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Popcorn Hour NMT (Networked Media Tank) A-100

 

This is work in progress, and as new firmware releases update the player or new information is available I’ll revise the article. I haven’t really found a good way of letting people who have already read the article just see the changes, but let me know in the comments if you have a brilliant idea there.  

 

The hardware 

The A-100 arrives in a brown non-distinct cardbord box, looking much more like a book shipment from Amazon than a media player. The stenciled Popcorn Hour logo on top is the only thing that keeps you from thinking you’ve been had. But non-glossy wrapping is good, and hopefully the new new thing. Saves the enviroment and cuts down on cost. 

 

I’ll save you the 100 nearly identical pictures of the unpacking and stick to the highlights btw, the unboxing pr0n has definitively gone too far,  Content of the box is

  • Media Player
  • Remote control
  • Two batteries for the remote
  • External power supply (not a wall wart, think laptop psu)
  • Localized power cord
  • 1m HDMI cable(!)
  • Quick Start Guide, aka folded piece of glossy paper
  • 10cm internal HDD power cable
  • 4 screws for internal HDD

That’s it. Bit short on regulatory information and in fact information in general, but you get what you pay for. Should not deter your average punter, but your mum and dad might freak out by the lack of manuals and howtos. Only item worth showing so far is the remote, and it looks like this.

 

 

The remote has a bulge for the batteries underneath the bottom half, and thus sits fairly well in the hand. The black center circle is where your thumb will spend most of its time, There are a couple of freak button placements though, worst one being the volume buttons stuck in the top right hand corner of the remote making them very awkward to reach. Another thing to note here is that the number pad above the black circle has cell phone character input. I.e the 2 button also has a, b and c, the 3 button has d, e and f etc. So that’s how you’ll surf unless you attach an USB keyboard, more on that later.

The Media Player itself is probably the least impressive looking bit of hardware you’ve bought in a while, if you buy it that is. It’s basically a slightly elongated $7 external hard drive enclosure with a few more I/O ports than usual. Here is a glimpse in its natural habitat, on top of a digital set top box (which sucks) and the great BBK DVD player (Oppo to you over there).

 

Two USB ports there on the left, along with a couple of activity LEDS and a hole to let the remote beams through. Here is a closeup with the lights on.

 

To get that out of the way, the bundle of LEDs there is a complete mess. It’s difficult to see what’s lit and what’s not, the big circle on the left does not look like it’s supposed to be lit up and the ON LED is green when the box is off and red when it’s on. Exactly the opposite of my TV.

The back of the player looks like this.

 From left to right, Component Video, S-Video, Composite Video, Left and Right Audio and SPDIF. The big fat cable is the HDMI cable that comes with the player, and of course covers the HDMI port. Normal RJ-45 10/100Mbit/s plug next and finally the power cable. Basically exactly What You Need[TM].

 The inside is rather cool though, and should you feel the need to forego the space for the internal HDD you can cram the remaining hardware into a box not much bigger than a deck of cards. Plus the power supply of course.

 

 

Not too much of interest here. Sigma chip under the cooling fins. Couple of supporting chips, most likely memory and a bunch of external ports. Shiny thing in the middle is the hard drive connector, with the hard drive power being taken from the small white plug down right.

And that about covers the hardware part. It looks cheap, the motherboard is tiny but it’s got all the right connections. Which is really what counts.

Usage

Connecting the player is of course a doddle. Power, network and HDMI and on you go. But that’s where it stopped, no picture at all. Page one of the Quick Start Guide shows a few remote commands to tell the player to output on the HDMI plug. No go. Dug up an old SVideo cable and connected the player to the TV using that as well. Voila, picture. Navigate to Setup, tell player to use 720P/50 over HDMI and the world is a better place. Not the first player to fluff its Detect HDMI roll, so pretty much on par for the course. I’ve had problems with this later on as well, so this is a semi-unresolved issue. There is a TV MODE button on the remote, and if you press that followed by a number then the player is supposed to switch mode. Works great LEAVING 720P/50 HDMI but I’m having a hard time consistently getting back to that mode again. According to the Community Wiki, TV MODE changes done with the remote do not save so disconnecting the mains should get you back to what you saved. I must have gotten the player that saves… So remember the SVideo trick if you’re stuck with a black screen, your player may be outputting on a different port.

Having just replaced the now very outdated and not particularly good Mvix MX-760HD media player, the NMT feels refreshingly quick. Menu traversal is not a pain, and even SMB-mounted subdirectories with a few thousand files in them aren’t a complete loss. The GUI is intuitive, at least for me, and things are pretty much where you expected them to be.

Upgrading the firmware is of course the first thing you do, and luckily for me a few firmware was just out two days ago. I’m a sucker for upgrades. 🙂 The upgrade procedure is just one stupid flaw away from being amazingly simple. Go to Setup, Maintenance and press the Check for new firmware-button. No downloading firmware images to USB-sticks or anything like that, just another menu selection. Of course, you can also do it the USB-stick way in case you’re not connected to the net. So far so good, but then comes the flaw. You’re now greeted with a portion of the Changelog for this new release, filling the screen from top to bottom. No hint of what to do other than the fact that you appear to be viewing the middle of the Changelog and not the top or the bottom. So you can scroll up and down, paaaaainfully slow. Nothing exciting at the top, but at the bottom there is an Accept-button which will then allow the player to proceed with the download and install. I bet that part is going to stall a lot of people.

Anyway, after that the player goes about downloading, verifying, installing various parts and then finally rebooting. Everything nicely detailed on screen with percentages done in the right places. Full marks.

