drive all for good measure.  From a hardware perspective this is the crème of the crop.  So lets see how it performs.

Hardware Photos

The front-left has the power button, two USB ports and the LCD screen


Just to the right of the LCD is the “menu” toggle, dim button and TV mode buttons.



The right hand side of the PCH C-200 shows the drive door which opens when you “press” on it and the Popcorn Hour logo.




Popcornhour C200 Rear

The left-rear of the PCH C-200 has the Wi-Fi antennae port and a vent


In the middle is the HDMI 1.3a port, the IR port, Coax, optical SPDIF, 2 more USB 2.0 and an Ethernet port.


Next is the S-Video, component video and standard video/audio ports.


Finally you see the power plug port and the on-off power switch.



Works with or without a computer on the network

Because the Popcorn Hour C-200 comes with the ability to add a hard drive or a Blu-ray drive you can run this thing truly standalone without another computer serving the content.  It also pulls in internet video nicely to your TV.  Want to serve that media on your Popcorn Hour to other computers in the house?  It acts as a file server as well so you can do it.

LCD Display

The C-200 sports a LCD screen tht shows the track name and other detail for feedback beyond what you see on the TV.  While I like the concept of this I found that it was difficult to read unless you were sitting very close to it (too close to be watching TV as we tell the kids).  I think the LCD display should have been left out to lower the cost of the device personally although some who use it for music playback will appreciate not having to turn on the TV set for music playback.

Size – Its a Big One

The C-200 is quite a bit bigger in size than the older A-110 Popcorn Hour and a Lot bigger than the SageTV HD Theater.  Compared to my LG BD370 Blu-ray Player the C-200 is heavier and taller.  It looks nice, but be sure you have the room for this one as it’s not tiny by any stretch.

Blu-ray Capable

One of the unique (and nice) features of the C-200 is it’s ability to drop in a Blu-ray drive and play back Blu-ray discs.  You can also play ripped Blu-ray’s with ease on the C-200.  To get BD Live working you’ll have to throw in your own USB stick just like I have to do with my LG-BD370 Blu-ray player.

To install a Blu-ray drive into the PCH you need to do the following:

  1. Remove the SATA drive bay from the front-right side of the PCH.  This involves removing a screw near the back of the unit and taking off the “lid” of the C-200
  2. You should now see the SATA drive bay and see the SATA power connectors and the SATA data connectors – from this point its just like installing a drive into a computer.

Even with a Blu-ray drive installed you can add a hard drive too.  In this case you’ll need a 2.5” SATA drive to fit into the box.

User Interface - Menus & Navigation

I have limited experience with the older PCH A-110 model, but I can tell you for certain that the new Sigma chip in the C-200 is a significant step up from the chip in the A-110.  What I mean by that is the navigation through a large video and audio library was very fast.  Unlike the A-110, browsing through my media collection with the remote control was quick – much faster than the A-110 and faster than the SageTV HD Theater in Standalone mode.  The menu’s are mostly the same as with the older A-110 except for some slight color changes so not much improvement there.  The menus are adequate, but feel a little dated compared to Windows Media Center or even SageTV’s user-made themes and UI’s so you’ll want to check out some of the 3rd party plugins like the ones I mention for movie jukebox to spruce it up a bit.

Photo slide shows are much improved on the C-200 as it adds the ability to multi-task with music along with your photo slideshow.  Plus it’s much faster with the faster processor.

Here’s a preview (video not by me) of the user interface on the C-200 to get a feel for how it looks:

For another preview of the UI, head to this YouTube screencast


Video & Audio Quality

I tried out several ripped Blu-ray’s for reference disks including Dark Knight, Cars, and Casino Royale all of which looked beautiful when played back through the PCH C-200.  Files I tested included xvid, mkv/ts, and many other formats none of which caused me

Audio was another plus with HD audio getting downmixed (I tried Dolby HD & DTS-HD) through the C-200 when connected directly to my TV (unlike the PCH A-110 or the SageTV HD Theater) and when it was connected to the my receiver it handled bitstreamed DTS-MA (TrueHD) off of multiple Blu-ray movies with ease – this is what I’ve been missing from my SageTV HD200 Theater.  According to my friend Damian at MediaSmartServer the mkv/ts Blu Ray rips did not bitstream the HD audio – only the core audio.  This is a known issue that is expected to be corrected in a future firmware update

Remote Controls


I was able to try the RF Remote Control (packaged with all C-200’s) and the IR remote control which you can purchase for an additional $12.  Both remote controls have all of the buttons you need and the layout and feel is great for both of them.  The RF was nice as it eliminates the line-of-site issues we saw with the A-110 IR remote.  The IR remote for the C-200 seemed very responsive as well – better than the older remote that came with the A-110.


