Media Center Disappoints Again

My wife and I like to watch old movies, murder mysteries, and reruns of 80’s sitcoms. Our content of choice pretty much mandates that we watch streaming video; NetFlix is our provider of choice today. We watch on a regular basis between 9 and 10 at night because our kids won’t let us near the TV at any other time. And that’s okay. The point is, by the time we get around to settling down to a good movie, the kids are in bed and we can’t really use the home theater. We have to watch in our bedroom to keep the noise level down.

To facilitate this habit, I’ve strung a VGA cable and a ministereo-to-RCA cable from the back of the flat panel TV in our bedroom to a shelf a few feet away where I set the laptop when streaming NetFlix content. This works well, but short of paying for various accessories like an air mouse, I’ve had to jump up and hit the pause button occasionally, whenever we’ve wanted to discuss a point in the movie – usually a mystery.

Yesterday I upgraded my HTPC (64-bit 2.84 GHz quad processor AMD) from Vista Ultimate to Windows 7 and found the new features of 7MC to be nothing less than wonderful. The user interface enhancments are exactly what you’d expect, given the UI enhancments between Vista and Windows 7. The new TV card management software in 7MC is much better than the Vista version. The new Guide actually represents all of the available channels now (plus a few I didn’t even know about!), as opposed to the previous 30 percent coverage provided by the Vista MC Guide. The Internet TV feature is now out of beta, and seems pretty nice. And lastly, and most importantly, the integrated NetFlix interface is just nothing short of cool.

Or so I thought. But Microsoft seems to think that I’ll only ever want to watch streaming content on my PC. I just don’t get that mindset. Who do you know that sits at their desk and watches TV?! I’ll answer for you: no one. Neither NetFlix nor the new Internet TV features are supported on the extender interface. Thus, my only options for watching NetFlix on my TV remain as follows:

  • Connect my HTPC directly to my TV.
  • Continue to use my laptop as above.

As far as connecting my HTPC to my home theatre system, well, that was always the ultimate goal, but I’ve grown accustom to having the unit in the play room, where I could mess with new features in comfort with convenient access to its insides if necessary. I’ve sort of allowed myself to dream of the possibility that the XBox extender would just become better through the years until it finally did everything I wanted it to.

Recently, I read a comment on a blog somewhere that indicated that Microsoft was motivated (monitarily, of course) to NOT allow streaming content on the XBox extender. The rationale was that the XBox console was using NetFlix streaming content as a hook to get people to buy XBox Live Gold memberships. Well, I’ll be hanged if I’ll pay a subscription fee just to get extender support for a service I already pay NetFlix for.

Wake up Microsoft! These are two different market segments. Will gamers mind paying for an XBox Live Gold subscription? No, they’re already paying for a subscription anyway. Will they go out and buy an HTPC so they don’t have to have that subscription to stream NetFlix? No, they bought that subscription for other reasons (games).

On the other hand, will home theatre enthusiasts pay for XBox Live just so they can stream NetFlix content to their big screen or bedroom? Possibly a few, but most (like myself) will be too angry with the marketing tactics to play along. Will they buy a Gold subscription because they might want to play games too? Possibly a few will, but mostly, gamers are gamers, and home theatre enthusiasts are into movies.

So why emmasculate Media Center and alienate your hardware partners by disallowing some of the most enticing reasons to get an extender? Again I say, wake up…please. I might buy an XBox for my bed room just to use as an extender – if I had a good enough reason.

Getting the Most Out of Your HTPC

Well, now that you have this wonderful Home Theater PC (HTPC), what do you do with it? In this article, I’ll provide some insight on how to configure your HTPC for maximum enjoyment. You paid a lot for this fancy piece of hardware. In fact, I paid as much for my HTPC as I did for my Denon 7.1 channel digital decoder and amplifier, and about half as much as I paid for my 720p projector. There’d better be a good reason for spending that much. Let’s explore…

Watching on the Big Screen

The first thing to consider is how you’ve connected your HTPC. Mine is not connected physically to my video system. That is, I have my HTPC sitting in another room of my home that I currently use as a den or study. It allows me the peace and quiet that I need to continue the on-going process of converting my movie collection into streamable media that I can serve from my HTPC.

I recognize that some people may want to connect their HTPC directly into their home theater system. Eventually, I’ll do this myself. But I have a problem, and you may also. Unless you have the latest video and audio equipment in your home theatre, you’re probably facing a physical connection issue that can’t simply be ignored. By this I mean that your slightly older video display (projector or TV) probably accepts, at most, analog component video (YPbPr) inputs. But the connection on the back of your HTPC (if you purchased the Gigabyte motherboard I mentioned in that first HTPC article) has only VGA, DVI-D and HDMI outputs.

Direct Digital Connection

If you’re lucky enough to have newer home theater equipment–a 1080p projector with HDMI inputs, and a newer 5.1 channel digital decoder/amp with HDMI video switching capability, then you’re really set. Just plug the HDMI output from the onboard ATI video circuitry into one of the free HDMI inputs on your amplifier, and start watching!

The nice thing about an end-to-end digital connection is that you’ll be able to watch your Blu-ray content in the highest resolution available to your display device. Such a connection between your HTPC and your TV will provide exactly the same home theater experience you’d get from your 350 dollar Blu-ray player.

Direct Analog Connection

As mentioned, to get the most out of a direct connection, I really need to use the digital (either DVD-D or HDMI) outputs. But, short of upgrading my amp and projector, I have little recourse here. My somewhat older Denon amplifier has component video switching capability for up to three inputs switched to one output, which is really nice for older devices and monitors. But unfortunately, none of this is compatible with modern digital signals. Until I come into some spare cash, I’m going to have to settle for an end-to-end analog signal between my HTPC and my projector.

