The Popcorn Hour A-100
Linux-powered devices are everywhere. They're so ubiquitous that Linux often isn't even mentioned. It's just there. One case in point is the Popcorn Hour A-100. Linux isn't mentioned in the technical specifications of the device at all. What is mentioned are the formats and codecs and other capabilities of the device, and what a device it is.
The Popcorn Hour is a reference hardware implementation for a new Linux-based middleware layer from Syabas Technology called the Networked Media Tank. According to its Web site: “The Networked Media Tank (NMT) is a state-of-the-art integrated digital entertainment system that allows you to watch, store and share digital content on your home network.”
Think of tank in terms of fish, not Abrams or Sherman. The NMT is designed to be able to access all your media, no matter what computer or networked storage system it resides on, and display it on whatever television you connect to it. According to Syabas, other devices are in the works from other manufacturers that will be using the same NMT middleware and similar hardware.
The Popcorn Hour is not designed to compete with your TiVo or MythTV box; it can connect to on-line video streams and podcasts, but it doesn't do live over-the-air (or cable) television. The closest device it competes with, at least partially, is the Neuros OSD. The Neuros can encode video though, which is something the Popcorn Hour can't do—it's strictly a playback device.
For me, the encoding capabilities of the Neuros OSD are not needed. I've already digitized most of my DVD library. I have a mix of media in both MPEG-4.2 and H.264 formats, and the Popcorn Hour's support of both formats was one of the things that attracted me to it over the MPEG-4.2-only Neuros OSD. For more on the differences between MPEG-4.2 and H.264, see the When MPEG-4 Isn't MPEG-4 sidebar.
When MPEG-4 Isn't MPEG-4
Many people are familiar with what generically is known as MPEG-4 or MP4 video. Popular implementations of this are DivX and Xvid, both of which have found wide use on file-sharing sites. Technically though, DivX and Xvid implement MPEG-4 Part 2. Much like MPEG-2 before it, the MPEG-4 standard encompasses several different audio, video and file format standards. There isn't space to go into too much detail on MPEG-4 here, so see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MPEG-4 for more information (a lot more). The main point I want to make about MPEG-4 Part 2 is that even though when the first implementations were released it was hailed as an excellent video codec that was far better than MPEG-2 video, MPEG-4 Part 2's two main modes are known as the Simple or Advanced Simple Profiles. In other words, they're the children of the MPEG-4 world. The “all-grown-up” video codec of MPEG-4 is Part 10, which is also known as MPEG-4 AVC (Advanced Video Coding). The International Telecommunications Union calls it H.264.
To avoid confusion, when I refer to MPEG-4 Part 2 in this article, I call it MPEG-4.2 instead of Xvid or DivX or the generic MP4. And, when I'm talking about MPEG-4 Part 10, I refer to it by the ITU name, H.264.
Much as MPEG-2 is the format used on DVDs, H.264 video is the preferred video format of Blu-ray discs. It also is becoming the preferred video format for small devices, such as cell phones. This is because H.264 was designed to provide video quality equivalent to MPEG-4.2 at half the bandwidth. This efficiency comes at an increased processing cost both to encode and decode, but since the standard was formalized a few years ago, several chipsets have been developed to do the decoding in hardware. Thus, even extremely small and low-power devices, such as cell phones, can play back H.264-encoded video easily.
This is exactly what the Popcorn Hour does. It utilizes a Sigma Designs SMP8635 chip, which, according to the manufacturer, provides MPEG-4.2, H.264, VC-1, WMV9 and MPEG-2 decoding at up to 1080p resolution.
Another thing that caught my eye on the Popcorn Hour were the various outputs, which include composite, component, S-Video and HDMI. I currently have a standard-definition television, but we plan on replacing it with an LCD-HDTV before the end of the year, and the Popcorn Hour will work on both. It can output NTSC, 480p, 720p, 1080i and 1080p among others.
The Popcorn Hour casing is sleek and rather empty inside. Only about one-third of the case is the actual hardware for the device. The other two-thirds is reserved for installing your own ATA hard drive.
Under full operation, and especially with a hard drive installed, the Popcorn Hour becomes quite warm, so although the nice flat top of the unit seems to be begging for something to be stacked on it, it's probably a good idea to give it a little breathing room all the way around.
Installing a hard drive into the Popcorn Hour is essential if you want to use it as a file server or BitTorrent client. For those uses, there needs to be some sort of local storage. Installing a hard drive is as easy as sliding it in and screwing it to the bottom of the case. All of the necessary screws and cables are provided. One nice touch is that the top of the case is attached with thumbscrews, so accessing the interior is easy.
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