Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Popcorn Hour A-100

Popcorn Hour with 40mm fan + zalman fanmate 2 mod:
- $180 + shipping (which is rather high). It comes out to around $194 after shipping. There's a bit of a waiting list right now.
- Good resources you should read: (a must read) (official forums)
- Basically it's a little low power, fanless (I'll get to that later), powerful media playback box that can handle almost any file type: container, or codec (mkv,x.264,avi,divx,xvid,mpeg2 TS, wmv, dvd iso, ac3 dd5.1, dts,etc) out there including subtitles
- Full 1080p and very high bitrate support
- Play them from a variety of sources: stream over network (several protocols including SMB for windows file shares, 10/100 ethernet), internal hard drive (PATA), external usb hard drive, usb key drives, external usb dvd drive.
- Support for several different file systems: EXT2/3, NTFS (read only for now), FAT16/32, HFS+
- Nice set of connections: hdmi, component, svideo, composite, stereo analog, and spdif coax (no optical).
- Yes, it truly is a "do everything" media play back device all in one nice little box.
- It's also pretty extensible with a nice list of user created apps. There's one even to interface directly with HDHR (more on that later):

- Setup was pretty easy. I've got it hooked up to my samsung 720p hdtv using hdmi. Audio is through spdif coax. I dropped in an old seagate 300gb PATA I had lying around. Fired it up and the auto detect worked and displayed 720p over hdmi. I then updated the firmware over the network without issue (April 16, 2008 release).
- Next I installed the NMT applications (upnp av, myihome, ftp, samba, nfs, torrent) to the internal hard drive. I let it format the hard drive to ext3. I've read that ext3 has journaling so it's a bit slower than ext2 but is more robust. The main nmt apps I wanted to try were smb server and ftp for getting content onto the internal hard drive. You can stop each individual server in the setup menu.
default samba share: nmt/1234
default ftp: ftpuser/1234
- Then I setup my smb shares:
Setup->Media Server->Network Share
I found out there is a hard limit of only 5 shares. Well, that was going to be a big problem since my media is spread out over 9 different shares on 3 different pc's. There's a work around which I'll get to later. Nice to see that they fully support password protected windows shares and even persists the login credentials between a power cycle. I hate devices that just want you to open up your entire network with what guest accounts and no password shares.
- The work around to the 5 share limit is to install MyiHome which is specifically designed to work with NMT.
There are many different ways to access content. Here are the associated bitrates from the wiki:
SMB: ~25Mbps
NFS: ~33Mbps
HTTP: ~42Mbps (same clip peaks at 47Mbps)
USB HDD: ~ 42Mbps
USB DVDROM (8x): ~42Mbps
Internal HDD: ~42Mbps
As you can see http is ideal for streaming over the network which is what MyiHome uses.
- Harmony database: Computer >
Media Center > Syabas > PopcornHour A-100

