Thursday, December 11, 2008

Popcornhour A-110 Review #4 - Conclusions

Better Firmware on Popcornhour A-110?

One more thing to mention before we get into the conclusion section: people always ask if the Popcornhour A-110 has the better firmware installed. Since Popcornhour is Syabas' own brand, the firmware of the Popcornhour A-110 is maintained by the original design team. People think the original design team should know better about the code and could make the firmware work better. Is this assumption correct?

The Popcornhour A-110

The answer is no and yes. From my understanding, Digitech does not have the software programing capability yet. They still relay on Syabas to maintain the firmware on the HDX 1000. In addition, they have the agreement signed to keep up with the latest NMT software revision. There should really be no difference between the firmware on the two machines.

However, according to the history, there is still a little difference in the firmware update speed. The latest A-110 firmware update (01-17-081023-15-POP-403) happened on 11/4/2008. The latest of the Hdx 1000 (50-17-081023-15-HDD-403-000) happened on 11/11/2008. There exist a one-week delay on the HDX 1000 side. But, you can see two firmwares are both in the 081023 version. Eventually, they will become identical.

The Digitech HDX 1000

Well, don't begin to throw rocks on me. I know HDX 1000 still cannot do dts downmixing. I've heard several versions of the reasons. The only thing I can be sure of is they will eventually have that activated on the HDX 1000 (via firmware update). The estimated time for that to happen is at Jan, 2009.


Again, the Popcornhour A-110 has almost identical function set as the Digitech HDX 1000. They stock very similar components on the PCBs and are installed with the same NMT software. The known issues and workarounds listed for the HDX 1000 can still be applied to the A-110. I think the look and the thermal performance are the two main decision points to make if you want to pick one machine out of these two.

In the following you can see the list of all the major differences between the A-110 and the HDX 1000.
  • The Look: The A-110 looks more trendy. The HDX 1000 looks more sturdy.
  • The Weight: The A-110 weights 1.5 pounds. The HDX 1000 weights 2.5 pounds.
  • The Size: The A-110 is 10.5" x 5" x 1.5". The HDX 1000 is 8" x 8" x 2".
  • Case Sheet Metal Thickness: The A-110 uses 0.06" sheet metal on the case. The HDX 1000 uses 0.09".
  • Sheet Metal Painting: The HDX 1000 is easy to collect finger prints. The A-110 is not.
  • Output Interface Options: Both have very similar options, such as the HDMI 1.3v. The only difference is the A-110 has S-Video output. The HDX 1000 has optical audio output.
  • I/O Interface Option at the Front Panel: The A-110 has USB port at the front panel. The HDX 1000 has 3-in-1 card reader.
  • AC Power Adapter: The A-110 AC power adapter is more efficient. The HDX 1000 power adapter outputs less noise & ripple.
  • Thermal Performance: The HDX 1000 is designed with better heat management mechanism.
  • DRAM Size: No difference.
  • Battery on PCB: The A-110 has the watch battery installed on PCB. The HDX 1000 does not.
Check out the HDX 1000 on AmperorDirect Website

Popcornhour A-110 Review #3 - Peek inside the Box


Part #3 of the Popcornhour A-110 review will take you on a journey traveling inside the A-110. The trip starts from disassembling the A-110’s well designed mechanical case. Then, the secret and the benefits of the A-110’s miniature design will be revealed. At the end, we are going to compare the A-110 with the HDX 1000, again, down to the component level inside the case.

Ready to open the case?

Good Mechanical Design

While disassembling the A-110 case, I realize Popcornhour must have spent quite some time on the mechanical design. Many details are thought out in the R&D process. As a customer, I have the feeling of being very well taken care of.

On the four corners of the top cover, you will see four big thumb screws. There is no need to grab a screw driver if you just want to lift off the cover. The shining thumb screws also serve for cosmetic purposes. They take away that monotonic and computer device type feeling and create a trendy appearance.

The Shining Thumb Screws at the Four Corners

There are slots constructed on the four corner supports. You can slide the four side walls into these slots. This preformed-metal-design reduces the screw usage and guarantees an easy assembling / disassembling experience.

Slide out the Rear Panel

Two of the four side walls have venting holes built-in, to improve the A-110’s convection cooling performance.

Two Side Walls Equipped w Venting Holes

The bottom case is equipped with two long narrow-shape stand-offs. It assures that there is enough clearance between the internal SATA HDD and the bottom case (if you want to put one in). Besides, the internal HDD can be directly connected to the SATA connector on the PCB. There won’t be a long, messy SATA cable hanging around inside the case.