Here is a set of GUI screenshots for your perusal, in no apparent order. Nothing too exciting, but note the four big icons. I have no idea why media player developers insist on these just to fill up the main screen. If you are unfamiliar with them, they are in essence filters. Press the "movie" icon, and you can traverse a directory structure and only see files with "movie" extensions. Similarly with photos, audio files etc. If you haven’t sorted your files into those categories in the first place, you probably do not want this feature here either. And if you have sorted your files, these modes have no meaning as things will be in their respective directories. And the icon on the far right appears to be for text files only (not pdf or anything that fancy). How useless is that? Imagine scenario where you have a few pictures in a directory, along with a text file describing the various files. In order to move from "photo viewing" to "text viewing" and back, you have to go back to this main screen, select a different icon and then traverse all the way back down to where you were.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 The user experience

Summary of the first week, good to very good for video, okayish for audio and sucks for web browsing. Which is pretty much as expected. This still holds true after a couple of months.

 Video

 It plays an amazing number of video formats, and I’ve only found a couple of problems in that department so far. The 1080P version of Elephants Dream (freely available from elephantsdream.org) does not give me a picture at all and the audio dies after 10-15 seconds. The player continues to "play" the file though. However an Nvidia PureVideo demo file I found looks amazing, even when the Popcornhour scales it down to 720P on the fly on my 720P RPTV. No stuttering or frame loss as far as I can see. 720p material looks plain GREAT to me. No lip-sync problems or anything like that so far. Just tried some WMV9 HD material, played fine.

I’ve just tried watching an iso-image of a standard DVD from a Windows-share, and that worked great. Full DVD-menu support and it behaves exactly like your standard DVD-player. Multiple language support, multiple subtitle language support, chapter-hopping and the works. Not sure if it’s a bug or a feature though, but if you watch a movie then go to the DVD menu and press play again it will continue the movie where you left off. I’ll consider this a feature.

Audio

Audio is more or less limited to playing single songs/directories/pre-defined playlists. No fancy jukebox features spotted so far. Cheesy Popcornhour still picture shown when playing audio, and the player lacks support for quite a few ID-tag types. Grassroot effort in progress to get Popcornhour to change that audio background to something useful, like maybe album cover, song info, lyrics etc. Feb 08 firmware upgrade added FLAC support, works fine. You can even time seek by typing in a HH:MM:SS value, just like with content.
 

The playlist features are rather lacking as well. No .m3u whatsoever, and even though it appears to know what a .pls file is I have yet to make it actually play something from one. However, Syabas/PCH has invented their own squareish wheel in this respect. What you have to do to create a playlist is as follows. First, you need the actual playlist file, which is a formatted list of files like this:

Hells Bells|0|0|01 -Hells Bells.mp3|
Shoot To Thrill|0|0|02 -Shoot To Thrill.mp3|
What Do You Do For Money Honey|0|0|03 -What Do You Do For Money Honey.mp3|
Given The Dog A Bone|0|0|04 -Given The Dog A Bone.mp3|
Let Me Put My Love Into You|0|0|05 -Let Me Put My Love Into You.mp3|
Back In Black|0|0|06 -Back In Black.mp3|
You Shook Me All Night Long|0|0|07 -You Shook Me All Night Long.mp3|
Have A Drink On Me|0|0|08 -Have A Drink On Me.mp3|
Shake A Leg|0|0|09 -Shake A Leg.mp3|
Rock And Roll Ain't Noise Pollution|0|0|10 -Rock And Roll Ain't Noise Pollution.mp3|

The filename of this file has to end in .jsp according to the docs, even though they have nothing to do with JavaSever Pages. And the fields are Song Title|Range Start|Range End|Song URL|. In this case, the playlist is in the same directory as the actual files, so no path or other strange way of getting to them is needed. Now for the even more stupid part though. You can’t just select this file in the PCH file browser and expect it to play this list. You see, the playlist format is overloaded to also cater for a photo slideshow, without the player having any way of differentiating between the two. So to tell the player that this is an audio playlist you need a second file that looks like this:

<a href="bib.jsp" pod="2">Press here for a good time</a>

Yes, this is an html file, and has to have the .html extension. The pod=”2″ part says that the link is pointing to an audio playlist. And the bad design doesn’t really stop there either. As you may or may not remember, The PCH has four major modes. Video, Audio, Photo and Text. This is what you select at the very top of the PCH menu system before you start traversing a directory structure. If you select Audio then all you will see are directories and audio files. Go back up again and select Text, and this time when you go down into the various directories all you will see are text-files. So, to play a single audio file (or directory) use the Audio mode. If you want to play playlists, use the Text-mode. This gets old really really fast, so it’s best to think of the PCH as not having playlists at all.

 

Web browsing

Yes, you can browse the web from the media player. Typing in URLs using the cell phone like numerical pad or by attaching an USB keyboard. Not tried the latter myself. However, you would not want to browse "normal" sites because browsing on the box is a pain in the neck and should only be considered in emergencies. The browser does not appear to support CSS (style sheets), and good luck finding a site these days that does not look somewhere between bad and useless without its style sheets. I can crash the player no problem, easiest so far is to surf to a page that has frames. Editing your bookmarks (the three that are not hard coded…) can also cause a crash.

Sync Loss and slowness in general

Whenever the player changes major mode, i.e. when starting/ending a video, photo, song, whatnot, the player stops sending a video signal to the TV for a little while. This causes my TV to go black for several seconds while waiting for the player to start outputting something displayable again. This was going to be fixed in the Dec 2007 firmware, but I didn’t notice any major change there. The TV is still several seconds without a signal it can sync to every time you start a movie (over HDMI). However, even without the sync loss starting a movie would take just as long. The player spends the first few seconds buffering up a few seconds on the movie so that it can ride out small bumps in the data transfer without halting the movie. Same with showing photos, either single or slideshow. The slideshow used to spend more time showing a blank screen than pictures, but that feature has improved a lot the past few firmware releases. To the point where it can be used. It still blanks the screen 2-4 seconds between every picture, but that’s way better than before.