To make matters worse, VGA has nothing whatsoever to do with component video, except that they’re both analog signals. Unfortunately these two analog signals operate in different color spaces, so there’s no ad-hoc wiring harness that you can solder together that will allow you to generate component video from the VGA signal at the back of your HTPC.

The solution to this problem is an inexpensive video transcoder. There are various devices available for reasonable prices that will actively convert from one color space to the other. Some of them have more capabilities–and are thus more expensive–than others. I’ve mentioned these devices briefly in my first HTPC article, but I’ll cover them in more detail here.

The device I’ve found that seems to be the best compromise between price and performance is one manufactured by Audio Authority called the 9A60 VGA to Component Video Transcoder. This is a sweet little device–the sweetest aspect of which is the price. In the first place, it does exactly what you want it to do, no more and no less. It converts an RGB signal from a VGA connector to YPbPr Component Video via the standard 3 RCA jacks, with no video scaling or dimensional transformations.

Incidentally, the best price I’ve found on the 9A60 is at mythic.tv for 105 dollars.

Setting Video Card Resolution

Regardless of the type of connection you establish, you’ll have to configure your HTPC’s video card to provide the exact resolution and format expected by your projector or television. An HDMI connection will make setting the computer’s resolution a bit easier, but it has to be done nonetheless.

The resolution expected by your viewing device of choice often depends on how you’ve configured it. For televisions, the resolution is somewhat hard-coded into the device, but projectors can usually be configured to display in different resolutions. Both types of devices can automatically handle a slightly varying range of resolution, regardless of configuration, the rendering quality of which depends on the quality of the display circuitry in the device.

You also need to understand the correlation between TV industry display resolutions and computer display resolutions. In the television industry, resolutions are defined in terms of number of scan lines and whether the signal is progressive or interlaced. Thus, you’ll often hear of TV’s that can display 480p, 720p, 1080i, or 1080p. The numeric values indicate the number of horizontal scan lines displayed, and the letter is either “i” for interlaced, or “p” for progressive (non-interlaced).

The number of scan lines directly corresponds to the vertical resolution on your HTPC. Thus, to generate a 1080p signal to your HD television, you’re going to have to configure your HTPC’s video card to display a resolution of (‘something’ x 1080). The ‘something’ is determined by back-calculating the horizontal resolution from the aspect ratio of your television.

The aspect ratio of US televisions (I mean NTSC/ATSC, rather than the European PAL standard) is either 4:3 or 16:9. So, on a wide-screen (16:9) US television, you would use the following formula to determine the horizontal resolution of your video card:

   Hr = Vr * 16 / 9

where ‘Hr’ stands for Horizontal resolution, and ‘Vr’ stands for Vertical resolution. Thus, the proper horizontal resolution for a 1080p display is 1080 * 16 / 9, or 1920.

The biggest problem you’re likely to run into in this process is actually finding a conforming resolution in the list handed to you by the Microsoft Windows video card configuration dialogs. Windows wants to query the monitor to find out what it can handle, and then transform this information into a set of resolutions compatible with your monitor, but when your monitor is effectively the Audio Authority 9A60, you’ll find it to be quite uninformative regarding what it can handle. Windows responds by giving you a minimal set of choices.

Fortunately, there is free software available in the form of an application called PowerStrip by a Taiwanese company called Entech, which allows you to manually choose your horizontal and vertical resolution, as well as color depth, and horizontal and vertical sync rates. These values must be chosen carefully, or you can damage your display device, but most TV’s and projectors are much more resilient than computer monitors. PowerStrip is pretty self-explanatory, and there are guides abounding on the Internet, so I’ll forego the details here.

Extender Technology

Before I’m ready to connect my HTPC directly to my home theater system, I’m going to use it for several months to convert my video collection, so I’ll want to use “Windows Media Center Extender Technology” and my home network to display my Media Center console on my home theater projector remotely.

Microsoft sells an extender device designed explicitly for this purpose, however, I already have an XBox 360 that I got for my family for Christmas last year, and the 360 has built-in WMC extender functionality. You activate it through the 360 console’s Media page. Look for the option to connect to a Windows Media Center PC.

When you select this “connect” option, the 360 displays an 8 digit random number on the screen, and tells you to use this number at the appropriate location when setting up the extender on your HTPC. In the Media Center setup menu of your HTPC, you’ll find an option for setting up an extender. During this setup wizard, an entry dialog will be displayed, where you’ll be asked to enter this 2-part, 8-digit value. Once you’ve entered this value, the rest is trivial, and your 360 will display your Windows Media Center console.

You can use your game controller to move about the WMC menus and select various options. There’s a cheat-sheet provided by Microsoft that will help you understand how the controller buttons map to Media Center functionality.

Watching Digital Television

TV cards–even digital TV cards–are so inexpensive these days, it would be a shame if you chose to forego that expense. I dare say a TV card costs less than the memory in your HTPC. With that TV card, you get the ability to watch digital TV in full definition.

Of course, if you’d rather spend 400 dollars on a stand-alone digital broadcast tuner, feel free. I much prefer the 80 dollar Hauppaugh WinTV solution. In fact, it’s so cheap, It’s worth considering purchasing two such tuners. Windows Media Center will recognize and consume both units. You can then use one of them to record from one channel, while you’re watching another channel on the other. You can even enjoy picture-in-picture features using both tuners–want to watch a movie while not missing the big game (or vice-versa)? Hmmmm. 400 dollars for a single stand-alone tuner, or 160 dollars for a couple of tuner cards? Not a tough choice.