Connectivity - Network Problems with Gigabit

While the C-200 has gigabit network support, the firmware I’ve tried (I’ve updated to the latest firmware available 10/11) had significant issues with a gigabit network including stuttering when streaming through smb.  There were workarounds and I know they are working on a fix via firmware, but for now my only real fix was to switch to a non-gigabit network for testing which is of course less than ideal for a large number of current and potential customers.  I’m confident that Syabas will fix this soon with a firmware update, but for now it is definitely an issue that will cause frustration.  Here’s a thread on their forums you can follow if your curious on their progress with the issue.  This is a big issue as playback of high bitrate content is less than ideal when using on a gigabit network.

Wifi is an option with the Popcorn Hour C-200 and I was able to use it while connected via Wi-Fi, but I don’t recommend this unless it is your only option as HD content over WiFi is sketchy in most environments.

Blu-ray Drive Capable?

The C-200 lets you open the front-right drive tray and toss in a Blu-ray drive.  It’s pretty easy to add a drive although you’ll want to check out the known-compatibility list to be sure your favorite drive has been tested to work with the C-200.  To get BD-Live support you'll need to add a USB flash drive and follow these instructions to format that USB flash drive.

Movie Jukebox

One of the more common uses for Media Players like the PCH C-200 is as a Movie Jukebox.  This is the exact task that pulled me into the HTPC world and is a very important function for media players so I encourage you to take a look at this screen-cast video that demos the YAMJ & MLMJ movie jukebox apps you can use with the C-200.  I did some limited testing with YAMJ and the review unit C200 and it worked great.  Again this video was not done by me, but does a good job of showing you how it functions as a movie jukebox.


Online Content

I spent some time browsing the online video/content section of the UI and while it worked okay, I left slightly underwhelmed.  I’ve been spoiled by the SageTV online content you can get such as Hulu, Netflix as well as the standard YouTube and online podcasts.  I do like the flickr and a few others that PCH has though.

Video : YouTube, Vuze, Revision 3, Videocast, CNET TV, Mediafly, Veoh, Mevio, Bliptv, Break Podcast, CBS Evening News, CNN Anderson Cooper 360 Daily, CNN The Larry King Podcast, NBC Today Show, The CNN Daily, CNN In Case You Missed It, NBC Nightly News, NBC Meet The Press, CBS Face the Nation, Podfinder UK, Motorz

Audio : Jamendo, iPodcast, BBC Podcast, Indiefeed, CNN News, ABC News

Photos : Flickr, Picasaweb, Pikeo, 23, Photobucket, SmugMug

RSS feed : Yahoo! Weather, NMT Forum, Bloglines, Cinecast, MSNBC News, Traffic Condition, Yahoo! Traffic Alerts, Yahoo! News, Weather Bug

Peer-to-peer TV : SayaTV

Internet Radio : Radiobox, Live365 Radio

HTPC Extender?

The older Popcorn Hour Media Players had the ability to work as GB-PVR HTPC extenders and I had hopes that this device would as well with it’s significant hardware upgrades.  But from my discussions with GB-PVR contacts it appears that the likelihood of the C-200 ever becoming a GB-PVR HTPC extender is extremely unlikely due to some limitations.  Check this thread for more details on this.

Firmware Updates

One of the more frustrating happenings I experienced while reviewing the PCH C-200 was the firmware update process.  From the menu you’re supposed to be able to update – right from the setup menu.  But like others I’ve corresponded with, this didn’t work.  I had to do a manual update of the firmware with a USB flash drive – not a deal breaker but it was frustrating and another display of how ‘alpha” this device really is even still.  If you’re a geek like me and willing to suffer through a very beta or even alpha version of software this might not bother you as much, but the different firmware updates I had to do – some of which made matters worse as opposed to better made me scratch my head a little.  I’m not opposed to the process of firmware updates – I do it quite often with the beta firmware updates of the SageTV HD Theater.  It’s just that the PCH C-200 firmware updates seemed less stable and were definitely more difficult to install.P1030444


The Popcorn Hour C-200 has the ideal hardware for the hard-core media player enthusiast.  It has about everything you could possibly want and seems to play back every format you throw at it.  But my end recommendation is a mixed one at this point.  If you’re the early adopter type willing to hang in there as Syabas works through the many firmware updates they need to get everything working just right this is a great device for you.  It really is awesome hardware that compares extremely favorably to all the competition to date.  But the bugs I ran into with the firmware updates, the current issues with gigabit networks and a UI that seems dated even compared to the stock SageTV UI holds it back.  As of today this isn’t a perfectly polished device, but I expect they will get there just as their older model A-110 has.  Once Syabas catches up the software/firmware with the awesome hardware, this device will rock the media-player world.  Until then they still have a great device – just expect a few bumps in the road along the way.

Learn more about the Popcorn Hour C-200 Media Player at the Syabase website

Thanks to Syabase for providing the review unit and for the patience while I took a longer than anticipated time to review