Confessions of a Video Addict

I’ve long been interested in home theater as a hobby. My family doesn’t watch much TV. This is mainly because a few years back, through an almost comical set of circumstances, I ended up cancelling my DishNetwork subscription. Since then, everyone’s been so busy with life and stuff, that we’ve never really missed “America’s Top 150″. It’s always been a bit of a joke around our house anyway that “AT/150″ really should have been named “AT/15″ – I just could never find enough really interesting, family-friendly content on the other 135 channels. It reminds me of that episode of the Simpsons where the pious next-door neighbor, Flanders buys a new satellite receiver. When Homer comes over to try it out, he finds all 250 channels “locked out”! “Doh!”

Regardless of my family’s attitude toward broadcast content, we do like to watch movies. I’ve had a Sanyo PLV-Z2 home theater projector for several years now. Given how much we’ve used it, the bulb should have been gone long ago, but it’s still putting out the lumens like it was new. If you like home theater and you’re considering buying a projector, then I have a tip for you: Don’t buy a spare projector bulb when you buy your projector. That way, when the bulb goes, you have a great excuse to upgrade your projector. Bulbs cost between 3 and 5 hundred dollars. With current projectors (such as the much newer PLV-Z700 [EDIT: The PLV-Z2000 has recently been discontinued in favor of the coming release of the PLV-Z700 in mid October '08 -- the specs are almost identical on these two units, and the PLV-Z700 is a couple of hundred dollars less.]) costing around $1800 dollars, it’s not a tough choice. It’s not quite as bad as the laser-printer-to-cartridge cost ratio, but it’s close enough.

Recently I read a great article on Ars Technica about building a Home Theater PC (HTPC). I’ve been aware of the concept of HTPC’s for some time now, but they’ve always been just outside my price range. This article got me all excited again about the possibility of building one for my home theater. The commercial hardware and software to make one feasible has recently become both widely available and reasonably cost-effective.

The System

What I like about Ars Technica’s HTPC system design is that it’s broad enough to be easily tailored to individual budgets, needs and tastes, and yet down to earth enough to be implemented by the average tinkerer. I enjoy building systems, and what makes this one interesting to me is that it’s not something that can be purchased outright. Very few of the mainstream system builders (Dell and Gateway, for instance) are selling PC’s today that are actually designed to be used as components in home theater systems. And yet motherboard and case manufacturers are already providing great inexpensive tools toward this very goal. When things like this begin to happen, you know it won’t be long before you’ll be able to buy components from Crutchfield that look like stereo equipment, but act like computers.

I had two goals in building my version of the one advertised in the article. First, I wanted to stay under 800 dollars. That was the limit imposed by my wife – and I agreed with her. (We actually get along pretty well when it comes to spending money on toys – we tend to stay pretty even with each other.) My system consists of the following components:

  • 1 – Antec Veris Fusion v2 Black 430 Micro ATX Media Center case.
  • 1 – Gigabyte GA-MA78GM-S2H motherboard.
  • 1 – AMD Athlon 64 X2 5200+ 2.7 Ghz 65W dual-core processor.
  • 1 – Scythe Ninja Mini CPU cooler.
  • 1 – 2 GB (2 x 1Gb) Crucial Ballistix DDR2 800 SDRAM.
  • 1 – Western Digital 250 Gb (Blue) SATA 3 Hard Drive.
  • 1 – Western Digital 1 Tb (Green) SATA 3 Hard Drive.
  • 1 – Hauppauge WinTV-HVR-1800 MCE PCI Express interface card.

Total price: 762 USD, plus 15 dollars shipping and handling. Here’s my NewEgg HTPC wishlist. (EDIT: I’ve had trouble with my NewEgg public wish lists remaining stable, as it were–they tend to modify themselves without any human intervention, so please take this NewEgg list with a grain of salt.) I added a keyboard, mouse and an old 1280 x 1024 capable monitor I had laying around the house.

I’ve never had an AMD-based system before – I’ve always just assumed that Intel had the upper hand on quality and compatibility. But I’m so impressed with its price/performance ratio that I’m seriously considering making AMD my processor of choice from now on.

Configuration Issues

The only problem I had assembling and configuring this system was that I couldn’t initially get the Vacuum Fluorescent Display (VFD) that came integrated with the Antec case to display any data. I checked and double-checked the wiring, even reversing polarity on connections that might possibly have been polarized.

When I called Antec about the problem, the technician I spoke with suggested that I ensure that the drivers were installed properly, and that the USB cable was plugged into the internal USB header correctly. I was surprised they didn’t have any other suggestions, because a quick Google search pointed me to several conversation threads in various Audio/Visual forums where other people had similar problems. I never saw a good solution, however.