Room Reserved to Install SATA HDD

Miniature Footprint

The small footprint of the A-110 is achieved by a jam packed PCB design. Popcornhour’s engineer has made use of every spot on both sides of the PCB and has successfully kept the distance between parts, short. The size of the A-110 PCB is 3.5” x 5”. Compared to the HDX 1000’s main PCB: 5.5” x 5.5”, it is relatively small. If it was not necessary to reserve a space inside the case for the installation of an internal SATA HDD, Popcornhour A-110 could really be as small as an IstarHD Mini.

HDX 1000 Main PCB (left) & A-110 Main PCB + Output Interface Daughter Board (right)

The A-110 internal layout design is really compact. Components, including the main PCB, output interface daughter board and the optional SATA HDD, are arranged to sit side by side, but in a very clean and neat way. The only thing I don’t like in this arrangement is the long on/off switch cable running across the output interface daughter board. This long cable can work as an antenna and pick up noise from the busy output interface.

See the Red and Black Cables Running Across the Output Section?

A-110 vs. HDX 1000

After carefully observing the PCBs from both vendors, I found that they use identical parts on the PCBs in many positions. For example, they both use Sigma’s SMP8635 as the main processor, Silicon Image’s SiI9134 as the HDMI 1.3 transmitter chip and Nanya’s NT5DS32M16CS as the DRAM. It makes me wonder if there is a reference design published by Sigma or Syabas. With the identical hardware components and the NMT software installed, you can expect to have a very similar experience when using Popcornhour A-110 and Digitech HDX 1000. (They are even produced by the same factory!)

The most significant difference between the two machines is on the heat management mechanism implemented. This is where the HDX 1000 excels. Except the thicker sheet metal and the larger metal surface area mentioned in the previous post, the larger PCB footprint on the HDX 1000 helps to improve the thermal performance, too. The big components (usually the heat generating sources) are placed further apart on the PCB. Thus, the heat density is lower in the HDX 1000 machine.

In addition, on the HDX 1000, the hottest part: Sigma SMP8635, is attached to the case through a flat aluminum heat-sink (equal to the chip size) and the white thermal grease. From my previous life as a power supply design engineer, I used to have this argument with the production engineers about the thermal grease. They always complain that the grease is too messy to use on the production line and want to replace the grease by silicon pad. But, I always find the grease ensures better contact between two hard objects and helps to drain the heat faster. Guess what... Silicon pad is what they use on the A-110 to connect the SMP8635 heatsink to the case. This is another reason why I think the HDX 1000 can have better thermal performance than the A-110.

The White Thermal Grease used on the SMP8635 Heat-sink in HDX 1000

The Silicon Pad used on the SMP8635 Heat-sink in A-110

There is also a myth about the memory size. According to the manufacturers’ website, the A-110 has 256MB and the HDX 1000 has 512Mb DRAM installed. It makes some people think that the HDX 1000 provides more memory. However, when I opened up the machines, I found both machines are equipped with 4pcs of Nanya 512Mb DRAM. What Digitech puts on their website is the DRAM type (512Mbits) they use in the HDX 1000. What Popcornhour lists is the total memory size (512Mbits x 4) / 8 = 256Mbytes in the A-110. The two machines actually carry the same amount of the DRAM, and both vendors are telling the truth. However, I found the information on the Digitech website is a little misleading.

#1 and #2 Nanya DRAM on the A-110 PCB component side (You can also see the heat-sink on SMP8635)

#3 and #4 Nanya DRAM on the A-110 PCB Solder Side

All four Nanya DRAM on the HDX 1000 PCB

The other minor dissimilarity to mention is that the HDX 1000 does not have the watch battery installed on the PCB. (The A-110 does.) According to Digitech, the battery is used to provide time information to the machine. Considering there is no time shift or advanced recording functions offered by the NMT player, the time information actually has little use. The lack of the watch battery on the HDX 1000 PCB won’t affect its performance.

Watch Battery Installed on the A-110 PCB

Battery not Installed on the HDX 1000 PCB

Check out the HDX 1000 Product Page on AmperorDirect

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Popcornhour A-110 Review #2 - A-110 vs. HDX 1000 Round One


In this article, we are going to run through a detailed comparison between Popcornhour A-110 and Digitech HDX 1000. The major differences are the look, the case material used, the available A/V interface options and the AC power adapter provided. As we mentioned in the previous post, both the A-110 and the HDX 1000 use Syabas NMT software. Therefore, the user interface and the functions offered are almost identical.