Network shares

The network shares system appears to be alive with a mind of its own. I’ve not actually sat down and gotten to the bottom of that one yet, but sufficient to say that if you’re going the hard way with a Linux-box and Samba you might want to know what you’re doing. Shares have a habit of coming and going, and it’s not readily apparent what keeps a share connected on the Popcorn.

Whenever my Vista box starts up it quickly locates the Popcorn and tells me it has found a new friend, so presumably life is easier in that part of the world. Not tried feeding anything from Vista yet though, will have to try that as well. In Linux-land, if you do not want to play with Samba the Popcorn also groks NFS. Works like a charm, but I do get the feeling that I experience more crashes when it uses NFS than I do with SMB/CIFS. Have started playing with an UPnP daemon for Linux, but nothing to report so far on that. More on this when I get the chance to explore.

The Media Service Portal

The first of the three hard coded URLs in the Web-part of the player is access to the Media Service Portal. Which is basically a collection of small web based services. Some of these work great, some of them suck big time. The common denominator appears to be that the small services work fine, but the larger ones are above the players head. With a few exceptions. For example, there is a simple Stock Ticker page, supplied by Yahoo. Type in a ticker and you get a graph and the ability to change the graph span. Works exactly as expected. Another service is Flickr access. You can log in if you have a Flickr account, otherwise you can start one of eight theme based slide shows (Jungle, River, Flower etc, you get the idea). Good plan, however the execution sucks. On my 20mbit/sec ADSL line the slide show consists of a photo being shown for 2-3 seconds and then there is a 30-40 SECOND black screen until the next photo is shown. Rinse and repeat. Unless you really like watching a black screen, this gets old very fast.

There is a YouTube service, which works great. Your average YouTube-video does not look very pretty when viewed on a 50" TV screen, but it works. You’re obviously not getting the full YouTube user interface, but you have pre-made lists of videos like Most Viewed, Most Recent, Top Rated etc. Getting the thumbnail of the first 6-7 videos on a list doesn’t take too long, but I gave up waiting for the next after about a minute. Could be network problems across the pond, could be an abysmally slow service. Selecting a video clip starts it in about 10 seconds, and I did not have any problems with the actual viewing of the videos. My only major gripe here is that for some reason the volume on a clip is set to eleven. On the video front there is also Metacafe, Veoh, VideoCast and Google Video. The latter appears much speedier than YouTube but with less information on screen. Having a view of 12 identical thumbnails showing the usual green "intended for all audiences" image and no other information does not make it easy picking a movie trailer you’d like to watch. Whops, another player freeze needing a reboot there. And you have Picasa, but you’ll need your login credentials for the latter.

On the audio side there are podcast services from the Beeb (BBC), iPodcast, Radiobox, ABC News and Jamendo. Latter being out of service. The Radiobox promises "all radio stations in one collection". Which really translates to all the freeish radio stations that are *casting on the net. Split into the usual genres like 70/80ies hits, classic etc. Works as expected, and so do the various podcasts.

Lastly you have RSS feeds, at least that is what the header says. But it’s just a selection of the services from the other channes. Not the least bit like an RSS feed actually. 

So there you have it. The content is somewhat interesting, especially the radio channels and the video aggregation sites, but the whole thing suffers a bit from the fact that your PDA has twice the general computing power of this player. I.e. everything except the actual audio and video is fairly slow.

MCP Community 

The second hard coded URL on the Web Services list is MCP Community, which presumably is meant to be populated by the community. At the time of this writing, Jan 2008, there are exactly four entries there. One radio channel and three podcasts. Didn’t try any of them.

 

Torrent

Tried this for a single torrent, and it worked as expected. You need an internal hard drive and some initial configuration but after that its smooth sailing. You really want to be doing this on a PC instead of this box though, as the torrent client doesn’t really have a lot of features. Add/start/stop/delete, up/down speed and percent downloaded, and once the torrent is done it’s moved to a subdirectory on your internal drive. That’s it, nothing else. See Adding a hard drive below for more information on how to get it running.

 

SayaTV

 Last of the hard coded URLs, this looks exactly like the YouTube user interface but with different videos. Also user content by the looks of things, think of it as public access television.

 

As mentioned earlier, the media player can parse HTML pages and use special non-standard markup to allow the user to select a link to say play a video or kick off a podcast. Presumably, all the Web Services above are simply that, HTML pages with this markup. I’ll intercept some pages and have a look once I get the time. But this also means that you yourself can write your own HTML code to round up exactly the web/audio/video/whatever content YOU care about and have that available to you in an easy browsable page. No idea how difficult this is in practice, but I’ll try to get around to that as well, 🙂

 

Adding a hard drive

 There are two ways of adding storage to the NMT. You can attach a hard drive using USB, or you can add an internal hard drive. The latter will give the NMT extra features that it will not have otherwise. What happens is that when you install an internal hard drive, the NMT has a non-removable storage space that it can use to store applications and content. More specifically, the NMT becomes a server for the following protocols, NFS, SMB, UPnP, myiHome and FTP. In addition to this, the BitTorrent features become available, now that the player has somewhere to store the torrents. Sounds like fun, so here is how to go about:

 You need a normal ATA hard drive, SATA will not work. You can preformat the drive using EXT2/3 if you know how, but it’s a waste of time if the purpose of installing the drive is to use the NMT applications. Installing them can only be done after the player has formatted the drive for you.

 

In addition to the drive you need a small phillips screwdriver and the small plastic bag with a connector and four screws that came with the NMT.Unscrew the top plate and put it to the side. Now remove the front bezel, for better access. The white part of the connector in the bag fits the white socket on the motherboard. BEWARE, the connector is a very tight fit and I recommend that you carefully wedge the tip of your finger in under the motherboard next to the socket so that you will not put too much strain on the board when you press the connector in. You don’t have to worry about removing the connector again, it can stay there even if you decide to remove the hard drive again.