Here’s what I did to get mine working – and I consider this solution to be a work-around to a bug in the Antec VFD USB circuitry: First, I had to uninstall all VFD related software. One of the problems appears to be that the driver disc that comes with the Antec case has drivers for Windows XP Media Center, not Windows Vista Media Center. The XP drivers simply won’t work under Vista, but there’s no documentation indicating this issue.

Instead, you need to go to the the SoundGraph support site and download the latest Vista VFD drivers – I installed the latest beta drivers. SoundGraph wrote the drivers for the Antec VFD, and has integrated them into a configuration package that provides a front-panel configuration utility. Using this utility, you can configure the VFD to display just about anything you might want to. It’s really pretty cool stuff.

Next, you have to do something really weird. After you’ve properly installed the new drivers, reboot your machine, remove the cover while it’s still running, and disconnect the three-wire VFD power connector (purple, red and black). Wait a couple of seconds and then reconnect it. The iMon software driver installer will appear on your desktop, and within seconds your VFD will begin to display information properly. The USB standard indicates that it’s supposed to do this for you, but with the Antec USB interface, you actually have to power down the VFD while the USB cable is plugged in to get it to install the proper driver.

The Operating System

My software of choice? Windows Vista Media Center Edition. Now before you get into a big huff about my chosing commercial software over freeware, let me just say that I’ve been working on this stuff for a long time now, and I really do understand the pros and the cons of using both. If you’ve got the hundred bucks for Vista WMC, the difference in user experience is well worth the money.

One thing I’ll say for the folks in Redmond – when they put their minds to something, nothing is left to chance, and this sentiment applies well to the Microsoft eHome group. They’re working frantically to beat the competition to market in this area. Features are added faster than I can keep up. And, with Windows online update service, new features are available in this version, not just the next time you upgrade.

Case in point: The XBox 360 picked up streaming DivX support just last December (07). That’s after I bought my 360 in November. Yet I have DivX support today – all it took was a 5 minute download on the 360 console, which happened automatically when I tried to play my first DivX movie, streamed from Windows Media Player.

Connecting an HTPC to a TV (or Projector)

I have a slightly older projector. The Sanyo PLV-Z2 can only accept analog input via standard component video RCA jacks, and it only displays 1080i video. I also have a somewhat dated Denon 7.1 channel Dolby Digital/DTS decoder. This amplifier is also a video switcher, but will only switch composite, s-video and component video sources, and doesn’t do any up-conversion between these formats. It’s been good for me for several years, so I’m not complaining (much). The newer systems all do HDMI video switching and will do up-conversion – all for a lesser price tag. Oh well, that’s technology for you.

The point, however, is that the Gigabyte motherboard has that sweet AMD (ATI) 780G on-board video processor (which is why I didn’t have to buy a video card). This chipset provides both analog and digital video via VGA, DVI-I and HDMI ports, available through the I/O panel. But no component video. Don’t even bother considering a video converter. They exist alright, and you can pick one up for about 130 dollars from Audio Authority, but due to the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA), it’s literally illegal (at least in the United States) for these devices to convert any video that’s HDCP-encoded, which includes most Blu-ray content. Blu-ray content is only displayed on digital outputs, and encrypted with HD Content Protection (HDCP). Thus, as the man at the gas station says, “Ya can’t get there from here.”

This means that even if I did plug my new HTPC into my existing home theater system, I literally couldn’t play any of my Blu-ray discs in the BD-ROM drive. Since I can’t play anything from disc, that only leaves the option of ripping content and playing unencrypted streams from the hard drive (not counting the far less viable option of spending another 3 grand updating my amp and projector).

(EDIT: I’ve since discovered that you can, in fact, play Blu-ray disks, and have the content displayed just fine on any analog display device. Apparently the MPAA doesn’t consider analog 1080i picture quality a threat to their income.)

This isn’t as bad as you might think. Dozens of my DVDs have seen better days just because my kids don’t spend their hard-earned cash buying them. But that’s the way kids are. I try to teach them to be careful, but they really won’t become careful until they do spend their own money.

My solution is to rip everything, convert to DivX and put my discs in a closet for safe-keeping. DMCA or not, there’s nothing immoral about what I’m doing. While it may be technically illegal, the only thing I’m withholding from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) is any additional cash I might spend on a new copy of a disc I’ve already purchased, but which is now too scratched up to use.

(EDIT: I’ve since discovered, through a closer examination of the DMCA wording, that it’s not actually illegal to make copies of your purchased media. What’s illegal is either selling them or giving them away, or creating and distributing tools that help other people make such copies. It’s a strange world we live in!)

