Popcorn Hour

Well, it’s no Squeezebox. That about sums it up for me…but I’ll elaborate just a little. Popcorn Hour is yet another little custom-built computer running Linux designed, this time, to play video. I’d heard it did it rather well, too: DIVX, Quicktime and even ripped DVD images (a.k.a. ISO images). That covers a multitude of ripped movies amassed in the era before DVD burners, the new-found joy of BBC iPlayer files and even hastily-ripped DVD images pending shrinkage.

ISO images were, in fact, the clincher, hinting at a level of openness rarely seen in “user friendly” consumer electronics so, for a measly $185, I couldn’t see the harm in smuggling one home when last visiting the states. The Squeezebox has allowed me get rid of CDs, the PVR (almost) rid of recording TV and now I want Popcorn Hour to get rid of DVDs.

Upon arrival home, setup began in earnest:

  1. I’d forgotten Americans don’t have SCART so, since I don’t yet have HDMI, I settled on the s-video output. There was no further cross-continental issues since the box just magically knew to output PAL.
  2. Searching for files to play, I realised I’d several options: the box can take a single hard-drive internally, it can read direct from USB keyrings and drives and, finally, it has a (wired) network port for reading from an SMB or NFS share. Not wanting to pollute the living room with yet more cables, I threw some files onto a 4GB keyring and had them playing them within moments.

Picture’s good, sound in sync…so far so good!

Now, the trouble began. I don’t want to have to shuffle files between keyrings for the rest of my life; neither do I want the expense, hassle and noise of inserting a drive into the Popcorn unit itself. Some sort of networked solution is clearly in order. However, there’s a minor dilemma in that I really don’t want to trail more cables across the living room floor but the Popcorn Hour doesn’t have wireless networking. Eventually, I remember that the Squeezebox – to whom the Popcorn Hour is closely situated – can also act as a wireless bridge. I connect a standard ethernet cable between the two and Popcorn Hour now finds and connects to my Samba share(s) with ease, playing iPlayer content with impunity.

Aside from the issues discussed later in this post and, above all else, this highlights, for me, the gulf between the two devices and the gap which Popcorn Hour has to bridge to even catch up level with the Squeezebox. Observe how not only has the Squeezebox both wired and wireless networking but how it can also perform bridging to “older” legacy devices without wi-fi – a function that even most high-end wireless routers can perform only with the installation of third-party, warranty-impairing firmware! 99% of users will never need to know what a wireless bridge is but it saved my skin (well, floor) in this situation.

Persevering with the Popcorn Hour, despite the iPlayer success, I was not expecting to stream uncompressed DVD images wirelessly; sure enough, I couldn’t. What I wasn’t expecting, however, were a number of crashes and hangs of the Popcorn unit itself due to slow network issues. It should have been a warning signal that the latest revision of the device sports a “front panel reset button” as a feature. Over the course of fewer than two hours, numerous resets ensued on my A-100 – a.k.a. pulling the plug.

Later, after reading that the bandwidth of DVD movies (a.k.a. 1x speed) is only about 1.3MB/sec, I experimented a little and discovered that I could indeed stream even un-reconstructed DVDs wirelessly: the trick in connecting the file server directly to one of the wireless router’s ethernet ports. Evidently there simply isn’t enough bandwidh to both send and receive the video stream. Stability issues with the Popcorn Hour now lurk in the background, only rarely striking.

That aside, stability is far from the only quibble with the Popcorn Hour. In no particular order:

  • The remote control is ugly, large and bewilderingly badly laid out. “Stop” nestles unexpectedly between fast forward and rewind; some buttons click loudly, others slink silently into action.
  • There is no web interface to speak of. There is some sort of almost-undocumented application called myiHome that supposedly affords some sort of control…however my brand new Aspire One with 512MB of RAM isn’t up to the task and, without any sort of DEB or RPM packages, I’m unlikely to go to the trouble of fiddling with it.
  • Thanks to the remote control issues and lack of web interface, I’ve had to leave the internet features largely ignored (when I did try them sometime in the first few heady days of ownership they did, of course, manage to crash the unit).
  • It won’t play Realmedia files.
  • I have severe issues with letterboxed DVDs: Popcorn Hour doesn’t seem to know how to crop the image for my 16:9 TV. In fairness, there’s no issue with non-letterboxed formats like iPlayer videos but, since every DVD I’ve tried is letterboxed, this is a baffling omission.

All in all, a very underwhelming experience. It’s really perplexingly poor. The preceding bullet points are only the tip of the iceberg, too: take, for example, how the Popcorn Hour can display photographs. Fine. However, the slideshow viewer won’t traverse directories…so if you maintain separate folders for each day of a holiday then there is no easy way to view an entire holiday’s photographs. Also, opening an ISO image entails a long pause while what is clearly a separate application is booted on the device – while waiting, it tells you to “remember to always backup your hard disk”. I would indeed take care around software like this…if I had a disk installed.

Returning to the opening comparison, the Squeezebox is simply everything the Popcorn Hour is not: of elegant technical design, pretty and stable. The more I think about it, it’s the only serious open contender to Apple’s closed world. While Popcorn Hour proves handy in certain situations, it’s hard to think of it as anything better than a particularly good final year university project. Plays video…will probably crash at the project fair. Where’s the Squeezebox video?

3 thoughts on “Popcorn Hour”

  1. Interesting. In my own quest for storing my DVDs in the attic and using the ripped version, I’ve been looking for something like this. I haven’t tried too hard yet, but it looks like plugging a USB drive into a PS3/X360 is the most viable solution if you want something that just works out of the box.

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