Downloading video from the Internet is certainly nothing new, but the abundance and ease of access to high-quality video content has exploded over the past few years. While downloaded video is easily watched on a computer screen, many of us would much rather watch movies and television shows on actual televisions. This has led to the development of any number devices that are able to send video from a computer’s hard drive to a television across one’s house. The Popcorn Hour A-110 is definitely one of these devices, but it’s also quite a bit more. The A-110 can do things that much of its competition cannot, and at a fraction of the price of a full home theater PC. Out of the box, the A-110 is a fairly basic video streaming solution. As with most of these solutions, it will stream video files over a network and output video to a television or other display. It has a number of output options, including composite, component, s-video, and HDMI. This is pretty standard stuff; there are a number of devices on the market that are able to do some or all of this.
The A-110 differentiates itself in a few remarkable ways. The A-110 is no mere display extender. While it can certainly stream videos from a PC, it doesn’t require a PC to do the heavy lifting. The Popcorn Hour has enough on-board horsepower to decode and display videos of resolutions up to and including the very highest high definition video standards,1080P. I found this ability surprising as the vast majority of personal computers I come across are completely unable to display 1080P HD video. Even some brand new PC’s and laptops I come across will stutter, shudder, and completely fail when asked to display very high resolution videos.
So how can a tiny box the size of a hard backed novel, a device costing only $215 manage this and a lot more? The canny developers of the Popcorn Hour have seemingly achieved this feat by cross purposing technology designed for an entirely different market, that of High Definition video disc players. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that the Popcorn Hour probably owes its existence to HD-DVD and Blu Ray.
The A-110’s barely 3′ by 4′ circuit board has just one main chip. While systems-on-a-chip are nothing new, the highly specialized and somewhat peculiar set of features present on A-110’s chip are. Literature for the chip in question clearly suggests that its primary reason for existence is as cost effective, all-in-one brain for HD-DVD and Blu Ray players. While many single chip solutions give equal weight to the CPU and graphics processor, this chip combines a powerful graphics processing unit with a quite modest CPU. This single chip also includes all the logic necessary to drive the network controller, the extensive variety of video and audio outputs, along with USB 2.0 and SATA hard drive (more on this later).
I imagine you’re wondering what a high definition video disc player without the disc mechanism can do for you? If the device were a running the operating system of a Blu Ray player, probably not much. Because the A-110 runs a stripped down version of Linux operating system, it can do some amazing things.
Straight out of the box, the A-110 is a robust network streaming device. It supports 10/100 wired Ethernet and can stream media from nearly any device attached to the network. Setting up the device for network streaming is not blindingly simple, but nor it is terribly difficult. For anyone who has networked a computer in their house, connecting the A-110 shouldn’t be a major ordeal.
The basic networking setup is greatly assisted by the included Quick Start guide. At first appearances, the guide looks to be little more than a full color brochure. This ‘brochure’ contains almost all of the information needed to get the A-110 quickly connected to a local network. I connected the A-110 to both Linux and Windows machines with little effort.
The most difficult part of setting up the A-110 to recognize a network share was typing in the network address using the device’s remote control. The remote is very much like those found with DVD players, so entering network addresses can be a little tedious. That said, the A-110 is compatible with most USB keyboards. If you have a spare USB keyboard lying around (I didn’t) I’d recommend plugging one in, at least for this initial setup.
Using my wired 10/100 local network, I tested network streaming using some very large, high bitrate1080P high definition files. The files streamed across the network, were decoded and displayed perfectly by the A-110. Only when I purposefully saturated my network by transferring a lot of large files between unrelated computers did I see any video stutters. A network can only carry a finite amount of data, so this was no surprise and absolutely no reflection on the device. It only shows that 1080 HD streams are very large and can certainly tax a home network. In my tests streaming 720P HD videos, I saw absolutely no stuttering even when the network was heavily saturated.
A word on wireless; the A-110 does not include wireless networking. There is an optional wi-fi 801.11 N dongle available from the manufacturer. This dongle was not provided to us, so we cannot attest to its viability. That said, user reports on the manufacturer’s support forum suggest that even the latest N wireless specification is at the edge of viable bandwidth when streaming some high bitrate 1080 HD videos. Wireless streaming of lesser resolution video should be easily sustainable; of course, the amount of sustained traffic entirely depends on the signal strength of your wireless network.
Hard drives not included, but very easy to install
The A-110 is certainly an able media streamer, but it really doesn’t shine until an internal hard drive has been installed. It is only with a hard drive that applications can be installed and run on the A-110 itself. While the device cannot be ordered with a hard drive, I see this as a clear cost benefit to the user. Hard drives are almost always cheaper when purchased separately. Additionally, this packaging allows users to purchase a drive best fitting their budget.
Installing a primary hard drive into a computer is rarely a trivial thing. This is an area where the A-110 developers have outdone themselves. In fact, I have never, ever owned a device with a easier method of hard drive installation. Here are the steps:
1. Unscrew each of the four thumb screws on lid of the device
2. Slide in an SATA hard drive
3. Affix the hard drive with the screws (provided), then reattach the lid
4. Turn on the device, go to the setup menu and select a NMT Setup Wizard.
You’re done. That’s it. The hard drive will start formatting, then connect to the Internet and install a bevy of very useful applications.
In my next installment, I’ll detail the huge number of applications available for the Popcorn Hour A-110 and the amazing capabilities they bring to the device.
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