February 25, 2008

Hands On With the Networked Media Tank From Popcorn Hour


PopcornHour_front_of_device.jpg
We have had the Networked Media Tank( NMT ) from Popcorn hour in the office for about a month now and we wanted to share with you our findings. We have been waiting for this device to become available for a long time now and we can't tell you how excited we are to finally have it at the office. So after about a month of testing we can say that this is one of the better streamers we have had the opportunity to test out. One of the main draws of the NMT is its ability to playback just about any format you can throw at it. Other then a few audio formats it played back everything that we tried. To many streamers focus on a few formats and leave out so many of the really popular ones. The people at Popcorn Hour must have realized that there really weren't that many streamers that could just play everything so they threw it all in the NMT.

Another huge feature where the NMT rises above the crowd is its ability to grab media in so many different ways. You can add an internal hard drive and just playback from that, or you can connect to devices on your network via Samba or NFS. Additionally it will pick up UPnP and HTTP media servers. This is probably the most full featured streamer we have come across to date in terms of how it can access your media. It just packs so many options in there that it has been hard for us to figure out something else we would want.

Check out after the jump for our detailed look into how this beast of a media streamer performs when we put it to the test.

So lets start with a little general setup. Like we said above, this can connect to your network in a bunch of different ways. Traditional media streamers will use Samba to connect to your server to grab its media. This is normally fine, but if you are running over a wireless link and streaming large files this could become a bottleneck. The NMT can use NFS instead which offers much greater speed when it comes to streaming these files. And while this is very impressive to us and something that makes this box shine in our eyes there are some problems. There appears to be issues with how the NMT uses NFS in conjunction with Gigabit LANs. The NMT could connect to our server via NFS, but it never was able to see any of the content there. Many others in the Popcorn Hour forums were having similar issues and it seems to have something to do with Gig routers/switches and the MTU negotiation between everything. This normally would make us pretty unhappy, but the dev guys over at Popcorn Hour have made their Samba streaming top notch such that we haven't ever had a problem with streaming over it. So no NFS for us, but it is there and it works for some, so thats gotta count for something.
PopcornHour_back_of_device.jpg

Video Playback


Because of thie lack of NFS we obviously went with Samba as our choice of network protocols. Even over our wireless hop the connection was great. Playing back 4GB ISOs happened without much delay at all. Usually streamers do a lot of spinning while they tried to load this much data, but the NMT handled it without a problem. Playback was equally impressive with no stutters or frame dropouts.

One area that many streaming devices fall down is in their ability to fast forward and rewind videos. The NMT didn't have any problem fast forwarding or rewinding at any speed, whether it be 2x or 32x. They have done a great job with making this a smooth process. We have tested out a bunch of devices that have serious issues when you try and use their fast forward and rewind functions. The NMT even offers a great feature that we have never seen on any device we have tested: time seek. By hitting the time seek button on the remote you are presented with an on-screen menu displaying the current time in the video as well as its overall time. You can use the navigation keys on the remote to select the an exact time in the video that you would like to skip to. This feature works perfectly and is something that we wished more companies would include on their devices. Sometimes you need to shut the video off before finishing and it is usually a pain in the ass to get back to where you left off. Now you just have to take note of the time in the movie that you stopped it and you can jump right back there with time seek.

Music Playback


Here is one area of the device that we were not happy with at all. Once again the quality is top notch, but where the device has problems is the interface. When you select a song to play you are presented with only the most basic of information regarding what is playing. There is no notion of grabbing the ID3 tags or showing you any kind of progress bar or even cover art. You also can't navigate away from the playing screen without stopping the music which makes playing a music filled slideshow that much harder. Unfortunately with many of these multi-function devices it seems that the video aspect gets the most attention and everything else seems to take second fiddle. This is very evident with the NMT where the music and photo sections are functional, but that is just about it. We would have liked to have seen some more work go into the music playback section. Hopefully this is something they will address in a future update, but as it stands currently music playback is pretty lame. We couldn't see using this for our day to day music streamer.