I’ve contacted media sources for this very reason in the past, and I could almost hear the glee in their voices when they told me that there’s simply no recourse for a scratched disc. I have to purchase a new one. It makes me angry just thinking about it.

Since I’m going to rip and convert all my content anyway, there’s really no point in connecting the HTPC directly to the projector. Not when an XBox 360 is a perfectly good WMC extender. And the ability to use a 360 as a WMC extender is about the coolest thing I’ve ever seen Microsoft provide. It works like Windows remote desktop. It’s just as if you’re sitting at your PC screen with Windows Media Center in full-screen mode. And the PC doesn’t even have to be running WMC! There’s a media center agent that runs WMC in the background for remote extenders.

Since the 360 will drive my projector at 1080i over component video, I can leave my noisy PC in my work room. (In point of fact, with two 120 mm fans running at low speed, the system is really very quiet – almost silent.) I can then simply stream HD video and live or recorded TV right to my 360 in high definition, letting the XBox drive the projector at 1080i. Since it’s more comfortable to sit at my desk while I’m ripping and converting, this setup works quite well for me.

The Software

While HTPC hardware is coming down in price and going up in features – literally on a daily basis – the software is still a bit rough around the edges, which is another reason I recommend using Windows Media Center. You’ll have a difficult enough time getting your media configured to play the way you want, without worrying about getting the right mix of hardware and open source or free software to work correctly on your HTPC. After much experimentation, I settled on two commercial packages – both providing at least two-week free trial periods:

AnyDVDHD will rip literally anything from DVD, HD-DVD or Blu-ray discs – encoded, encrypted, encased in kryptonite – it doesn’t really matter. And it removes all the various rediculous copy protection schemes, in the process. You’ll then have DVD or HD content from your media in a format with which you can do something useful. The cost: 100 bucks. Sorry, but you get what you pay for in this area. The free stuff is available, but it usually breaks down on the disc you want most to rip.

(EDIT: AnyDVDHD is copy protection circumvention software and as such, according to the Digital Millenium Copyright Act of 1998, is illegal contraband material. To avoid prosecution or shutdown of this blog, I’m not linking to the site directly. You’ll have to use Google or your favorite search engine to find references to AnyDVDHD or SlySoft on your own. I’m sorry, but this is what our society has come to.)

How do they get away with providing a product like this? After all, it is illegal under the DMCA. They can do it because the software is completely developed and marketed on the Internet outside the United States. (I have a similar tool, called TuneBite for decrypting music files so I can put them on my daughter’s Rio. Tunebite is developed in Romania.)

TMPGEnc 4.0 XPress is an audio/video format converter that does just as well on format conversion as AnyDVDHD does on ripping content. Pegasys advertises that it converts virtually any format to any format, and they aren’t lying. It comes with native support for DivX, but if you want to get down and dirty with your special HD camera codecs, it will allow you direct access to any installed Video for Windows codec. This includes external Xvid or DivX pro codecs. The cost: another 100 bucks…and worth every penny for the simplicity and power that it grants you to do what you want without hassle.

The trial versions of these packages are a bit crippled in various ways, but they were functional enough to tell me that the hundred-dollar costs of each weren’t going to be wasted.

Ripping and converting is a dark art. There are a lot of “tutorials” but very few instruction manuals. The only reason I can think of for this is that, as I mentioned above, it’s basically illegal to do it. Regardless of your intentions or motivations, the law is the law, and no commercial enterprise wants to get their hand slapped for providing instructions for doing something illegal.

Given the lobbying power behind the DMCA, doing so is about equivalent to providing on-line detailed instructions for creating a homemade nuclear device. Most of the information you’ll find that’s very useful will be from sources outside the US. A really good source of fairly up-to-date information is the Doom9 web site. Click on the “Guides” link sometime when you have a few hours of reading time in front of you.

The Work Flow

To get you on the fast path, I’ll explain my work flow and the options I use to get the most out of streaming video. First, here are a few links to important facts about streaming video to the XBox 360:

The XBox support site also has detailed instructions on how to connect your 360 to your WMC PC, but it’s trivial enough to do that I didn’t even need these instructions.

There are a few facts about digital media formats that you should know before you start. These are hard to find – especially if you’re not looking for them to begin with. In the first place, while you can now stream DivX and Xvid to the 360, the only format that will stream 5.1 channel audio is WMV. With all the press coverage that the December ’07 360 console update received regarding the new DivX support feature, you’d have thought it was the next best thing to sliced bread.