In fact, the Hauppaugh WinTV 1800 card is actually two tuners in one; an analog tuner and a digital tuner. So even one card will let you do some of the fancy stuff–like recording a digital program while watching an analog program, each on different channels. But if you’re hooked on the realistic quality of digital TV, then you’ll probably almost forget that you have an analog tuner in your TV card. I didn’t even bother connecting the analog tuner to the antenna wire.

This does bring up an interesting side issue for me. The TV card has four antenna inputs on the back: TV, DTV, FM, and QUAM. Okay, I can understanding separate inputs for FM radio and Satellite or Cable input, but was it really necessary to separate the inputs for Analog and Digital TV? I can get a really nice analog picture by connecting my digital antenna to my Analog antenna input. I suppose it’s conceivable that your area has digital and analog broadcast towers set up in different locations, which would preclude aiming TV and DTV antennas in different directions… What I’d really like to see is some sort of software switch or hardware jumper that bridges the DTV input to the TV input, so I don’t have to use an input cable splitter to connect my DTV antenna wire to both inputs.

Time-Shifting and the Media Center Programming Guide

One of the nicest features of Windows Media center is the ability to easily record a program for later viewing. I can sit down on Saturday afternoon, and check out the schedule for the coming week. In a few minutes, and with just a few clicks, I can schedule the recording of broadcast movies or shows I want to watch. If you always schedule tuner B to record, then you know you can always watch tuner A without worrying about bumping in to a recording session.

Remember when you had to get out the manual for your VCR whenever you wanted to record a program on TV. It was a fairly complex and time-consuming process to configure your VCR to record a program at a later time. If you just wanted to record something now, it wasn’t too bad. You could almost figure it out without the manual (just press the red record button and the play button at the same time–often this combination was highlighted on the remote for this purpose). But if you wanted to record a program that was scheduled to start when you were not home, now that was a different matter. How’d I do that last time? Dang! Where’s that VCR manual?!

Windows Media Center comes with an online programming guide for the United States. If you live in the US, you simply supply your zip code when you configure your tuner card (and, of course, agree to the online content use license), and Media Center will configure your TV viewing experience with an online programming guide. Recording any program is as simple as finding the upcoming program in the guide, and pressing the record button at the bottom of the screen. This isn’t perfect–it never has been. Last minute programming changes will always be sources of heartburn, but the media providers understand this, and try more then ever to ensure that the content is accurate.

You even have the option of recording an entire season of a program with one button. Do you like a particular television program, but you forget to record it half the time, so there are gaps in your understanding of the program plot? No problem. Let Media Center do the remembering for you. Just tell it to record the entire season, and then forget it. If you become busy with life and stuff (who doesn’t?), and are unable to watch your program for a few weeks, don’t worry–when the load lightens up again, the missed episodes will be there for you to watch.

You can also watch a program while it’s being recorded. Now, why would you want to do that?! Okay, you can perhaps understand that you might wish to save this program and watch it again later. But most people who record while watching do so for one reason: They want to skip commercials on the fly. Just start recording a program you want to watch, then go away for 15 minutes or so. When you come back, you’ll have enough recorded material so that when a commercial starts, you can fast forward over it to the show again. By the time you get to the next commercial, enough material has been recorded to allow you to skip this one as well. This is a common feature on 200 dollar Personal Video Recorder (PVR) devices. PVR functionality comes built-in to a Media Center PC with a tuner card.

DVD and Blu-ray Movies

My system includes a Blu-ray disc player, so I can watch my Blu-ray discs on my HTPC. At the time of this writing, Blu-ray players (not recorders) can be had for between 100 and 150 dollars, and they’re coming down in price fast. It won’t be long before, like internal DVD players, you can pick one up for about 20 bucks.

But Blu-ray players can also play DVD’s and CD’s, as well. This shouldn’t be too surprising, as DVD players can also play CD’s. Thus, for about 100 bucks, I have an HTPC-based replacement for my stand-alone Blu-ray/DVD player. Such a device would normally cost 350 dollars or more in today’s market. (It’s becoming easier and easier to justify the 1000 dollar cost of my HTPC!)

For complete instructions on how to create a playable archive of your purchased movie content, see my previous article, entitled, “Creating a Disk-Based Movie Archive”.

NetFlix Streaming Media

One of my favorite services (and a primary motivation for me to build an HTPC in the first place) is NetFlix streaming video. I’ve had a NetFlix subscription for a couple of years now. Last year when NetFlix came out with free streaming video for current subscribers, I thought Christmas had come early for me.

If you’ve got your Media Center PC connected directly to your television, then you have a several options. The most obvious option is to open a browser window from your HTPC desktop, and navigate to netflix.com. In this case, you’re accessing NetFlix streaming video just as you always have (if, that is, you’ve used NetFlix streaming video in the past), except that now you’re watching it on your television, instead of your computer monitor.

If you’re using an WMC extender, or if you simply want to configure WMC as your only desktop (by making it non-minimizable), then you have fewer options. Since you can’t access your browser application from the extender console, you’ll have to find a way to access NetFlix streaming video through WMC itself. There are two approaches you can take.

One of these is a free software project hosted by Google code, called VMCNetFlix. VMCNetFlix is basically a Windows Media Center application that makes the NetFlix Web API available through the Windows Media Center interface. To use VMCNetFlix, you must be using Windows Vista Media Center (thus, the ‘VMC’ portion of the name), which comes packaged with Windows Vista Home Premium, Business or Ultimate editions. Assuming you are, simply go to the VMCNetFlix project download page, and download the package appropriate for your hardware architecture (32- or 64-bit).