Photo Viewing


The photo viewing aspect of the this device is decent. It will display the popular formats out there ( JPEG, BMP, PNG, GIF ) and the image quality is what you would expect. The images look good enough, but unless you have a nice HDTV they aren't going to look like they do on your computer. The resolution on SDTV's and low end HDTVs will make the images look a little less sharp then you are use to. There is also a problem with navigation in that it isn't very easy to scroll through your pictures. You can see the names of files, but browsing the actual picture is not so straight forward. There doesn't seem to be anyway to select the next picture while you are viewing one. The common option is to hit the right arrow on the remote to go to the next picture in the folder, but for some reason the NMT makes you hit stop, which takes you back to the main list, and then you have to select the next image. This is definitely not the ideal way to view your pictures on your television. The supposed purpose of devices like these is to make the experience of viewing your media on your TV a pleasant one. The image viewing on the NMT makes you want to just go to the computer and use some photo viewing software and deal with the smaller screen since the overall experience will be better. We understand that the main feature of these devices is their ability to playback videos, and we also understand that the photo viewing aspect usually takes a back seat to the video, but here this is a little much. We wished they had spent a little more time polishing this aspect of it to make the NMT truly one of the best devices on the market.

Web Services


Here is where the NMT starts to pull ahead of a lot of other devices out there. They have a fairly robust set of online services that you chose to view a variety of online content. This is the direction that most of the new media streaming devices should be moving to, allowing users to browse content from the Internet and play it back via their streaming device. The connection to these services is relatively slow on the NMT and the loading times can become somewhat annoying, but it doesn't make it unusable. Just the fact that you can do this all through a device hooked up to your TV and not needing to be in front of a computer is a great thing. Of course the experience wasn't all peachy as we encountered some problems with the NMT and its ability to fully access all that they promise.

One major issue we had with the online content was that the way they have designed the interface it makes it almost impossible to get back to the main web services menu without going all the way out to the main menu. Each time you use the arrow keys to highlight another item it stores it as your last action so when you hit the back button it just goes to the last video you selected. If you happened to have watched 10 videos you would have to push the back button over 10 times to get out of the screen that you are on. We would have liked the back button to have taken us back to the last screen we were at and not the last item. Small annoyance sure, but it is things like this that can really annoy us( what can we say, we're a pissy bunch :) )

As for the video services themselves we tried playing videos from Google Video and YouTube, but none of them would actually play. Our only guess is that it worked at one time, but for some reason Google may have changed something or whatever and it no longer works. MetaCafe was a different story as every video that we tried there worked fine so maybe it is just Google and something they are doing, who knows. We went around and checked out just about all of their offerings in the web content section and we were left with two thoughts. First we were very impressed that we were watching videos of the Internet and it didn't really seem that way in terms of speed and quality. Our other thought was how much crap is on the Internet. This is where the web services has an issue currently. If all you are providing is user created content from the likes of YouTube and MetaCafe you are subjected to a lot of crap and so after awhile the web content aspect of this devices wears off. If there was the ability to hook into some better more polished providers that had some serious content then this would be a homerun.

BitTorrent


Now comes one of the shinning jewels of the NMT: the ability to download BitTorrents for you. We hate having to leave our power hungry PC on all night so we can download a large torrent. With the NMT you just upload the torrent file and it will start the download for you. This way you can leave this lower powered device on for days as it sucks down all the torrents you want and you don't have to see your power bill shoot through the roof. We found that the Bittorrent experience was much better then we expected. We can see this as being a huge draw for this device. Setup a bunch of torrents at night and when you get home from work you have it all there for you to watch. One nice closed system instead of having to transfer files all around the place.