 

Grab your hard drive. Mine was set to Master, but Cable Select most likely will also work. Plug the other side of the connector you just attached to the motherboard to the power connector on the hard drive. Then put the drive down on the bottom of the case right next to the motherboard so that the black connector on the motherboard aligns with the data connector on the hard drive.Now carefully slide the hard drive towards the motherboard and firmly attach the hard drive to the black connector on the motherboard. This is exactly like attaching a hard drive in a PC, the conditions are just a bit more cramped.

 

Firmly attach, replace the front bezel and put the lid back on and secure it with the four screws. Then turn the NMT carefully over on its back. There you will see four holes bottom plate and neatly aligned inside the holes will be the screw holes on the hard drive. Use the four screws that came in the small plastic bag and secure the hard drive to the bottom plate.

 

 And there you have it, all done. Connect the NMT to the TV, net and power again, and fire it up. It will take a bit longer to start this time around, but after a few seconds you will be greeted by the normal startup screen. As you can see, your new drive shows up as the topmost media device on the list.

 

If you do not see it, then shut the player down and open it up to see if everything still looks connected. Make sure your hard drive is set to Master (haven’t tried CS, but Master worked fine for me) and that you have an EXT2/3 file system on a partition.

Half way there. You now have a hard drive that you can browse from the menu, and if you had pre-filled it with content then that content would now be available to the player. Same as with an USB drive. But we wanted the applications. So go to Setup -> Maintenance. Below the check for firmware update button, there is now a new NMT setup wizard.

 

You’re shown a few pages of choices, and off it goes formatting your drive and installing the applications.

 

This takes 3-4 minutes tops, including downloading the applications from the net. I love stuff that can find its own updates, at least if I can control when and what to update.

Then the player reboots, and you’re back in business. Looking at the NMT from the network, it now has a whole load of services running. From four open ports, it now has 16(!). Some are known ports to me, and some are not. Make sure you are on a secure network. 🙂

The hard drive shows up as media source number one, and selecting this will show you that it now contains three predefined but empty directories. Music, Photo and Video (what, no Text…?).

 

There is actually a fourth directory called .btpd there, but the player will not show hidden directories. The .btpd is for the BitTorrent client now running on the NMT.

Scattered around in the menues, a few changes have appeared. The third Web Services choice, Torrents, can now be selected. This gives you a near empty screen with a few buttons, stop, start and delete. This is the screen used to monitor your torrents once they’re downloading.

 

There is also a new Setup menu entry called NMT Applications.

 

This allows you to change the SMB device name, workgroup and password. In addition to this, you can stop one or more of the new services running. Lastly, there is a torrent settings button, which gives you a screen where you can specift port number, upload and download rate and max number of peers.

 NFS Server

The NFS server functionality is first up on the test bench. The player now exports the hard drive as /opt/sybhttpd/localhost.drives/HARD_DISK, and it will export this to what appears to be the local subnet automatically. Mounting this share on a nearby computer works fine. It’s root-squashed, however meaning if you write as root then the user nobody will be the owner of the file. Everything except the BitTorrent directory is writeable for everyone anyway, so this does not matter. No problem whatsoever. Upload speed about 4.5 megabytes per second.

 SMB Server

The SMB server works just as well as the NFS service. Any user name will do, no password. Not actually tried mounting it on a Windows-machine, but my Ubuntu laptop mounts it fine. The server is based on Samba 3.0.26a, which is refreshingly recent. Upload speed here about 3.5 megabytes per second.

FTP Server

Username for ftp login is ftpuser, the password used to be ftpuser but after the latest firmware upgrade it’s 1234. Other than that, there is nothing special about the ftp service. Works exactly as expected. Upload speed 4.5 megabytes per second.

 The other servers

Not looked at the remaining servers yet.

 Torrents

To start downloading a new torrent, the torrent-file needs to be available to the player. Pick Text mode (the icon on the far right on the start screen) and then just select a torrent file. You’re then asked if you really want to start down loading(sic) the file. Answering yes takes you to the Torrent Web Service where you will see your new torrent being downloaded. Once the torrent has finished, you will automatically continue to seed until you delete it from this page. The file(s) itself will be moved to a new directory called Download on your internal hard drive. A Bad Thing here is that all torrents will end up in that directory, instead of say each getting their own subdirectory there to keep them apart. Another Bad Thing is that the Download directory is only writable by root, which means that you can’t delete files from there over NFS. The BT client itself works fine, but that’s about it. Don’t expect a feature set above stop/start/delete.

 

Oh, and one last thing about the hard drive. It spins down when not in use, brilliant! Probably not enough for me to keep it in the player, but for people who need the local storage for smooth playback or would like to use the internal torrent client this is a good thing.

The good

There used to be just the "Bad" list of things, but since PCH/Syabas
keeps improving the player I’m now forced to create a good and an average category as well. Not that this is a bad thing in itself mind
you, rather the opposite.

Spooling through H.264 material

This
paragraph used to state that the player could not fast forward in H.264
files at all, and it was of course placed in the Bad category. As I managed to get it to work AND they’ve just added an entire array of ways to seek in movies, here is a much revamped edition (aka doing a 180).

