Arnt Gulbrandsen
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Nexus Player

Our latest little film-playing box is a Nexus Player. It's good.

We have it connected to an Epson 1920×1080 projector and a Musical Fidelity amplifier.

The most remarkable features of the Nexus Player are that its remote control is simple and does not require line of sight, and that as of Android 6.0.1 it supports USB audio. Our amplifier happens to have USB input, so we get really good sound quality when we watch films.

Compared to the Popcorn Hour A-300 that's also connected to the same projector and amplifier, the Nexus Player has a real selection of apps and a much less confusing remote control. The A-300 can do better upscaling given the right video source, though, and has better support for playing from a local NAS.

Compared to the Roku 3 we have stopped using, the Nexus Player has better apps and no advertising. Roku really, really wants to display advertising to its paying customers. The Nexus Player (unlike the Roku 3) has a few annoying preinstalled apps, but it's possible to uninstall or disable all of those, and ours currently runs only Mubi and Plex.

Comparing Roku and Popcorn Hour

I have a Roku 2XS in the office and a Popcorn Hour A-300 in the living room. The Roku is small — the Popcorn Hour is as big as a book, the Roku fits on the palm of my hand. I can almost close my hand around it.

The Roku doesn't have as many connectors as the Popcorn Hour. Getting a digital sound signal from the Roku to an amplifier won't be easy, and the box is small and light enough that it won't sit properly on my desk, which annoys me more than it should. The ethernet and HDMI cables are too heavy for it. Wiggling helps.

The Popcorn Hour is friendlier at setup time. I was able to play my ISO images (I rip all my DVDs at purchase time and play from a NAS) without giving anyone any credit card number. Roku demanded one, and the Roku privacy policy notes (in the small print) that information about anything I watch will be logged to their servers (and the NSA's, I suppose). That makes me want to cook up some attention-getting stream names.

The Roku shows advertising on the main screen, while the Popcorn Hour abstains from such ignoble behaviour.

Roku wins on UI (apart from the advertising). In particular, the remote is smaller, friendlier and doesn't suffer from button overdose syndrome. Both boxes are quiet.

Video quality isn't directly comparable: The Roku plays network streams to digital output, and the video quality depends mostly on the network connection. (There's an app to play files from USB sticks, which I haven't tried.) The Popcorn Hour also plays ISO, Matroska, AVI and MP4 streams from NAS, and scales them up to 1920×1080. The upscaling quality varies from astonishingly good in the best cases to not very good in the worst. (Some MP4s encoded directly from high-resolution masters are scaled up well, ditto most of my ISOs, but not all. Matroska files I made from the same ISOs are scaled up poorly.)

Sound quality is identical when comparable. The Popcorn Hour also has analog sound outputs (of poor quality), which the Roku does not.

Update: The Roku has more apps. None I really care about, partly because I use a projector and a largish canvas. For some reason, a large canvas demands a high bitrate in order to look good, and the streaming services generally stop below 3Mbps so the apps I've tried are useless. If you use a screen or small canvas, app availability may be an important factor to you.

Popcorn Hour A-300

The Popcorn Hour A-300 is an updated version of the A-110 — a small fanless box to play ISOs and other movies. My work involves such boxes, so I upgraded from the A-110. I still use it with a Synology NAS, an Epson HD projector, a Musical Fidelity M6i amplifier and B&W 804 speakers, and mostly play ISOs ripped with Anydvd.

The A-300 is better than the A-110: The remote control has better range, it doesn't take as long to start playing ISOs, and the user interface is snappier in general.

Its film selection interface remains terrible. It shows less than three film titles per m² of canvas in my case, and navigation is strictly one-dimensional. Up, down, select. A web site built along the same design principles would have wonderful margins and beautiful fonts, but this paragraph would not fit on a 1920×1080 screen.

The screen saver now features animated buzzwords. I call that a feature, because it goaded me to disable the ███████ screensaver. The rest is rather like the old box.

Remarkably, telnetting to the A-300 gives a root prompt.

Update: At first, I didn't notice how bad the sound quality is. I have now played some films with good sound. Ouch is the word.

Update: There are a few bad bugs that Syabas isn't fixing. For example, ISO images without FBI warnings and menus are generally played with the wrong aspect ratio, except the very first time each ISO image is opened. Even cold booting doesn't help.

Update: I bought a FiiO Taishan D03K D/A converter, €33 of high-end audio. The FiiO is a little too up/forward/aggressive for my taste, but it's very, very much better than the A-300's analog output. And Syabas acknowledged the previous bug and provided a workaround: Play in any mode other than fit to screen.

Popcorn Hour A-110

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DVDs the Popcorn Hour A-110 can't play

I own and like a Popcorn Hour A-110, but I don't agree with all the web pages that say it plays everything.

Below is list of things I've tried to play that cause the player to freeze. In each case I ripped the DVDs using k9copy (a straight copy, no recompression or size/quality reduction). When I try to play the resulting ISO files the player freezes, does not react to the remote control, and has to be power-cycled. […More…]