My post about the new Apple TV sucking has generated a lot of traffic. I thought I’d follow it up with my own impression of what would be a whole lot better.
About a year ago I started a project that I continue to fine tune, but I have perfected it enough to explain. This is a project so cool everyone will want to do it, and I suspect in the near future, there will be online services and special hardware to make this a lot easier than it currently is.
Basically the project involves doing to TV and movies what MP3 has done to music. I am converting all video from multiple sources to unencrypted MP4/h.264 video. It is all 480i format for compactness and mobility. MP4 files are playable on pretty much anything, though the best looking playback is on a Playstation 3 which has the best upscaling technology to turn 480i picture to 1080i without the picture looking slightly fuzzy. I can also take the videos with me on my ipod touch and watch anywhere.
The bottom line is that I have instant access to all my favorite movies and TV shows without ever having to find a DVD to put in, and no buffering issues or commercials that you get with online TV services. Just a few clicks, and there it is. I pair this tech with online services to discover new shows, as well as an aerial antenna/TV Tuner card/Windows Media Center for local TV. No cable, no satellite, no expensive fiber based TV service.
This all sounds obvious and you are probably asking why hasn’t anyone done this before, and the answer is that only recently the storage has gotten cheap enough and the tech good enough to do this with satisfactory results.
There are three components to instant access TV, a computer of course, a mass storage device preferably a networked NAS box with uPnP server software but a large (1TB or bigger) external usb 2.0 hard drive formatted in FAT32 format works too, and a playback device — ideally a PlayStation 3, but anything that can handle uPnP or that can read the external hard drive (Wii and XBOX360 both can) will do.
The computer converts all your files to MP4 format and moves them to the storage device, and the player plays the video from the storage device. Its the same as ripping CDs to mp3 files and storing them on your mp3 player, only we are doing it with video which are significantly larger in size.
The software I use to convert all video to the same MP4/h.264 format is all free, or included in Windows. The biggest challenge is that the ripping/converting process is very time consuming compared to audio ripping and converting. The programs I use are Windows Media Center, DVD Decrypter, Handbrake, MCEBuddy, Avidemux, and Download Helper. If you don’t already have it, VLC Media Player is very helpful too. Everything I will be describing below is legal in the US as long as it is for personal use only, this may not be true in other countries. Distributing copyrighted video in any format is illegal.
DVDs to MP4s
Most DVDs contain 4 to 8 GB of data, and yet converting it to an MP4 file will reduce a movie to around 1 GB file, Half hour TV shows are around 200mb, and hour longs are around 400mb. A 1 TB drive can store 2500 hours of TV and movies in the MP4 format.
DVDs are the best source for MP4 data, which is odd because DVDs are supposed to be a dying format. Until a service like itunes can sell unencrypted mp4 files, DVD is the best source. DVDs are themselves protected, but easy to unprotect. For 32-bit Windows you can use DVD43, have it run in the background, then just use windows to copy the files from a DVD to your hard drive, and DVD43 will unencrypt as they are being copied. For 64-bit I use DVD Decrypter, which is a little bit buggy but quickly creates an unencrypted mirror to your hard drive. You can use VLC Media Player to test your decrypted image. Not all DVDs are convertible this way, though I know tricks to get around more stringent protection.
Once you have a decrypted image, you can use Handbrake to create MP4 files. For maximum compatibility and best file compression, you want to use “Regular Normal” for everything. For movies there is one really big title, for TV show DVDs there are multiple titles to convert. You can use VLC to figure out which titles go with which episode.
Note: Handbrake will use every last bit of CPU power available while converting, slowing your computer to a crawl while converting. I set up a queue of conversions to do, then let my computer do them in the middle of the night, so they are done the next morning.
Windows Media Center DVR recordings to MP4s
Even though DVDs are the best source for MP4s, DVDs themselves are not free, and not all TV shows end up on DVD either. It is possible instead to record TV and convert that to mp4.
Windows Media Center is the best DVR software out there. Just like all other DVR software, you can schedule recordings, pause live TV etc. The problem is that to record HDTV programs it uses a hell of a lot of hard drive space, about 6 and a half gigabytes for an hour long program, and you still have to fast forward through commercials.
I record my shows to a dedicated folder called “Recorded TV”. Within this folder are two sub folders called “To Convert” and “Converted”. I have a program called MCEBuddy which runs in the background looking to see if any new WTV files have been added to the “To Convert” directory. When it sees one, the program efficiently converts the file to mp4 and stores it in the “Converted” directory about an hour later. Again MCE buddy uses a lot of CPU resources, so don’t drag and drop WTV files while playing video games.
Now the finished mp4 files are still going to have commercials, and that is where Avidemux comes in. Avidemux is a quick and dirty editor, which is worthless if you want to do anything fancy (it has a tendency to unsync the audio and video tracks, especially if you try appending files) but all we want to do is edit out the commercials, which once you get used to using the program, can be done in a few minutes per episode. When you start Avidemux, set the format to MP4. When you load a converted show, it is going to say h.264 detected with a warning, say YES to this. There are 3 ways to move through the video, there is a slide bar (the fastest), arrow frame buttons < >, and double arrow key frame buttons << >>. There are two select buttons, “A” begin block, and “B” end block. To edit out the beginning, use the KEYFRAME buttons to find the beginning of the program (your final video must begin on a key frame) then hit B to select the non-program stuff at the beginning. Then just hit the Del key and it is gone. Then use the slide bar and frame buttons to find the beginning of commercials, press A, find the end of the commercials, press B, then Del, and the commercials are gone. Once at the end of the program, press A then Del to get rid of the end stuff. Now you can save your commercial free MP4 file.
Online Videos to MP4s
Don’t try this with Hulu, TV.com, Netflix or other protected sites like that. There are programs out there to do those sites, but they are not free, not entirely legal, and they record off your video card, recording all the buffering stutters in low format video and ultimately look crappy.
This is for collecting video from sites like You Tube that you can’t get any other way. All you need is DownloadHelper. Some sites like You Tube offer video already in MP4 format, which DownloadHelper will download for you, or if all you can get is FLV files, you can use Handbrake to convert them to MP4.
Once you start collecting MP4 files, it is all a matter of organizing them. I keep them on an NAS for easy access, and also on an external drive as backup. Having all this video instantly accessible is far superior to all other forms of tv watching. The chore of finding the disk, putting it in, wading through all the warnings and previews and menus before your movie starts is gone. Its commercial free with no buffering issues.
This, and PlayOn, is how I watch TV now. The money that I would spend on cable or satellite TV, is being spent on new video acquisitions, which I can spend as much or as little as I want each month. I stopped buying TV and movies from Apple, because they are encrypted and only viewable on certain devices. MP4s are viewable on anything.