Conclusion


So all in all this is a great device that lives up to all the hype that it has been getting. Sure there are a few warts here and there like the terrible interface and design of the music playback, but we are confident that these issues will be addressed soon. The video aspect of the device is top notch and rivals any networked media streamer out there. This gets a big thumbs up from us and we will be adding to to our main entertainment center unlike so many others that end up in the junk pile. We will have a couple of more articles in the future going over some other aspects of the device and some updates with other things we find out. So until then stay tuned and hope that they speed up production so these can be more easily purchased.

Read More in: Audio Streaming | Hands On Review | Image Streaming | Popcorn Hour | Video Streaming

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Posted by David Ficocello at February 25, 2008 9:51 PM

Recent Comments

I purchased an a110 a month ago. Its still not working. I cannot transfer media to the internal hard disk as it keeps getting corrupt. The corruption manifests in diferent ways each time - some times it will hang (after a few minutes), other times bits stop working and strange things happen like the disk becomes read only etc. Files cannot be transferred directly without installing an ext2 driver on windows. I have tried several different drivers but the corruption keeps happening. Support tell me the disk I bought can be troublesome - I checked before I bought it however and it was fully supported by popcorn at that stage.

As a last resort, I upgraded my home network to wireless N to try copy media that way. Unfortunately while the device has a wireless N dongle, it is only capable of transferring 700Mb in 12 minutes (less than wireless G) - that is when wireless signal is 90+%. So populating my 1Tb disk will take a ridiculous amount of time. I can't even let it run over night time as it drops off the network after a couple of hours (rather than wait the 5 minutes for it to boot up I just reconfigure the network on the device and its back on in 30 secs). I have had to reinstall, tweak and reconfigure numerous times without success. Luckily I'm an advanced software engineer and know my way around technology. In summary my advice is:

If you are going to buy one of these devices - don't get an internal hard disk - just attach a portable hard drive. Unfortunately in that configuration, all of the network media tank features cant be used which means you have just bought a very overpriced media player. By all means do get one of these devices if you have a degree in computers and don't have any job, kids, pets, family, house, hobbies etc where you can devote many hours to tinkering around and installing add-on apps . . . .


Posted by: Dauhee at May 10, 2009 7:41 AM

I don't get it. How is this better than plugging a networked laptop into your home entertainment system and using a wireless keyboard and mouse?


Posted by: wrlord at March 3, 2009 1:53 AM

thanks for all your input!


Posted by: sheila at February 16, 2009 1:06 PM

What??

The opening statements in the review and the conclusion state that they are happy with the device but it appears from the body that little if anything works. Example:

Video Playback: NFS does not work (eventhough it is faster at streaming)

Music Playback: Sucks (as stated)

Watching Photos: Sucks (as stated)

WebServices: Apparently it is one of the areas where the "NMT pulls ahead". But videos off google do not work now. MetaCafe works now but if they change something this device may not work anymore?

So it seems that this device can do maybe one thing right (bit torrent) and little else? That would put this $200 device at the bottom of my list.


Posted by: mike smith at February 15, 2009 4:23 PM

I just bought popcorn hour a-100. I have Dlink DSL-2640T as ADSL2 & Router which gets me access to internet.
I also bought DWL-G700AP Wireless Access Point. Can anybody give me step-by-step instructions on how to configure the router, access point & popcorn hour?


Posted by: Ram at August 11, 2008 3:20 PM

What about this comment:"I found the A-100 with an internal drive installed to be far too loud and too hot to be a worthwhile proposition. With a hard drive installed, the temperature of the A-100’s lid was very hot - too hot for my liking - and the vibrations it caused produced a horrible humming sound throughout my living room." (Digital reviews network)

aa


Posted by: Anonymous at July 22, 2008 10:03 AM

Does it play recordings from vista media center ok ? (not the drm-ed files, just files pulled in with hdhomerun or analog recordings)


Posted by: ren at July 13, 2008 9:17 PM

This is the first review I am reading off this site and honestly I am impressed by the reviewer (David Ficocello) of this post.

Thanks for the post :-)


Posted by: http://www.KasiViswanath.com at July 13, 2008 11:42 AM

Can you post a howto to get NFS on freenas working with the PCH? I can't seem to get it to connect.