For my purposes, DivX video without 5.1 channel audio is useless. At least half of the home theater experience is related to audio. I find it difficult to believe that people are willing to settle for simple 2 channel stereo in a home theater system these days. Here’s the configuration that worked for me:

Blu-Ray Video Specifications

  • Windows Media Video (WMV) 9 Advanced Profile
  • 1920 x 1080, 30 frames per second, progressive
  • 2 Pass Variable Bit Rate (VBR), 10,000 kb/s (avg)

Blu-Ray Audio Specifications

  • Windows Media Audio (WMA) 10 Professional
  • 48 Hz, 5.1 Channel Audio, 24 bits
  • 2 Pass, Variable Bit Rate (VBR), 256 kb/s (avg)

DVD Video Specifications

  • Windows Media Video (WMV) 9 Advanced Profile
  • 720 x 480, 30 frames per second, progressive
  • 2 Pass Variable Bit Rate (VBR), 1500 kb/s (avg)

DVD Audio Specifications

  • Windows Media Audio (WMA) 10 Professional
  • 44 Hz, 5.1 Channel Audio, 16 bits
  • 2 Pass, Variable Bit Rate (VBR), 128 kb/s (avg)

These are the only streamable audio/video configurations I could find that would stream HD video and 5.1 channel audio while using the 360 as a WMC extender. If you don’t mind popping out of extender mode into the 360 dashboard to watch Divx movies, then you can also stream similiar video and audio using Divx/avi files. On this issue, I have to agree with many a forum participant (read, “complainer”) regarding Microsoft’s decision not to support 5.1 channel audio in Divx streams through the extender interface. They hate it, and so do I. It’s just plain lame that the 360 can handle divx with 5.1 channel audio, but not through the WMC extender interface. Oh, well. When that functionality is finally added, I’ll just re-encode to Divx.

Now, you may have a few questions about this configuration. For instance, why did I go to all the trouble of encoding 5.1 channel, 16 bit audio, only to limit my bit rate to 128 kb/s? Well, frankly I defy anyone to tell the difference between 128 kb/s and 256 kb/s. Most of the mp3 audio files we download from iTunes or Amazon these days are 160 kb/s data files. iTunes recently came out with their iTunes Plus program, which makes some music available unencrypted, and at a higher, 256 kb/s bit rate. I’ve upgraded some of the music in my library to iTunes Plus – mainly so I could get it in an unencrypted format, but I can’t tell the difference between 168 kb/s and 256 kb/s. I simply can’t. Some may be able to, but the difference is nearly indistinguishable to the human ear. If you’re worried about it, use 256 kb/s instead of 128. The audio stream size difference is negligible compared to the video stream in the data file anyway.

Another question you might ask me is why I’m using 1920 x 1080 in my blu-ray video streams, when the native size of my projector is 1280 x 720. The reason is that the projector has some very sophisticated video scaling circuitry that can easily convert a 1080 line picture to 720 lines of native resolution. At some point, I’ll upgrade my PLV-Z2 projector to a PLV-Z700, which has a native 1080 scan lines of resolution. When I do that, I’ll see a noticable improvement in video quality from my HD video files.

The same question could be asked in reverse of the DVD-quality video streams. I’m encoding 720 x 480 video streams, so my projector has to upscale the picture to 1280 x 720. In this case, 720 x 480 is the best I can get from DVD video. The projector will do a better job of scaling than will my software encoder, so I see no reason to make my video files larger than I have to.

Unanswered Questions…

Could someone please tell me how to discern the difference between 1000 kb/s video and 10,000 kb/s video? I encoded The Waterhorse at 10,000 kb/s, but I encoded a 50 second sample from the beginning at 1000 kb/s, and I simply can’t see any discernible difference. The difference in file size is enormous. The entire movie, encoded at 10,000 kb/s is about 8.5 Gb, which isn’t bad, given that the original mpeg-2 Blu-ray encoding was 29 Gb. If I encode the entire film at 1000 kb/s, however, it drops to an amazing 1 Gb – I can fit that onto a normal DVD, along with 4 other movies!

Despite my apparent enthusiasm at these compression ratios, I’m still a purist at heart. I’d like to say I’m watching better quality video. Perhaps it’s just the fact that I’m watching on a 1080i projector that down-converts to a native resolution equivalent to 720p. Perhaps a native 1080p projector or a native 1080p LCD or plasma display would make all the difference. Oh well. I’ll have to find out later, when I can afford the upgrade.

Incidentally, I also compared these samples on a regular monitor. I still can’t see a difference. Both pictures look sharp and clear. Neither one looks quite as good as watching the movie right from the Blu-ray disc using PowerDVD-HD. I attribute that mostly to the fact that I encoded the samples at a lower resolution, not a lower bit-rate.

Stay tuned, because I’m sure I’ll have more to say on this topic later.