You now have four distinct ways of seeking through video material. One is the normal fast forward/rewind, which comes in 2x, 4x and 8x flavours. From being the best you had, this is now the least useful way of seeking thanks to the new and improved firmware version. The reason it’s not that good is that for HD material, the the speed you will actually obtain depends on the speed of your media server, the network and your media bitrate. What presumably happens is
that we’re right on the border of what the player can do and combined
with the fact that it does not seem to be able to skip frames in this
format means that when you fast forward it’s going through the movie
frames as fast as it can. In my scenario, which is a more than fast
enough NFS server on a 100Mbit/s network delivering 720P movies, I get
the following rough numbers. H.264 video bitrate 4500-5500 maxes out at
2-3x forwarding, whereas a bitrate of 2100 will allow a 4-5x
forwarding. An Xvid with a bitrate of 2500 managed 6-7x in comparison.
All this asking the player to go 8x, which is the maximum. So it still
kind of sucks in this area, even though it is better than nothing. But do not despair, you still have the other three ways.

Way number two is using the keypad. Pressing a number between 0 and 9 will skip a certain percentage into the film, 3 skips to 30%, 8 skips to 80% etc. Skipping 90% into a H.264 720P movie takes about 8-10 seconds over NFS, pretty decent.

Number three is left/right on the scroll wheel on the remote. This skips 30 seconds backwards/forwards every time you press it, and the skip only takes a couple of seconds. Press several times in rapid succession and it will skip that number of 30-second intervals in one go. Great for skipping intros, watching a scene over again etc.

Finally there is the time shift, where you can type in the HH:MM:SS on the location in the video you would like to skip to. Speed pretty much on par with the percentage skip, not Ferrari-speed but adequate.

 So there you have it, skipping through video files is now a very strong feature of this player. Only thing missing is really the ability to bookmark places in videos, and that feature is being looked at.

 

The average

Nothing here at the moment.

 

The bad

Although there are a lot in this category, there are no real showstoppers. If you divide the feature set by the price, you get a very decent number. And PCH/Syabas is still hard at it in terms of firmware upgrades, and currently release about one a month with a fairly amazing number of fixes and new features every time so far.

The web browser

The browser, utter complete waste of time for normal browsing purposes.

The ChangeLog output

The changelog on the upgrades, see above.

Stability

It crashes. Not very often, but it does. Generally only as a result of pressing buttons on the remote. Once a movie or song is running and you stay away from the remote, things are good.

Documentation

The user manual (aka a sheet of paper) isn’t much good. There are still a number of buttons on the remote that does not appear to do anything useful for example, a manual saying what they’re for, if anything, would be helpful. 

Non-standard naming schemes

If you want to mount an NFS share, you type nfs://servername:/path. Ditto with Windows-shares, only substitute the nfs-part with smb. Trying to URI-compliant (think web URLs), but failing. The second colon there should not be there. In the URI standard, the colon must be followed by a port number. No port number, no colon. Looks to be following a standard, but isn’t. Worst kind of screwup there is.

Arbitrary limitations

NFS shares has a strange limit of roughly 1400 directories in a single directory. Any more and the PCH shows the directory as empty. Reported as a bug to PCH.

 

Bugs

There are bugs, quite a few in fact. But these days if you want bleeding edge gadgets, be prepared for involuntary beta testing. So I just registered as a beta tester proper. You need to convince them you won’t cause them too much trouble, but that wasn’t too difficult. I figured I stood a better chance of getting the bugs I’ve found fixed as a beta tester than just posting on their bboard. What you get is access to their beta firmware download area, and you also get access to the "Beta firmware discussion" forum on the bboard. First batch of bugs I sent along, including some request for enhancements, numbered almost 20 in total. Let’s hope they burn through those. 🙂

Stuff left to test

DVD copies (VOBs)

UPnP streaming

Vista shares

USB stuff (DVD player, HD, keyboard(?))

The special tags you can embed in a web page to make the player do things. 

Anything else?

Verdict

So is it worth the money? Yeah, the $179 plus reasonable shipping gets you a very decent player for video files. If you need a media player to be good at photos, audio and surfing the web as well, then this is not the box for you. At least not for now, but most likely never as these players have practically no CPU at all and anything you can’t offload to the audio/video chip is going to suck.

That’s all for now, back later. If you want me to test something for you, leave a comment. I’ll try to pick them up a bit faster from now on. 🙂

Look on the menu on the right hand side on this web page for a growing FAQ page.

If you found this information useful, please link to it if you have a web page. This will allow others to find it more effectively. Thank you!

 

ChangeLog

 

Jan 08: Updated information about FFW/REW in movies to reflect that it does work for some codecs. Added some gripes.

Feb 08: Upgraded to newest firmware, it promises to fix a lot of things. I’ll update article as I verify.

Feb 08: Added internal hard drive, explored new options (ftp/smb/nfs server, torrent client). Pictures to be added.

Feb 08: DVD ISO testet, worked great. More info on the new GREAT FFW/REW functionality. Added pictures to hard drive section. I need to get better at photographing screens…

Feb 08: Latest beta allows more than 1400 directories in a directory, so removed the limit from the list of bugs.

Feb 08: Added the directory size limit bug again, turned out it’s present for NFS but not SMB.

Apr 08: By popular demand added information about playlist functionality, or lack thereof. See Audio chapter.

64 Comments to “Popcorn Hour NMT (Networked Media Tank) A-100”


  1. MORE PLEASE!

    … and thank you.

    1
  2. Have you tried any .mkv material ? 720p or 1080p resolution ?

    Can you change the backgrounds used ?

    2
  3. Homerboy says:

    Ummm…

    “I

    3
  4. You’re reading it right, and I don’t see the problem no. The Popcornhour is set to output a 720P signal, so it will scale the 1080P down to 720P on the fly and send it to my TV. Works fine for most v1080P material I’ve tried. So it may actually just be the Elephants Dream video (google it, freely downloadable) that triggers a bug in the decoding engine.

    OK

    4
  5. Hi
    The tvix from Dvico can fast forward .mkv files. in the latest firmware anyway

    5
  6. Hi there, great review.
    Yes this player is wonderful for us HD lovers and I can just say that they have fixed the mkv Time seek issue in the latest beta (I’m a beta tester for the FW).
    That was the last really huge gripe with the player imo.
    press 1 and it goes 10% into the file.
    Press left/right and you can FF/RW in 30 sec intervals.
    Yes, it has about 5 sec delay before you see the video (I stream on HD material)
    But it works stable now for a week.