Install the package by double-clicking on it, and then bring up Windows Media Center. Navigate up or down to the “Online Media” menu, and select the “Program Library” option. If you’ve seen this screen before, then you should see a new item in the list with the familiar NetFlix motif. Select the NetFlix program, and the VMCNetFlix application will help you configure your Media Center to access your NetFlix account.

I like this option because it’s easy to use, fully functional, and best of all–free. In sharp contrast, the other option for accessing NetFlix streaming content through WMC is just plain stupid. I’m sorry, but I just don’t understand how normally intelligent people can conceive of what they deem to be viable business models that fly in the face of reality. If you’re using an XBox 360 as a Media Center extender, then you can also access NetFlix streaming content through your XBox Live! account, if you have one. This would be fine, except that you have to have a Gold account, which means you’ll be charged a monthly fee to use a service that you already pay a monthly fee to use. Now, of course, if you’re an avid gamer, and you already pay for an XBox Live! Gold account, then this requirement probably won’t bother you (much).

The sad part about the XBox Live! method is that it’s the only officially sanctioned way of accessing NetFlix streaming content from the Media Center console. To be sure, there’s nothing illegal about using VMCNetFlix. It’s just that it’s a bit of a hack, which means that anytime NetFlix decides to change their web API, VMCNetFlix will have to be updated to accommodate the modifications.

Additional Features

You can also play games and execute other pc-based software. You’re not limited to using your HTPC as a media center. Unless you’ve configured WMC to be non-minimizable, you can simply click the usually minimize button in the upper-left corner and you’re looking at the Windows Vista PC screen on your TV. This means that any software you have installed is available from your TV. There are a few Windows games that can be played through the “Online Media/Program Files” menu.

There is on-line content available through Windows Media Center. Most of this is subscription based, but you’ll have to decide whether it’s worth the price. And finally, you can do most of the usually things with Media Center that you can do with media on your PC, including playing music. If you have a really nice stereo, this could be a great way to use your PC-based music collection.

Since PC’s are naturally extensible, having a PC as a component in your home theater makes your home theater extensible. Whenever a new PC-based media experience becomes available, you’ll be ready to take full advantage of it.

Creating a Disk-Based Movie Archive

Okay, I’ll admit it–I’m sorta lazy. I’d like to be able to put all of my DVD’s and Blu-ray movies into a jukebox, and then select the one I’d like to watch from the comfort of my couch. Well, that would be nice, but I don’t know of any way to add 300 DVD and Blu-ray players to my computer–nor would I want to. But, hey! My hard drive is more than large enough to store the content of my DVD and Blu-ray collection, if only there were a way to get them off the discs and onto the hard drive.

The Dirty Word – Decrypting

As I’ve pointed out in past articles (look out, here comes the obligatory disclaimer), it is illegal under the Digital Millenium Copyright Act of 1998 to decrypt copyrighted material that has been encrypted for copy-protection purposes.

The Spirit of the Law

That said, there are companies (Fusion Research, for instance) that sell media server hardware and software that have found legal loop holes in this legislation. Here’s what they do. They copy the entire disc to your hard drive, unmodified and fully encrypted. Then, they play or serve the image to your CSS-licensed display device, whether that be simply DVD player software, such as PowerDVD, or a remote extender device. Since the content has never been decrypted, except by CSS-licensed players, no one has broken the law–so they say. Regardless, some companies have been sued over this technique in recent years. However, as far as I know, they’ve won these lawsuites, so we can safely say that their assumptions are correct about the spirit of the DMCA.

But all of this is strictly irrelevant to us. We’re not playing with expensive video archiving and serving hardware. We simply want to play movies from Windows Media Player, without having to put the disc into a drive. Well, let’s see if we can do that, while maintaining the spirit of the Copyright Act, if not the DMCA. First consider why copyright holders don’t want you to unencrypt their content. I can think of several reasons:

  • They want to force you to watch their FBI and Interpol warning notices. Laugh if you will, but this is a really valid reason. They want you to be reminded each time you watch their material that they own a copyright on that material. Each time you’re reminded of this fact, it strengthens your inner resolve not to involve yourself in piracy.
  • They want to force you to watch their corporate logos. Again, this is not really a laughing matter to media developers. It’s marketing in the deepest sense of the word. These logos help them to establish themselves in consumer minds as important players in the media industry. Media developers spend billions of dollars on these compaigns, so think again if you think they don’t work.
  • They want to ensure that you’re only watching material targeted for the geographic region for which it was intended. If you live in the United States, for example, you can probably only watch a region 1 DVD in your DVD player. Content is released in different regions at different times because of the time required to prepare a release for a particular language or set of marketing requirements. To begin profit-taking as quickly as possible on a media venture, copyright holders will release content to a region as soon as it’s been fully mastered–usually beginning in the United States. But they don’t want Asian viewers (for instance) watching movies until they’re actually released in Asia, even if they’ve already been released in the US. The marketing campaigns for each region are different for demographic reasons. If US content were watched in Asia, then less sales of the Asian version of that content would occur when the Asian marketing campaign was finally ready, thus reducing the effectiveness of the Asian marketing campaigns.
  • They want it to be more trouble than it’s worth to skip the embedded trailers for other films by the same vendors. While you at least have the option of skipping the trailers, many people have trouble finding the right combination of buttons on the remote to skip directly to the disc menu, so they often just wade through the trailers when the disc is inserted.