HDX 1000 & A-110: Front View

The Look, the Weight and the Size (What do you think I'm talking about...:p)

Placing Popcornhour A-110 and Digitech HDX 1000 side by side, you can easily notice the difference. The A-110 has that trendy type appearance. It reminds me of the look of the new computer gadgets you usually see spread unorganized around a computer wizard kid’s PC. On the other hand, the HDX 1000 looks like an old fashion sturdy machine. It is obvious to me that Digitech wants a design of which most people won’t have issues to place it on their entertainment rack in the living room.

HDX 1000 & A-110: Rear View

The A-110 weighs around 1.5 pounds and measures 10.5” x 5” x 1.5” in size. It is wider than the HDX 1000. The HDX 1000 weights around 2.5 pounds and measures as 8” x 8” x 2”. It is 1 pound heavier than the A-110.

Case Material

The sheet metal used by two vendors to build the case is different in thickness. According to my caliper, the thickness of the A-110 case measures around 0.06 inches. On the HDX 1000, it is measured around 0.09 inches. This is one reason why the A-110 weighs less than the HDX 1000. For the A-110, the major advantage of using a thinner sheet metal is they can better control both material and shipping costs. On the Popcornhour website, the transportation cost to ship A-110 from the Far East to the US is $20. (I know they have an office in California. But, the receipt in the box shows the unit went through the custom.) On Digitech’s website, it is $50 to transfer HDX 1000.

A-110 Sheet Metal Thickness: 0.061"

However, the thicker sheet metal and the larger total metal surface area on the HDX 1000 case can definitely help to transfer the heat out of the box faster. Thus, the heat accumulated in the box during the long-period-of usage will be reduced and the life of the components in the box will be prolonged. Here is a testimonial for HDX 900 on Digitech’s website: “Leaving both the players turned on for nearly 6 hours, the Popcorn Hour is almost scorching hot to the hand test while the HDX 900 felt warm; it is still cooler compared to the Popcorn Hour.” Although the testimonial is for the previous generation machine, there is not that much change between the generations. It should still be true for the HDX 1000.

HDX 1000 Sheet Metal Thickness: 0.095"

There is one more finding I want to mention about the HDX 1000 case: the paint material they use on the case makes it easy to collect finger prints. I don’t see the same thing happening on Popcornhour A-110.

Interface Options

Two models offer similar sets of the interface options. They all have HDMI 1.3v output for HD content playback and the component video and stereo audio output for analog content. The minor differences are: the Popcornhour A-110 has two USB ports (HDX 1000 has only one) and a S-Video output (HDX 1000 has none). The HDX 1000 has a 3-in-1 card reader and an optical audio output (A-110 has none).

Popcornhour A-110 Rear View

In addition, the A-110 has put one of its two USB ports at the front panel for easy-external-HDD-connection. The 3-in-1 card reader of the HDX 1000 is located at the front panel so that users can easily plug in their SD memory from their camera so that they can share the pictures with friends on the big screen.

AC Power Adapter

Here is my favorite part. I have worked for a power supply company for almost 10 years now so I can really go on for 10 pages describing my findings. However, I don’t think that will excite anybody…:)

Both Popcornhour and Digitech are out-sourcing the AC power adapter. In the below picture you can see the AC power adapter of the A-110 on the right hand side. It is bigger in size and uses a three prong power cord. Both AC adapters are rated to provide up to 12V, 3A output. They can accept a wide-range 100VAC ~ 240VAC input. If you can find a plug adapter, both units can be used overseas.

HDX 1000 (left) and A-110's AC Power Adapter

After some further checking, I found the AC adapter comes with the A-110 is more efficient. At nominal load condition, it is 86% (comparing to 82% of the adapter from HDX 1000). It is an expectable result because it has a bigger footprint. Usually, a larger AC adapter can cope better with the heat generated and lose less power inside the adapter. It is just interesting to see that Popcornhour decided to use a larger footprint AC adapter with their relatively smaller sized A-110 and Digitech does the opposite.

The only potential issue I see with the A-110 AC power adapter is the high ripple and noise sitting on the output. In the computer world, we usually expect to see the ripple and noise amplitude to be limited at 1% of the rated output voltage. The bad news is, I see a 120mV ripple and noise on the A-110 power adapter’s 12V output while it is running in full load. It is right on that 1% limit. Maybe, on the A-110’s PCB, there is another stage of the on-board regulator or filter, to filter out the noise. However, higher ripple and noise usually tends to shorten the life-span of the parts inside the adapter. (On the HDX 1000 adapter, the highest noise I can see is 30mV.)