    6
  7. Great review thanks. Please can you provide some thoughts (and screens;)) on the NAS remote access function – e.g. starting torrents and viewing status from a remote PC, and viewing / downloading files from a remote PC. cheers 🙂

    7
  8. Hi Tabasco!
    Just joined the beta-tester rank myself, but haven’t downloaded any beta firmwares yet. Don’t think there are any right now, as the latest beta was upgraded to a general public release a couple of days ago. The MKV Time Seek issue was fixed as you say, and it looks very good to me. I was not aware of the left/right and number seeks though, great addition! So everyone with an NMT should upgrade to get all the new features.

    8
  9. Any news on opening up the software? When you do a fast forward on media, is it streamed or from the local hard drive? Try adding passing the mkv file with indexing enabled on your favorite converter application. mplayer -idx does the trick for most avi files lacking indexing. how does one access the contents of the firmware?

    9
  10. Thanx for the excellent review. I got mine yesyterday which came with the Dec 2007 software. I had none of the startup issues you had. I just pluged the HDMI into my TV, Turned on the TV and set to the HDMI port, turned on the PCH and we were in busines. Didn’t have a great deal of time to test but I put a series of files ranging from 480i to 1080P on to a USB memory stick and they all played OK except for the Blu-ray samples that refused to play audio thru the HDMI port. Got an error saying that the audio format is not supported. Not sure if this was from the PCH or My TV.

    The only issue I has was that my remote batteries supplied were flat. Thought for a minute that the remote was faulty..
    Well worth the money and I would recommend it. Have not upgraded to the latest software as I have found no need to in the PCH change list..

    10
  11. If Sigma Designs isn’t too worried about the copy protection thugs and their lawyers, they aren’t going to worry about a GPL violation.

    11
  12. JuanSinMiedo says:

    I think the hard drive could be used to keep photos in it. That way there wouldn’t be that long pause between photos (I hope). Can anyone check it?
    Thanks for the review. It’s great.

    12
  13. Very nice evaluation. I’m a developer and I’m having a few ideas about these kind of equipments could you please drop me a few letters to my email?

    Best regards,
    Rui Isidro

    13
  14. Hi JuanSinMiedo
    Tried running the photo slideshow from the internal hard drive, but there is still somewhere in the region of 4-6 seconds of black screen between each photo. Bit useless that, even my old media player the Mvix MX-760HD was much faster. But picture quality on that was useless, looked like it scaled the photos to something like 320×200 or less before showing on screen. I’ll take slow and excellent picture quality over fast and grainy any day.

    14
  15. Hi paulw!
    Your blu-ray audio problems could be either the PCH or your TV as you say. Blu-ray supports a number of formats, including PCM, Dolby Digital, DTS, several “HD” formats like Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD etc. Some of which the PCH can decode internally and some it has to pass straight through to your TV/AV-receiver/whatever. If you do not have an external thingy that can decode DTS/TrueHD/DTS-HD then you’re out of luck. But do make sure you have the preferences in the audio/video menu configured to suit your setup. The “failure” of PCH to decode the new audio formats is due to licensing costs btw.

    15
  16. Great review! I have not received mine yet as they are backlogged about 2 months. I have a question on the internal HDD formating. If I buy an ATA IDE HDD and install it as you suggest, will the PCH format the drive on its own? I don’t quite understand the EXT2/3 file system you mentioned as needing to be on there before formatting. Looking forward to actually getting it. Thanks.

    16
  17. Hi there. The PCH can format the drive for you yes, so you do not have to worry about that.

    17
  18. Hi! I don’t understand how this little thing can do so many things. Will it be able to read let’s say .vob files or .iso files of dvds stored on an external harddisk which would be connected by USB – and play those files without any hiccup? Does it have enough processing power to access for instance an .iso (dvd) file with menus and all and play those files? My reason for asking is I’m considering buying one of those little things if it’s able to do such a thing. Thanks!

    18
  19. Hi Fuzzpilz!
    Yes, it will do all of the things you mention. The reason it can do this is that 99.9% of the work involved in playing a dvd iso, a vob, an xvid, a mkv file or whatever is done by a special purpose audio/video processor whose only job in life is to do exactly that, convert a stream of audio/video into sound and pictures. That’s the Sigma Designs chip the review talks about, and it can handle a bundle of formats in resolutions up to 1080P. Now, to actually get the audio or video off your hard drive and fed to the chip requires a bit of general purpose processing. But very, very, very little. For a dvd iso, it’s reading the iso from disk and showing you a mostly static dvd menu. For another type of audio/video file like an mp3 or a divx the work is even less, just read it from disk and feed it straight to the chip. Perhaps pausing to strip off the extra mp3 headers dealing with song name, artist etc. For this type of work, there is a small general purpose CPU strapped to the audio/video chip. In terms of computing power, it’s pretty much on par with a newer mobile phone or an iPod. Nothing to write home about. Which is why media players like the popcorn hour will never be able to decode A/V formats that the A/V chip has not been specifically made to handle. They do not have the raw general computing power of a PC to decode brute force, but have to rely on the A/V chip. A different container format (i.e. how the audio and/or video is packaged together in a file) is no problem. Any clearer?

    19
  20. “webmaster Says:
    February 27th, 2008 at 20:59

    Hi paulw!
    Your blu-ray audio problems could be either the PCH or your TV as you say.”

    Hi Webmaster. Yep it was the TV. Could not decode AC3 via the HDMI. No other problems except I have issues sometimes with captions and turning them off if they get turned on..