Commercial content pirates use sophisticated machinery to make bit-for-bit copies of copyrighted materials. These duplication devices are unaffected by the self-contained copy-protection schemes that modern DVD and Blu-ray content use. Thus, it’s safe to say that content providers are not attempting to stop commercial pirates by using encryption techology–they simply can’t, so they fight these battles using police forces and court systems, instead. Thus, content encryption exists solely to keep the honest people honest. If being forced to watch the FBI and Interpol warnings is not sufficient impetus, then at the very least it will be somewhat more difficult for us to make copies to hand out to our friends and family.

It’s a sad, but true fact that most of the encryption efforts put into copyrighted media exist for marketing reasons, and not at all to control commercial piracy. Note also that I wasn’t mis-using the word “force” in each of these points. Have you ever tried to skip over the FBI warning with your DVD remote? You can’t do it. You usually get a little universal symbol in the upper right corner of the display that indicates the fast-forward function is not allowed at this time. Additionally, DVD’s are region encoded, and US players are designed to simply not play a DVD encoded for a different region. The rules for software players are a bit different, but it’s not off by much. The DVD or Blu-ray drive in your computer can have its region code reset at most 5 times before it locks onto the last setting.

I mention all of this for one reason: Because the techniques I’m about to give you are designed to defeat all of the reasons why content providers want your DVD’s to remain encrypted and intact. In past articles, I’ve used concepts like the US Copyright Act’s Fair Use clause to justify making backup copies of your own media. While we’re not talking about copying rented movies, or about making free copies of your movies for your friends and family, we are talking about defeating the copyright holders’ real purposes for copy protection. The only thing worth storing on your hard drive is the movie itself, so we’ll be stripping out the incidental garbage that you don’t really want to watch anyway, much less have it consume valuable hard drive space.

Getting Down to Business

There are two stages to the process of formatting video and audio content for streaming. The first is decryption, and the second is transformation. The decryption process is (quite ironically) the simplest of the two. This is mostly because the transformation process involves many more choices on your part.

Ripping DVD and Blu-ray Discs

Now, there are several free software programs available on the Internet which can mostly do what you need. Really, whether or not these programs can do the job depends on when the movie was released. With the advent of the DMCA legislation in 1998, new development on most of the free DVD decryption software was stopped after threatening letters were sent by copyright holders to the software developers. Between that, and the fact that the CSS algorithm is updated occasionally in an attempt to defeat such decryption software, it’s pretty safe to say that many movies released after about 2003 are difficult to decrypt with the remnants of the free software you might find floating around out there.

In the interest of completeness, I’ll name a few of these programs:

  • DeCSS
  • DVD Decrypter
  • DVD Shrink
  • Rip It 4 Me!
  • DVDFab (HD)
  • DVDPro
  • DVD Ripper
  • Magic DVD Ripper
  • Bingo DVD Ripper
  • Xilisoft DVD Ripper
  • ImToo DVD Ripper
  • DVD43

Note that I haven’t provided links to these. They change from time to time, and I won’t be accused of “facilitating” the propagation of these illegal programs, and thereby potentially losing my ability to use my WordPress account. Simply enter the names into your favorite search engine, and they’ll more than likely be the top links on your results pages.

Keep in mind that many of these titles are evaluation versions of for-profit programs. I’ve ordered the ones I know are truly free at the top of the list. The biggest concern I personally have with the for-sale programs is that I’ve found that you’re often buying more than you’ve bargained for. A large body of demographic market analysis has shown that people who download and purchase programs like this are likely candidates for commercial sales of other types of software and products. Thus, I’ve found that some of these programs come with ad banners, and even spyware built into them! You pay for them, and they use you.

AnyDVD (HD)

I currently maintain that the only program worth purchasing (in my humble opinion) is AnyDVD HD developed and provided by a company based in the Carribean islands called SlySoft. If you can imagine a company devoted to what basically amounts to developing and selling illegal software, but which has nothing but the most altruistic motives, then SlySoft is your company. You won’t find any spyware or advertising banners, and you won’t have to wonder what else the software is doing to your system. The people at SlySoft basically disagree with the DMCA legislation, and have found a legal way to fight that battle–using what amounts to a form of civil disobedience–by moving to an area outside of US jurisdiction.

The standard DVD version of this program is about 40 US dollars. The HD version sells for about 100 dollars, and comes with the additional ability to decrypt Blu-ray and HD DVD discs. New releases are made available by SlySoft on a near monthly basis to keep abreast of the latest CSS encryption algorithm changes, and these updates are free to registered customers. A full uncrippled version of AnyDVD (HD) can be used for free for a three-week trial period. Thus, the following text assumes you are using AnyDVD (HD).

One interesting aspect of AnyDVD, which is not to be found in any other type of DVD and Blu-ray decryption software is that it runs as a service on your computer that sits in between the DVD/Blu-ray/HD DVD drive and the Operating System itself (Microsoft Windows, in this case). The value of this approach is that any software designed to play or manipulate DVD content sees a modified view of the disc. All discs appear to be unencrypted. Thus AnyDVD (HD) has the effect of enhancing all DVD manipulation software with decryption functionality.

And there are plenty of programs on the market for manipulating DVD content. Most of them assume you’re manipulating unencrypted content, because, well, it’s illegal to decrypt DVD content these days. If you’ve been duped into buying a program for manipulating DVD content, only to find that it doesn’t work with any of the DVDs in your movie drawer, then AnyDVD has a few surprises in store for you. Your software will now find all of your movies to be nicely unencrypted!

That cool feature aside, AnyDVD can also be used to copy your DVDs and Blu-ray discs to your hard drive. The reason you want to do this is because the transformation process is time consuming, and should be done in batches. Thus you’ll want to work with 8 or 10 disc images at once. To do this, you’ll need copies of the unencrypted content of several of your discs on your hard drive at once. Then you can go away for a few days while the transformation software’s batch processor does its job.

