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!

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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.