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Syabas Popcorn Hour C-200 review

Syabas’ Popcorn Hour C-200 is larger than its predecessors and packed with extra features. In fact it pushes the line between a streaming media receiver and a media centre PC. We tested the top end version, which comes with a Blu-ray drive for movies and a 500GB hard disk to store media files. Alternatively, you can fit your own choice of Blu-ray drive and hard disk to the basic model, priced at just £280. Neither model comes with built-in Wi-Fi, but an optional adaptor is available.

The C200 is based around a 667MHz Sigma SMP8643 processor and 512MB of RAM. At the front is a 5.25in drive bay, two USB ports, a set of navigation buttons and a 4.25in mono LCD screen that allows you to browse content without turning on your TV – handy if you just want to play audio. At the back you’ll find composite, component, S-Video and HDMI ports, as well as optical and digital S/PDIF and stereo phono outputs. When playing Blu-ray movies, the C-200 can pass-through full quality HD audio (DTS HD MA or Dolby True HD) to an external AV receiver.

The interface displayed on our TV screen was polished and quick to navigate. It instantly picked up our network connection and located our SMB and UPnP shares, which were as easy to browse as content on local or attached USB drives. It’s almost a given that such functions work perfectly on a device from Syabas, and we weren’t disappointed. We were unable to update the streamer’s firmware via its maintenance menu, but installation from a USB disk was hassle-free and Syabas are making regular updates.

The C-200 does much more than simply browse and play local and network media. Online streaming applications are scattered across several different sections of the Internet menu, sometimes with little logical order. For instance, you’ll find streaming radio stations in the Internet Radio, SHOUTcast Radio and Media Service Portal (MSP) sections. The MSP also provides access to podcasts, online photo sharing sites like Flickr and Photobucket, and video from Blip.tv and Revision3.

Some of the best content is in the MSP Community section, devoted to projects produced by Popcorn Hour users. Highlights include a simple searchable YouTube client, news and music video services, a Gmail client and a last.fm client that provided access to most of the usual features of our last.fm free account, although its failure to show track data can be annoying if you want to identify an artist you’ve heard in a random stream. There’s plenty of online content then; but you’ll have to spend a fair bit of time reading the manual and exploring all the different menus to get the most from it.

As well has being able to act as a media server using UPnP, Samba (SMB) or NFS protocols, the C-200 comes with fully functional BitTorrent and Usenet clients, which make it easy to download free internet-distributed media content. Both clients are controlled by web interfaces that can be accessed from your PC.

Format support is astonishingly good. The C-200 can play ISO files ripped from DVD or Blu-ray discs, as well as handling the popular Matroshka (MKV) video. It supports Microsoft’s Janus and Cardea DRM systems, both of which allow protected Windows Media Audio and Video files to be streamed to or synced with the device. Audible and Protected AAC are the only noteworthy formats missing from its support list.

Photo slideshows of TIFF, JPEG, BMP, PNG and GIF files were smooth and individual images were easy to rotate and zoom in on. There’s no thumbnail preview, though, so you might be better off viewing photos on your Flickr or Picasa account via the C-200’s web apps instead.

Although at its heart the C-200 acts like a Linux-based media centre PC, it’s still designed to be used with the remote. We were pleased to find that connecting a USB keyboard instantly improved our user experience and made it easier to scroll through our content, search YouTube and add new internet radio stations. It took a bit of experimentation to find keyboard equivalents for some important functions, such as the back button (it’s F3) and we really wished for a less restrictive interface and more highly developed keyboard support.

This versatile home entertainment device can handle almost every format under the sun, download and store new content and even share it with PCs on your network. With loads advanced features, it’s an enthusiast’s toy – you can even develop your own apps for it. However, if your needs are more moderate, then it’s worth noting that a fully equipped C-200 costs almost £200 more than a Playstation 3 Slim, which can play Blu-ray movies and stream media, plus play games to boot.

More details: www.popcornhour.com  

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