The lastest version of AnyDVD can create both file-based and ISO-image-based copies of your discs. After installing AnyDVD, simply right-click on the little red fox icon in your system tray, and choose “Rip Video DVD to Hard Disk…”. This will create a folder named after the disc title in your “My Documents” directory (configurable).

Don’t use the “Rip to Image…” feature. This is great for creating an ISO disc image file, which can then be used to burned a (unencrypted backup copy of a) DVD using readily available DVD burning software such as Roxio or Nero, but the ISO image can’t easily be manipulated by most DVD transformation software (although this would be a cool feature for most such packages).

In the following section, I’ll show you how to use transformation software to copy just the video and audio data files you actually need. This saves you a (small) bit of time in the data copy phase, but significantly increases the transformation setup time for a batch of movies.

Converting Content to a Streamable Format

The transformation process is the process of converting the MPEG-2 DVD video and Dolby or DTS Digital multi-channel audio data files in the DVD data directory into a single streaming media file that you can easily play on your Windows Media Center PC. This requires software, and while there is no doubt a number of excellent free software packages available, the best transformation software, hands down, is found in for-purchase products.

Since there’s nothing illegal about such programs, you’ll find plenty of them on the Internet. The one I use, and have found to be the most effective for my purposes is called TMPGEnc 4.0 XPress by Pegasys, Inc. However, TMPGEnc is by no means the only option, and you may find something else that is more to your liking. Because I’m used to TMPGEnc, and because it’s a fairly popular program, I’ll illustrate the video transformation process with it.

TMPGEnc is comprised of two separate programs, the encoder program, and the batch processor. The encoder program is what you use to configure a transformation. Transformations are then registered with the batch encoder, which performs the transformation process in the background. The encoder program may also be used to directly execute a transformation, but you may not use the encoder program to configure a transformation while it’s busy executing another transformation, so the batch encoder is the tool of choice for execution.

Start the encoder program. Were it not for the myriad options available in the various stages of configuring a transformation, you could almost guess the process because TMPGEnc presents it as a step-wise set of tabs on the main window. The four tabs across the top are labeled, “Start”, “Source”, “Format”, and “Encode”.

The Start page allows you to choose the type of project to begin. Essentially, these choices amount to either starting a new project, or opening an existing, previously saved project. Click on “Start a new project” and you’ll be moved to the “Source” page. Here you can decide whether you wish to add audio and video files directly, or use the source wizard to help you select a set of files. Click on “Source wizard”, and a dialog opens with three options, “File”, “DVD Video, DVD-VR or DVD-RAM”, or “Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition video recorder file”. Choose the center option, “DVD Video”, and click “Next…”. Select the directory containing DVD data files you’ve previously imported using AnyDVD.

After a few seconds, another dialog opens which contains a list of titles found in that directory. These titles correspond directly to various elements of the DVD disc contents, including FBI warnings, trailers, special features, and the movie itself. Locate the longest title by time–usually between one and three hours in length and check the box next to that Title. Select the drop-down within that title box and ensure that the correct audio stream is selected (eg., “Dolby Digital, 48000Hz, 5.1/6ch, English”). The second drop-down box allows you to select sub-titles, but if you enable subtitles then you should understand that these will be embedded in your final video output–you won’t be able to turn them off as you can with a normal DVD movie.

Once you’ve selected and configured the track you want, then click the “Next…” button. At this point, you are presented with the option of importing chapter entry points into the key-frame list. Key frames are complete picture frames in the frame list that make up the movie. MPEG encoding is a form of delta encoding, which means that most of the frames in the video stream are made up simply of sets of changes from the previous frame. Every few frames, a key frame is embedded in the stream, but for the most part, each frame is simply a composite of all previous frames, plus delta data in the current frame. By adding chapter entry points as key frames, you have the ability to fast-forward, if you will, to these key frame points while watching the movie.

Make sure the “Copy selected titles to the hard drive” is unchecked, as the data is already on the hard drive. Back a few paragraphs, I mentioned that you could use TMPGEnc to copy just the data you needed, rather than the entire movie. This is where you would do that. If you wish, rather than copy an entire DVD using AnyDVD, simply insert the DVD into your drive, and select the drive from within TMPGEnc, it will take a bit longer to generate a title list–30 seconds perhaps. When you reach this screen, make sure the “Copy…” option is selected, and TMPGEnc will copy the desired track (unencrypted via AnyDVD) directly from the DVD. For now, uncheck this option and click “OK”.

You’re now presented with another tabbed dialog. The three tabs are, “Clip properties”, “Cut-edit” and “Filters”. Up to now, you might have guessed what to do, but from this point on, the process becomes more complex. Begin on the “Clip properties” page. For the most part, the only thing you need to do here is name the clip. I name the clip after the movie I’m encoding.

Make a mental note of the aspect ratio displayed a few lines down. It will probably say something like “Pixel 40:33 (NTSC 16:9)”, or “Pixel 10:11 (NTSC 4:3)”. Skip the “Cut-edit” page, and move right to the “Filters” page by clicking on the “Filters” tab at the top. This screen shows a list of filters to be applied to the video stream down the left side. The default list contains about 8 different filters, most of which are disabled. The “Deinterlace” filter is always enabled, and there’s no way to disable it. The “Picture resize” filter is also always enabled.

If it’s not already highlighted, click on the “Deinterlace” filter, and then look at the bottom third of the window. By default, the “Deinterlace when necessary” option is selected in the top (Deinterlace mode) drop-down box. Change this option to “Deinterlace always”.