- Using straight SMB (and therefore not dependent on any service running on a PC) I was able to stream HD mpeg2 TS files recorded by my HDHR without issue with full 5.1 DD surround sound. SD mpeg2 (recorded by pvr-250), divx, xvid, photos, and mp3's worked fine too. I ran into issues with 1080p MKV x.264 files. The 720p lower bitrate ones (about 6mbps) played just fine but the 1080p higher bitrate ones (>10mbps) it would stutter.
- I was hoping I wouldn't have to install any server specific software but that's just not the case. You really do need to install MyiHome for the higher bitrate stuff to take advantage of http streaming. I found MyiHome to be a pretty clean install. You can add as many watch folders as you want for each media type (video,music,photos). You can even enter UNC paths that point to shares on other pc's without any issues. Since it runs as a tray app and not a true service you won't run into any share permission issues as long as the currently logged in user has access to those shares. It was all very painless and worked perfectly. This basically bypasses the 5 share limit since you can add as many watch folders as you want through MyiHome. Everything streamed perfectly smooth using MyiHome. We are talking 1080p 12mbps x.264 mkv, 1.5mbps DTS, with toggleable subtitles. It all just works.
While streaming content I noticed myiHome-server.exe took about 63gb of memory and 1% cpu utilization. Also, it works just fine in vista 32bit unlike my hauppauge mvp which I could never get to work right under vista (even with the latest betas that say it supports vista). Also, adding watch folders is very quick. There isn't a long "build a database full of worthless meta data crap" that is usually associated with this kind of media server application.
- Mp3's worked fine under MyiHome though folders with a large amount of photos kind of choke myiHome. The wiki confirms this is a bug. For now I stick to smb shares for that.
- Another limitation is DVD ISO's do NOT work through myIHome so again just use smb shares which works just fine.
- It supports quite a few internet features like youtube, some video podcasts, flickr, picasa, internet radio, etc. I tried the youtube, shoutcast, some video podcasts and they all worked quite well. The youtube videos actually looked quite good.
- I also tried several video podcasts that I download and they all played fine.
- FLV files are NOT supported (well at least not through myihome which is the only source I checked).
- I do have to say the picture quality is rather excellent no matter what media you are playing.
- I copied a few files onto the internal hard drive.
ftp: 21mbps
smb share: 24mbps
Yeah it's pretty darn slow. I mean copying between two 100mbps pc's you usually see around 70mbps real world. It seems the Sigma
8635 chip used just isn't fast enough to sustain higher transfer rates.
Here is a faster alternative method.
You can also copy from a usb hdd to the internal hdd. (it might be bugged for files greater than 1GB. I haven't tested this)
- You can basically use the PCH as a slow poor man's NAS if you wanted to.
- You have the option of selecting digital bitstream or analog for all audio types (dd, wma, wma pro) except for DTS which can only be output as a digital bitstream to be decoded by an external receiver. It's not that the box isn't capable. It's just they don't want to pay the DTS licensing fee.
- I tried to get dvd's burned with media files under UDF to work with my benq dvd burner in an external usb enclosure. The dvd drive would show up under sources. I can browse to the file and start it. It then would just sit at buffering and then eventually go back to the menu. I could never get it to play anything off of dvd. It could be the enclosure or the way I burned the file (imgburn) but I'm not too worried about it since I wasn't planning to use the PCH in this manner.
- I hooked up a usb powered 2.5" hard drive enclosure and it played all media off of it just fine. I tried both fat32 and ntfs. Note that fat32 limits files to a max of 4gb so you should probably use ntfs.
- I tried hdhomerun plugin and it worked quite well. Just follow the readme carefully and use an editor like notepad++ that maintains unix style line breaks. I did have one issue where on some channels it was picking the wrong audio track. It was like it was picking the secondary audio track and therefore had no sound at all. I've posted to see if the developer could maybe some how pick the right PID out of the TS associated with eng. Either way it's pretty amazing and works quite well. I didn't bother testing the recording.
UPDATE: I think I kind of figured it out. It has nothing to do with stream selection or thehdhomerun plugin. The problem seems to be with the pch or the pch and my receiver. It seems like it has problems decoding the ac3 on some channels. Switching AC3 from digital raw to analog PCM seems to fix the problem. This seems to happen on shows that are only in 2.0. Of course in doing this I lose out on surround for shows in 5.1.
UPDATE 2: I tested recording from hdhr on the pch and it works fine. The weird part is watching the same thing live I have the audio issue but playing back the same show from the recording I get sound. ajr is going to look into it.
UPDATE 3: I got a test build from ajr which seems to have fixed the audio issue for the most part.

- USB keyboard is fully supported (I used my wireless logitech mediaboard). It comes in handy when setting up your shares or searching youtube. The alternative is using the remote and entering letters much like a cell phone.
- Before each video plays there is a slight pause while it buffers. Buffer times vary depending on the media. Performance is best with MyiHome. Either way it's not that bad.
- Navigation is acceptable. You start by picking a source (internal hard drive, any external devices, shares, myihome, etc) then a media type (video, music, photos). There is a second or so pause as you go between pages when browsing files. There are dedicated page up/down buttons. It would be nice if it would buffer an entire directory listing instead of having to stream that data over the network for every single page flip. Also, there are no sort options. It's alphabetical and that's it. It would be nice to be able to sort by descending date. At least the list wraps around so going up when at the top of the list puts you at the bottom and vice versa. It's usable but could definitely use some improvements.
- I wish you could group together multiple mount points/shares into a single media listing.
- FF up to 8X. Rewind isn't supported in all media.
- You can quickly seek by press left or right. Each press adds another 30 seconds in that direction, then after a second or two of no more remote input it will seek to that new position. This is pretty good for commercial skipping. Pressing the number keys jumps to that % position (example: 5 = 50%).
- There's a search by title function that never worked for me. I typed a partial name of one the of the files and no results came back. Maybe it doesn't work with the myihome source.
- With a large enough internal hard drive you could load it up with content and take it with you to a friend's house or when you travel. Having that portability is a nice plus.
- No resume but the feature is currently in development.