    20
  21. Hi: I’ve got my internal drive installed and want to try out the torrent client. I have a torrent file on my computer, but how do I start it on the device?

    You say:

    “To start downloading a new torrent, the torrent-file needs to be available to the player. Pick Text mode (the icon on the far right on the start screen) and then just select a torrent file.”

    Could you clarify this point please? Do I need to copy the Torrent file to the device first? Does it discover it from a Samba share on my computer? And this text mode icon, it

    21
  22. Believe it or not, I just want to stream 480i MPEG2 files from my WinXP server to my TV (yes, I’m very low tech). Your review makes it sound like this should be cake. Have you tried any straightforward (non-HD) MPEG2 files?

    And this works with DVD isos?

    The only other question is whether you’re running gigabit ethernet? I can swap my switch for gigabit, but do I need to? Are you running gigabit or 100Mbps?

    I appreciate your review. I’m seriously considering getting one of these.

    22
  23. Hi Matthew!
    Yes, it does play non-hd mpeg2 and it does play dvd isos. Setup is fairly straight forward, and as long as you are capable of configuring your WinXP box to hand out the shares you keep your videos on then the rest should be easy. And if you’re stuck, the forum over at networkedmediatank.com is a good place to get help (and here of course :-).
    You absolutely do NOT need gigabit ethernet. There is no current video format that needs more than your current 100mbit/s.

    23
  24. First, this was a GREAT review! Told me everything I wanted to know. Second, are you aware of whether they are working on a SATA hard drive version of this? Third, if you wanted to use this thing as a random-shuffle jukebox to provide music for a party, would it do the trick? Are there long pauses between songs, or does it do smooth transitions?

    Many thanks.

    24
  25. Oh, one more thing…
    Is there any was to transfer content to the unit more quickly than NFS/FTP/SMB? Say through USB 2.0?

    25
  26. Dang, I’ve got one more question…. hopefully the last one. 🙂 Is there any way to WiFi-enable this thing with an external USB WiFi dongle?

    26
  27. Hi Simon.
    Thank you for the praise. 🙂
    1. New device with SATA support? No, the chipset from Sigma Designs they’re using to do “everything” does not support SATA. The next release of that chipset will have SATA suport, but products using that will not appear over night. They could do a new product with an extra PATA to SATA chip, but I doubt that will happen right away. If at all.
    2. I haven’t used it as a random-shuffle jukebox, so no idea there. I’ll test it out and report back. The Logitech Duet is much better in that regard though.
    3. It has two USB 2.0 ports on the front, so an external USB storage device works fine. Don’t have to copy anything, just play stuff straight off that. You will not get USB 2.0 speeds when transferring to internal storage though, as the embedded cpu most likely do not have the omph to do that.
    4. Yes, there is support for certain usb wifi devices. Not entirely sure which ones but probably a given wifi chipset.

    27
  28. Simon said “if you wanted to use this thing as a random-shuffle jukebox to provide music for a party, would it do the trick? Are there long pauses between songs, or does it do smooth transitions?”

    I’m also very interested in this functionality as I would be using the Popcornhour soley as a ‘jukebox’ to randomly/shuffle play hundreds of MPG/AVI music video clips from a HDD through to my widescreen plasma. How functional is the UI for this? ie can a selection of different folders be selected to randomly play from?

    Keep up the good work

    28
  29. Update on the playlist status. It knows what a .pls playlist is, but I’ve yet to be able to make it actually play something from one. However, Syabas/PCH has rolled their own format so re-read the Audio chapter above for information about that.

    29
  30. hello,

    i have een problem. all of my buttons are grey, so i can’t use them any more.
    how can i make them work again.

    i hope someone can help my.

    30
  31. Hi SooS!
    You need to tell us where these buttons are. Please describe exactly what you are trying to do and where it does not work.

    31
  32. Michael says:

    Does the PH support DivX Hi-Def Profile vids?
    I don’t have many but it’s virtually impossible to find standalone player support and it would be a real bonus 🙂
    Tia,
    m

    32
  33. Moogle Stiltzkin says:

    This is my current setup.

    Popcorn A100 connected to my Yamaha RX-V663 AV Receiver via HDMI input.

    The Yamaha amplifier is then connected to the HDTV via HDMI output.

    Popcorn is setup for DTS digital, everything else such as AC3, AAC, MP3, WMA Pro all to analog PCM.

    My speaker system is a 5.1 surround using Monitor Audio BR5, BR-LCR, BR-FX and a subwoofer.

    From my testing the following audio formats worked in videos and stand alone music files.

    AAC 24000 hz = works

    AAC 48000 hz = works

    AC3 = works

    MP3 = works

    DTS = works ( needed to configure amplifier to recognise the popcorn hdmi input )

    WMA Pro = Works

    OGG/OGM = Does not work

    Video formats tested

    XVID = Works

    H264 = Works

    MKV = Works

    AVI = Works

    MPEG = Works

    OGM = Does not work

    So far all my movie subtitles worked :]

    33
  34. Armando says:

    Hi, I´m the proud owner of an european popcornhour A-100 with a 750 GB internal hdd, and the latest firmware. I don´t pretend to link it on any particular way other than a LCD TV screen, and I use an external HDD to transfer my files. As I pretend to storage there (in the internal HDD) all my videos, my music and my personal photos I’d like to createseveral subdirectories in every one of the three that are in the HDD, so that I have my files correctly (It would be very dificult to browse, for instance, the photos I took on November 2006 …)

    I’ve tried with the button in the remote than has an icon of “folder” but it doesn´t work. I can´t find help on the web.

    My question is. ¿is it posible without connecting the POPCORN to a PC? ¿How?¿it is posible connecting it to a PC?

    Sorry for my english and for the question (if it is too silly), and thank you very much for your help

    34
  35. Hi Armando!