Enable the “Picture crop” filter, by checking the check box on the left side of the “Picture crop” filter icon. Ensure it’s selected so that its options are displayed in the filter options pane in the bottom third of the dialog. Likely as not, the video window in the top two-thirds of the dialog is completely black. This is because most video data streams from movies fade in from black, and by default, TMPGEnc’s filter window starts you off viewing at the very first frame. Grab the slider under the blue information pane and drag it an inch or so to the right.

If you’ve selected a 16:9 wide-screen movie to experiment with, then you are probably looking at a frame in the movie with black bars on the top and bottom. We need to get rid of these bars. We could encode the film with the black bars, but it’s just a waste of disk space to do so, and entirely unnecessary. Increase the value in the “Top” field in the filter options pane by clicking the little “up-arrow” on the right of the “Top” value edit box. As you do so, you’ll see the video frame increase in breadth, and the black bar decrease at the top. Increase the “Top” value until all of the black is gone. Do the same for the “Bottom” value.

If you’re encoding a standard “Anamorphic” wide-screen DVD, you should find that after cropping off the black bars from the top and bottom, the “Size after cropping” field will display about 720 x 360. Now, 720 is twice 360, so you might think your visible frame should be about twice as wide as it is tall. A quick check with a ruler will show you that it’s more nearly 2.5 times as wide as tall. Well, that doesn’t make sense, does it? And in fact, a glance at the back of the DVD case will probably indicate that the film is formatted to preserve the original theater presentation aspect. Well, if you’ve done any thinking about this before, you are probably aware that original theater presentation format is more like 2.35:1 or even more. Click on the “Clip properties” tab for a second, and note again the “Aspect ratio” field under “Clip Settings”. Anamorphic wide screen means that the pixel width to height ratio is not 1:1 either, but in this case, 40:33. To find the true width to height ratio, you also have to take the pixel ratio into account.

Back on the “Filters” screen, you may now press “OK”, to accept your “Picture crop” and “Deinterlace” filter settings. The Clip dialog is dismissed, and you’re returned to the main window, where you can now select the “Format” button to move to the encoding options. You’re now presented with a dialog containing a tree-view on the left side. This tree-view shows a hierarchy of encoding formats. These are the output formats that you will be selecting from.

For Windows Media Center with an Extender, you need to have the most Windows compatibility possible. I encode my movies using Windows Media Video and Windows Media Audio formats. Under “Output templates for specific format” you’ll find the third entry (in 4.0) to be “Windows Media Video file output”. Clicking this option will display information about the option on the right side of the dialog. Now click on “Select” at the bottom.

You now see a window similar to the Filter window we looked at earlier, except this is the codec configuration dialog, allowing you to configure the output format options. Within the “Video” tab, select “Windows Media Video 9 Advanced Profile”, set the “Size” to “Pixel 40:33 (NTSC wide)” (actually, set this to the value matching the clip you’re encoding). Choose “30 fps (progressive)” under “Framerate”, and set “Video encode type” to “2 pass VBR (average bitrate)”. These settings work well for me.

Now, set the “Average bitrate” to at least “1500 kb/s”. Larger values will increase quality only a little, but will increase the file size quite a bit. Ensure that the “Maximum key frame interval” is set to at least “8000 ms”. Smaller values here will embed more full (key) frames, giving you slightly better quality at the expense of more hard disk space. I set my “Video quality” field to about 95 percent. This slider actually move between still and motion video quality. Technically, you should increase this value for movies with more dynamic motion, and decrease it for movies with less dynamic motion.

Moving on to the “Audio” tab, select “Windows Media Audio 10 Professional” for the “Audio codec”, and then select “2 pass VBR (average bitrate)” for “Audio encoding type”. Under “Audio format”, select either the 2 or 5.1 channel, “256 kbps, 48 kHz, 24 bit VBR” option. MP3 files downloaded from iTunes come in at 128 kb/s. iTunes plus songs are are DRM-free and come in at 256 kb/s. Many people would tell you that both of these quality levels are too low. These people generally purchase music CD’s and rip them to 320 kb/s or higher. Audio CD’s use an uncompressed format called PCM, but audiophiles will tell you that even PCM quality is bad compared to analog (high-quality reel-to-reel, or the lesser, but more readily available vinyl album format). Ideally, PCM (uncompressed) digital is the best digital option we have available, but even DVD audio is compressed to some degree. PCM audio is available on Blu-ray as a new format called HD Audio (more on this later).

Maybe my hearing is gone at 44 years old, but I find 256 kb/s to be a reasonable compromise between quality and disk space. There’s an article on quality differences between various sampling rates of AAC and MP3 at Planet of Sound, if you’re interested.

You may, of course, play with all of these video and audio settings to find a quality-to-size ratio that suits your tastes. I like high quality, so these fairly high quality settings are more to my liking. They will generate a 1 to 1.5 GB video file from the original 4-5 GB of DVD data. I’m happy with this size, as it allows me to store about 700 movies on my 1 TB drive.

Finally, the “Other” tab has fields for adding certain meta-data values to the output file, include “Title”, “Artist”, “Copyright” and “Comment”. I set the title here using the exact text I wish to have displayed under the movie icon in the Media Center video display panel, because Windows Media Center uses this field as the video name.

When you’re finished, then move on to the “Encode” window. Ensure the “Output file name” field contains the correct path and file name for your output file. Now, at the bottom of this window, you’ll find three iconic buttons, an arrow pointing to a film strip, a stylized clock, and a magifying glass over a film strip. These buttons represent “Encode”, “Send to batch encoder” and “Preview output”, respectively. Choose the center button–the one with the clock. This will add the job to the TMPGEnc batch encoder. The batch encoder window will open and your job will be added to the list.