- Yes, it's an issue. The main chip is only passively cooled with only wire mesh sides for venting. Add a pretty warm hard drive in there and it only makes things worse.
73c seems way too hot and it shows. 1080p mkv would basically cause the pch to drop out to the menu after about 30min of play. After that all videos would stutter until I power cycled. This happened many times. I already bought a 40X40X10mm fan from fry's (PLU 4722259) anticipating this issue having read about it earlier. I also added a zalman fanmate 2 to drop it to 5v to keep the noise down. I attached the fan directly on top of the heatsink using some sticky velcro dots (not really using the velcro, just the adhesive side since it seems to be stronger and more heat resistant than tape). I've read some people using blu-tack too.
I used a 3 pin to 4 pin molex with built in pass through to tap into the hard drive power. I ran the cables around to the other side of the hard drive and connected the fanmate. I ran the fanmate controller cable under the wire mesh side (all the side panels just slide up except for the back panel). I bought some longer 4mm - .7 x 12mm bolts (hex cap screws, class 8.8, M4-.70 X 12) along with some washers (finish washers steel #8). I used two washers on each corner to lift the lid higher and give the fan some needed clearance. I then just velcro dot the zalman controller on top. Yes it's all very quick and dirty but it works for now (and doesn't void the warranty). Temps using my IR laser thermometer show 44c under heavy load now and zero issues with several hours of playback. Fanmate is set to the lowest setting so the fan is pretty much silent. Note: the fan doesn't turn off even when you put the pch into stand by.
I have a better mod in mind but it's going to take a bit more time to implement though this current mod is working quite well already. I might just leave it this way.

UPDATE: I rerouted the fanmate control cable through the gap near the top instead of going under the side panel:

- I stuck a kill a watt on there to get some numbers.
15w - 1080p >10mbps bitrate x.264 mkv dts from internal hd
8w streaming
6w standby
- Pretty amazing. This thing can decode files that usually only a mid to high end core2 duo/quad can do at just 8w while streaming. Heck most pc's in s3 sleep state is 5-6w. This thing delivers incredible performance using very little power.
- No power switch. Needs a deeper sleep mode which they say they are working on.
- The hard drive seems to properly spin down most of the time when not in use.
- You can completely power down the pch by hitting power then counting to two then hitting delete. OK it's not completely powered down. The fan is STILL running and I have no idea why. I mean there are no lights, the hard drive is spun down, the smb server is not running yet the fan is still going. It's very odd. The other problem is you can't turn it back on with the remote. The only way to power it back on is unplugging it and plugging it back in. One option people are using are x10 appliance modules or other remote control power switches available on the market. UPDATE: FYI, I had issues using the 2 prong x10 appliance modules with a 3 prong to 2 prong adapter. It would cut the power but then after 15 seconds or so it would turn back on all by itself. They do sell 3 prong appliance modules but I don't have any to test. One work around is to connect the pch directly the the x10 transceiver (using a 3 prong to 2 prong adapter). For some reason that works just fine.

Recommended with some caveats. This is not quite a plug and play experience. Quantities are limited. Build quality seems acceptable (there are the usual forum posts of bricked boxes and bad flashes with maybe a way to unbrick). Thermal design sucks. You really have to be more of a tinkerer and don't mind getting your hands a bit dirty. You'll probably want to come up with some cooling solution too. But having said all that where else can you get this kind of performance (equivalent to a mid level core 2 duo with at least a $100 video card) and incredible broad feature set in a really low power stand alone device for under $200. Sure it has it's issue (and what box of this type doesn't) but no deal breakers in my book.

UPDATE: 8/5/08
Just installed the latest firmware:
Release Date : 18 June 2008
Firmware Version : 01-17-080612-15-POP-402
NMT Apps Version : 00-17-080529-15-POP-402

Always start from a unplugged cold boot state. Then I went through the setup screen and just let it download the upgrade. After it reboots it asks to upgrade the NMT Apps which I also did.
Finally I updated the myihome software on my pc to v5.0.2. It automatically uninstalls the old version before installing the new one. Unfortunately, you'll have to setup all the watch folders again.
Everything seems to work just fine.

I also noticed two new models are on the popcorn hour webste: A-110 and B -110. Interesting....

UPDATE: 12/01/08
- I picked up another A-100 used and on the cheap (thanks htguys!). I flashed both pch's to the latest firmware. I did the exact same fan mode to this one too which seemed like it needed it (was struggling with some 1080p content after long periods of use but fine now with the above fan mod). I tried PlayOn briefly. It was really easy to setup. It seems to live fine on the same machine as myihome. That makes 3 upnp servers all running on the same machine if you count wmp11. It worked quite well with hulu, cbs, and youtube. I like how you can browse anything and not just your queue. Quality was acceptable but not great. It seems everything is transcoded on the fly to mpeg2. I wasn't able to try netflix since I'm on silverlight already but playon says there will be a fix soon. Memory usage was around 70mb. Service seems to be built on .net 1.1. CPU usage was around 10-17% every 5 seconds or so on one core (q6600) while it was transcoding. If they get netflix working again I might just buy it.
- I found a way to speed up copying files from the pc to the pch internal hard drive over samba server. Using vista file explorer I was getting around 2.25MB/sec. After switching to fast copy I was getting closer to 4.5 MB/sec.

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