Popcorn Hour was already a pretty nifty set-top box for Web-streamed TV and movie content, but its makers say it was a mere beta product. Now they've outed the Popbox, and it's a Netflix-capable set-top-box done right.
Syabas Technology is the company in question, and though the new Popbox is bare bones (it doesn't have any storage aboard, just support for SD cards and USB drives, and it only has ethernet) it's pretty powerful. The box is now capable of streaming 1080p video at a 100Mbs bitrate, can cope with a whole armful of video formats—including MKV files—and can stream content from media servers like iTunes over a DLNA and UPnP connection. It's also laden with code to support Quicktime, Java, and Flash and there's a capability to install "infoapp" popup widgets that'll do things like report the weather or connect you up to Twitter, Facebook, IMDB, Blip.tv, Shoutcast, and so on.
It's had a serious UI overhaul compared to Popcorn Hour, and since it's built on a barebones solution, its a fanless system and it'll only cost around $130.
In other words, it's possibly the most refined and simple set-top box design to date. Which gets us thinking: Will set-top boxes be a surprisingly big category in CES after all? Given the rumblings of an explosion in Web-streaming TV, it's a possibility. The Popbox design is so simple and elegant it should also be something Apple peers at, if it is ever to turn its own set-top box, the Apple TV, into something meaningful. But if there are a bunch of set-top boxes at CES, this might also be the last time they're a major gadget category—for two reasons. TVs are increasingly sophisticated, and many are now widget-capable and can be connected up to Net-based video content sources. And if Apple reinvents the video-distribution system with its iSlate, which will probably be tightly integrated with iTunes, then who knows what direction Web-streaming TV will take in the near future—particularly as wireless HD streaming is becoming more common.