The 120mV noise sitting on the 12V output of A-110's AC Power Adapter

Read the #3 Part of the Popcornhour A-110 Review

Popcornhour A-110 Review #1 - A Bad First Impression turns out to be OK


The Popcornhour A-110 provides almost the identical functions and features list as the HDX 1000. I will focus on the unique things I discovered on the A-110 and run through a comparison between the A-110 and the HDX 1000. If you are interested in the A-110’s basic functions / storage options / web services information, you can click on the listed hyperlinks. The links will point you to the related review sections of the HDX 1000. As I mentioned at the beginning, they work almost identical in these areas.

Popcornhour A-110 Front View

Waiting Period for my Popcornhour A-110

I placed my order at the Popcornhour website around October 30th. How soon did I receive my A-110? In about two and a half weeks. Compared to the ridiculous waiting period it took to get the previous version: A-100, the order fulfillment speed was actually very impressive at this time.

Popcornhour A-110 Rear View

Many Networked Media Tank sellers, including Popcornhour and iStarHD, have a bad reputation of charging customers’ credit cards first and delivering machines a month later. One reason that I know for this to happen is they don’t have enough capital to buy materials up front. If you are lucky to place the order at the time when they have already gathered enough orders / money to do a production run, you might be able to get your NMT player soon. Otherwise, you might need to wait. The other reason is those Asian sellers are more like “a manufacturer equipped with an e-commerce website” than a true marketing entity. Sometimes, they are not accustomed to demand forecasting. Sometimes, they simply don’t want to produce enough machines to meet the forecast because of the risk involved to keep a large quantity of stock on hand.

This is where can help. Before NMT can get popular enough to be carried by BestBuy or Amazon, we want to become the place to stock enough inventory and be able ship units within 24 Hrs after receiving orders. We also have a phone number for customers to call to ask questions and will establish ourselves as the RMA and repair center if something within the unit goes wrong.

A Bad First Impression Turns out to be OK

I was not very impressed when I first received my Popcornhour A-110. It arrived by DHL , in a thin plastic bag similar to the below picture. It makes me wonder how my unit survived the international shipment.

DHL Plastic Bag

Inside the plastic bag, there was a box wrapped by a big black nylon-like cover. Usually, this kind of the cover is used on an idling device to keep dust away, not for protection purposes.

The big black nylon-like cover

Sure enough, when I pulled out the package, I noticed a dent on the box. My worries about receiving a damaged A-110 has climbed up to a sky high level.

This is the Condition of the Box I Received

Dents on the corners

When I opened the box, I finally realized the reason behind only using the DHL thin plastic bag for packaging. In the following picture you can see the built-in protection in the box (the white buffering section). Popcornhour must believe the box by itself is strong enough to survive international transportation.

Popcornhour A-110 in the Retail Box w White Buffering Section

I’m not here to complain. My A-110 did arrive without being damaged. However, it is just so different from the now-a-day standard online shopping experience. Pretend you are currently opening a delivery from No matter how strong the product package is, you can expect to find it sitting securely inside another brown shipping box surrounded by bubble wrap. We customers have been educated so well by this scene that our brain can immediately release an anxiety relaxing signal after seeing it. Although we still have not physically finished tearing up the box, we can now switch our mind set in planning how to enjoy the product.

Shipping Method

Besides, the package itself is a part of the product. If I want to give this out as a gift, I would prefer not to see any dent on package.

Click Here to Read the #2 of the Popcornhour A-110 Review

Friday, December 5, 2008

Come Join the Holiday Giveaway for a free HDX 1000

We will have a drawing for a free HDX 1000 on 12/12/2008. Just go to this page, enter your name and email address, and tell us what you think the "X" in "HDX" stands for, you are in for the drawing.

Need hints?

It's not Xmas, although we people at AmperorDirect wants to say Merry Christmas to you.

It's not Xiphosuran. I don't know what this word means.

It's not X-ray. Why do you need to put a high definition X-ray in your living room? To point to your lousy neighbor?

It's not Xbox 360. HDX 1000 runs very quite, not like X-Box 360. Besides, you won't have chance to see RRoD on HDX 1000.

Just take a look at the picture gallery section of the product page on our website, you will know what X is.

Have Fun.