Posted by: Beno at July 1, 2008 3:12 PM

Go to this link: http://www.popcornhour.com/onlinestore/index.php?pluginoption=wheretobuy&task=wheretobuy and scroll down to the Netherlands section. There looks to be two stores that are selling it in your area.

Let us know if you have any luck with that.


Posted by: David Ficocello at June 24, 2008 10:10 AM

Hi, i am flabergasted. I want one of these. Is there a way to send it form the USA to the Netherlands?? Who can help me out?? mho747@gmail.com
thanx


Posted by: Anonymous at June 24, 2008 9:51 AM

Wow, we hadn't heard of any hard drives being fried. We are sorry to hear that you have had such a problem with it. We still would recommend this device to people looking for a media streamer since I would think your case is the exception and not the rule.
I am surprised you have been unable to get in touch with anyone at their support site. I would keep on them and make sure they get you a new device from them. A company like popcorn hour should take care of something like this for you. If you still don't get a response from them after a while let us know and we'll try to get some info for you.


Posted by: David Ficocello at June 15, 2008 3:57 PM

Do NOT buy this device.

It has fried 2 of my hard drives and now it doesn't start.

So far I am out of pocket about $500, and i can't get in contact with any sort of support person.

This device is a total waste of money. If you want to avoid a money pit and a massive waste of time, do your self a favour and look elsewhere.

W


Posted by: Anonymous at June 15, 2008 10:27 AM

We did in fact install a HD for testing. There weren't really many issues at all with it. It is IDE only so no SATA drives, but for just streaming media off of the drive you will not notice any difference. The install of the drive was very straight forward, just slide it into place and attach the 4 screws through the bottom to hold it in place. The nice part about having the internal drive is not having to worry about any network issues at all.

The Bittorrent client that is installed works really well. You just need to point it to the location of the torrent file and it will start the download. It isn't a full featured client like you might be use to from a PC, but it does the job well enough. We loved being able to have our torrents download right to the unit and not have to either stream them or copy them over.

The only issue we could possibly point to that you might want to consider is getting data onto the drive is slow. Using FTP or Samba, transfers took a lot longer then expected. We don't have any hard numbers, but we would guess that you would be looking at twice as slow. Now they have come out with a bunch of firmware updates so we will go back and test this out and see if it has gotten any better. If you have the ability to use NFS you will notice a speed improvement in copying, but otherwise be prepared to wait a long time to get your media collection onto the A-100.

If you are running Windows and would like to use NFS there are a few options. There is something that Microsoft released that people have had success with: http://support.microsoft.com/kb/324055

This is their own NFS client and it should work fairly easily for you. There are a ton of other options for Windows NFS and doing a quick Google search should turn up a bunch. ( http://www.google.com/search?q=nfs+client+windows+xp&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&aq=t&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&client=firefox-a )

Let me know if you have any other questions.


Posted by: David Ficocello at May 27, 2008 1:26 PM

Hey, I see that some of its features involve an internal HDD, which is not included. Have you guys installed one? If so, any issues with that process, or did everything work as expected?

Thanks, and thanks for the quality reviews!


Posted by: Toby at May 27, 2008 12:22 PM

Hi fjtorres,
I don't have detailed answers for you right now, but you have just given us a great idea for a new post. we will work on testing this out and try to get you some updated info soon.
I'll try and get you some updated info on the aspect-ratio as well.

Thanks for the question.

David Ficociello


Posted by: David Ficociello at May 8, 2008 1:34 PM

Quick question: how does the device handle lower-res video on, say, a 1080p display?
Does it display at native resolution matte'ed to the 1080p display, does it output the native resolution (say 480p for a vob file), or does it have an onboard scaler?
Does it have aspect-ratio controls?
Any other video playback controls?
Or does it just rely on the display device for scaling and aspect ratio or video quality control?

Thanks!