    The PCH has at least two options for you here. You can enable remote login using the GUI, and then use ssh to log in. Once in you can use unix-commands to create/delete directories and move files around. Google for ‘basic unix file commands’ and pick the first hit for a quick list of useful commands if you haven’t used a unix system before.

    Your second choice is ftp. I can’t remember off hand if the ftp server is automatically started once you have a hard drive installed and you have the “NMT Apps” package installed or you have to start it from the gui. Should be fairly easy for you to check though. Normal ftp commands include mkdir to create directories.

    Default user/password for both should be root/1234, although that has gone back and forth in a few firmware releases.

    The third choice, although a bit trickier is to log in and fire up the Samba-server that comes with the NMT Apps package. That allows you to share the internal hard drive and mount it on your PC. I suggest trying the first two alternatives first though.

    Sorry about not giving you exact instructions, but I haven’t got a hard drive in my PCH and thus can’t test this at the moment. Let me know if you’re having difficulties though.

    NOTE! Make sure you have upgraded to the latest firmware first, aand NMT apps as there was at least one ftp corruption bug that has been fixed.

    OK

    35
  36. hello
    Have you tried installing a 2.5″ drive? I’ve bought a 2.5″ adapter for converting 3.5″ to a 2.5″, but I cannot seem to find my drive when I start my popcorn. Do you have any advice, beside trying to unplug and re-plug the drive?

    36
  37. You say “You can enable remote login using the GUI, and then use ssh to log in”.
    How / where do you enable the ssh server? I cannot find anything in Setup.
    Using the firmware of June (which is currently the latest in online update).
    Thanks!

    37
  38. Hi hung!

    The 3.5 to 2.5 adapter should work fine. However, you may have to partition/format the drive in a PC before the PCH can deal with it. Any file system will do. Hope this helps and sorry for the vacation delay in answering!

    OK

    38
  39. Hi Big_Philly
    The username/password depends vaguely on your firmware version, but try “nmt” as the username and “1234” as the password. If that doesn’t work then let me know your firmware version and I’ll see what I can dig up.

    OK

    39
  40. great review do you plan on upgrading to the 110?

    40
  41. Hi tim!
    I don’t think so. At the moment, the only thing I really miss is the DTS to PCM conversion. But since the A-100 firmware now has fairly good support for multiple sound tracks it’s really just a matter of adding a stereo soundtrack to the little DTS stuff I have using a simple linux script. So I’m not too bothered. If I didn’t have an 100 I’d definitely fork out the extra $40 for the 110 however.

    41
  42. Andrés says:

    Do you know if there is a way to modify/add ftp users and passwords?
    I don’t own a PCH (yet), but from what I’ve read, I believe that if you can forward an external port to the PCH’s ftp port, you could use it as a really good ftp server, however this wouldn’t be a good idea if anyone can login with the ftpuser / 1234 account.
    Have you tried something like this? do you think it might work? even better 😛 could you try it? 🙂
    Also, I’m looking forward to buy an A110, and as you correctly say, there is this USB slave functionality, however as the file system is ext3, if you want to access the hard disk while running windows you’d need to install the ext2drivers (I mainly use linux, but I’d like to use the PCH as an external hard drive), I also know that ntfs writing is not currently supported (and with low priority in the to do list) in the PCH, but do you know if there is a way for installing the applications in an ext3 partition (so that you could take advantage from the bittorrent client) and storing and accessing (over ftp and smb) your media files on the other partition?
    Thanks for the review by the way, this is the best one I’ve read (no adulation intended), and sorry for my English but any constructive critic is well-received ^^

    42
  43. Hi Andrés
    First off, you can change the ftp password from the user interface. But you can’t easily create more ftp accounts there. I have not tried this, but since you can use a trick to install a telnet daemon on the pch so you can log in, you might be able to edit the password file for the ftp daemon to create more accounts. Not tried this myself, as I haven’t got a hard drive in my pch (too noisy for the living room :-). I’ll see if I can dig one out and test for you though.

    Not quite sure what you mean by your other question, but I’m guessing you want to have one ext3 partition to install the bittorrent/ftp stuff on and then an ntfs partition for easy use from your pc? That’s certainly possible, but you may have to do some voodoo to mount both every time you boot your pch. But if you only need ftp and smb access to the hard drive in your pch, then there is no need to use ntfs. You can format the whole drive as an ext3 partition and use it for ftp/smb/bittorrent.

    43
  44. stephanazs says:

    Interesting facts.I have bookmarked this site. stephanazs

    44
  45. Just a detail: I guess, the playlists extension .jsp has however to do with Java Server Pages, because NMT’s MyiHome is a J2EE app with JSPs, although in cases of just static playlists this is a little confusing. But I made the experience, that every extension other then .jsp works as well.

    45
  46. I’ve been using the popcorn hour for about a year now without a hard drive. I recently went to add one and realized I lost the cable that powers the drive. Is this a standard cable? Any idea where I can order a new one?

    46
  47. I don’t know if this has been asked yet(dont feel like wandering through the 6 pages of comments) but can the PCH unpack rar files. As most of the torrents nowadays come in rar compression it would be nice if the PCH or bitorrent app could unpack these files.

    Best PCH review i’ve seen by the way.

    47
  48. That would be great if it had a USB port in the back for a WiFi adapter or TV Tuner, or even just for storage so it’s out of sight.

    48
  49. Great review!

    In you comment:

    “If you need a media player to be good at photos, audio and surfing the web as well, then this is not the box for you.”

    Well, this is may case… There are any others better devices that you could point me? Wich is the best in the market now?

    Thanks!

    49
  50. Hi unfortunetly I locked the servis page on popcorn hour A 100 and I do not know how it unlock again. Currently I can not set up the device.
    I would like to ask you to help me solve this issue ?

    Thank you

    Tomas

    50


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