While your job has been added to the batch encoder, it’s still present in the TMPGEnc program as well. You may click on the right button–the preview button–to see a preview of the output. Depending on the speed and power of your CPU, the amount of memory you have, and the encoding options you chose, you may find this preview output to be a bit choppy. The reason for this is that the movie is being filtered and encoded on the fly from the original DVD video and audio input.

At this point, you may click the “Start” button in TMPGEnc, and begin the process again with another movie. There are various places in the process where you can save your settings. You may then apply these saved settings to the next film, saving yourself the effort of having to remember how each setting was selected. I recommend you use these options.

Getting it Done Faster

If you have a multi-core CPU, you can tell the batch encoder to use multiple cores to encode multiple streams simultaneously. Select the “Options” tab in the batch encoder window, and choose “Preferences” from the menu. At the top of the “Preferences” dialog, you’ll find an option for setting the “Task count”. The range of this value is between 1 and the number of CPU’s or CPU cores you have available. I recommend using at least 1 less than the maximum, because the transcoding process is very CPU intensive. If you aren’t using your HTPC for anything else, then go ahead and set it to the maximum, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. You won’t be able to do anything else while the batch encoder has control.

Once you have streaming video available to play, just configure Windows Media Center to display video content from the directory in which you stored your output files.

High Definition Content

Encoding HD content involves a similar process in TMPGEnc to that of encoding DVD content, but there are some differences that I’d like to point out.

First of all, the Blu-ray disc format is fairly new, and hasn’t been “hacked” as much as the DVD format. Additionally, it’s quite an outlay of cash–between 5,000 and 10,000 dollars–for a company to purchase the Blu-ray specifications, and certain licenses must be adhered to, making it difficult to generate programs that manipulate commercial Blu-ray content.

One important hindrance is that two separate specifications were originally developed for Blu-ray content; the BDMV format for commercial content, and the HDMV format for home and amateur video enthusiasts. Clearly, the intent here was that readily available software for manipulating Blu-ray content would operate and generate discs using the HDMV format, which means they would not coincidentally work with the slightly different BDMV format. This difference in formats would have the effect of reducing the number of legitimate programs on the market that would just happen to work with commercial Blu-ray discs–as long as they were unencrypted.

As it turns out, an oversight in the Blu-ray specification may have saved us on this point. The spec says that HDMV format support is optional in Blu-ray players, and a significant share of the players on the market today have taken advantage of this fact, and left out support for HDMV. Thus, Blu-ray software developers can claim that they’re developing BDMV creation software because HDMV support is not pervasive in players.

Regardless, it will be a while before there are many programs on the market for manipulating commercial Blu-ray disc content. TMPGEnc doesn’t currently provide a Blu-ray import wizard, so the process of adding an HD content clip to the “Sources” window is a bit more manual.

Additionally, TMPGEnc doesn’t discriminate much when it comes to multi-stream input files. My first attempts at using a Blu-ray .m2ts file as an input file had me watching HD content in Spanish on my XBox 360 Media Center extender. I had no option for selecting the English sound track, and the Spanish track was somewhat randomly selected by TMPGEnc from the list of audio streams available in the .m2ts stream file.

To overcome this problem, I had to download a freeware program called “tsremux”, which accepts a .m2ts input file, allows you to select the individual streams in the file, and generates an output file containing only the streams you want. How do you know which streams you want? Well, that’s a bit more difficult. I downloaded yet another freeware program called “BDEdit”, which decodes and displays the internal format of the Blu-ray .m2ts files found in a Blu-ray “STREAMS” directory. By looking carefully at the contents of each stream (hint: look at the largest one first), I was able to determine which of the numbered streams contained the content I wanted. Then, moving into tsremux, I opened the correct .mt2s file, and selected the same numbered streams. The tsremux program also has options to convert a Blu-ray HD audio stream to a DTS Digital stream. While it would be nice to maintain the HD audio format, TMPGEnc doesn’t yet understand this format, so you have to downgrade it a bit, or you’ll end up with a silent film.

Once you’ve “remuxed” your .m2ts file, you can simply use the “Add file” option in the “Source” tab of TMPGEnc to add the remuxed version of the .m2ts file. It becomes one of your clips, to which you can apply filters and codecs just like DVD content.

Other HD-specific issues you should be aware of are that HD content generally uses a 1:1 pixel aspect ratio, and this ratio should be carried through the entire transformation configuration process in TMPGEnc.

HD content is 1920 x 1080, but the content is encoded on the disk at 1920 x 1200, so you’ll want to crop off the black bars again. Ensure that you generate 1920 x 1080 output files, so you get the highest resolution possible on your Media Center display, or XBox 360 extender display. For HD content, you’ll find that a direct connection between the video card and the projector or TV offers the best picture quality, rivaling that of Blu-ray itself.

You’ll have to do a few Google searches to location the tsremux and BDEdit programs. These are more or less contra-band, and are thus a bit difficult to come by. Let’s just say I’ll leave the location of these utilities as an exercise to the reader.

Summary

The process I’ve shown you includes my own personal preferences. I recommend you play with your transformation package of choice. Get to know what the features mean, and try out different options to see what their effects are. Give it some time–it’s a lot to take in at once.

In the spirit of doing what’s right, let me remind you again that we rip, store and play only content that we’ve purchased for our own personal use. Anything else is illegal according to the spirit of the law, and frankly, unethical in both the judicial and capitalistic senses of the word! So have fun, but do what’s right!

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.