Posted by: fjtorres at May 8, 2008 12:26 PM

Hi Tomer,
I'm sorry we weren't more clear in our article. You are correct that there is no wireless option with the Popcorn Hour. In our setup we have the LAN port connected to a switch which connects to a wireless router. This router makes one hop to our main router and then out to the 'net.
So we were saying that streaming HD videos via the Popcorn Hour using Samba would be an issue if you have a wireless hop in your setup.
I just re-read the article and I really should have made that more clear.
Sorry for the confusion.


Posted by: David Ficociello at May 7, 2008 3:05 PM

I thought this device doesn't have wireless connection. How did you connect it wirelessly?


Posted by: Tomer at May 7, 2008 2:57 PM

John,

After some more digging we found a new firmware that our unit didn't pick up. We had gone to the firmware screen and asked it to download the latest and it didn't find any. We found this site( http://mpcclub.com/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=477 ) that linked to this ( http://www.popcornhour.com/download/01-15-080123-14-POP-402.html ) which is the latest firmware. We had to load it on a USB and stick in in the Popcorn Hour and uploaded it. We tested out NFS and low and behold it worked like a champ. We will be writing a new post with all the new info we find from this firmware. They have around 50 updates!

Sorry to doubt you John!


Posted by: David Ficociello at March 1, 2008 7:45 PM

Hi John,

We always upgrade to the latest firmware before we post our review. The firmware that we tested with is: 01-15-080123-14-POP-402-000

Kernel version 14-POP

NMT Version: 00-15-080116-14-POP-402

We just double checked and the YouTube videos still do not play and we can not access the files on our NFS server. We will concede that it maybe because we use FreeNAS as our media repository. There maybe a setting in their setup of NFS that is conflicting with the NMT.

Like we said in the review, we would have only been upset by this if the Samba streaming hadn't been so nice.

If you are able to play back over NFS we would love to hear any more info that you have. We searched over the Popcorn Hour Forum and we didn't find much on how to fix this issue. Most of the NFS talk was getting an NFS client for Windows.

We are confident that things like this will improve in the future with upcoming firmware releases. So let us know if you have had better luck with these aspects of the device.


Posted by: David Ficociello at February 28, 2008 10:12 PM

Most likely the NFS issue has nothing to do with GigE or MTU size. From the recent NMT beta firmware release notes:

"fixed NFS client not working with some Linux and Hanewin NFS server, this is due to server not supporting TCP. Revert to UDP."

Or regarding YouTube or Google video:

"Fixed some YouTube / GoogleVideo links unable to play."

I'm surprised the review unit wasn't updated to the latest beta firmware before the review was posted.


Posted by: JohnDough at February 28, 2008 9:36 PM

@Surfzone
Yeah, this is one of the few products we have seen that has a chip that is powerful enough to playback these formats in true HD. So many products bill themselves as HD only to max out at 720p. The ability to output in 1080p, in our opinion, is true HD.

@anthony
Awesome! Let us know how it works out for you and if you have any other questions let us know.

@Geza
OK, thank you for the great tip! We had to assume there was a better way to do what we were doing. We still feel that hitting the return button on the remote should do more then just move the selection indicator to the last thing you selected, but at least there is some way to go back to the previous menu without having to jump to the main menu.


Posted by: David Ficociello at February 28, 2008 6:19 AM

Just for your information: In on-line services there is a little icon which looks like a globe, so if you click on that you dont have to hit 1000 times the back button. It takes you back right away to the on-line content root. Enjoy!


Posted by: Geza at February 28, 2008 3:11 AM

great post, ill have to get one of these!

http://www.wiierrorcodes.com


Posted by: anthony at February 27, 2008 1:51 PM

The most important of this player is that support DiVX HD, WMV9 HD and MKV 1080p and 720p!!!!!

Only this and TVIX (partially) supports this file formats.

A lot of hd-series, hd-dvds-rips, bluray-rips, etc... are in this formats.

There are a montly firmware to solve this "bugs"...


Posted by: Surfzone at February 27, 2008 6:21 AM
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