Blu-ray Discs to Apple TV

Apple_-_Apple_TV_-_HD_iTunes_content_and_more_on_your_TV.-3

I am writing this post the day before the October 2013 Apple Event where new iPads, MacBooks, Mac Pros, and a new OS X version known as Mavericks will all be announced. Rumor has it that a new Apple TV (ATV) will be coming soon too, but may not show up until a bit after the event. There’s even some question as to what it will be. The important thing, at least to me, is that Apple keeps adding capabilities that hint at getting serious with their set-top box. For me, it is the most complete device based on my home theater ecosystem.

Until recently, there were a few things that were missing from the box. One was a good built-in radio service, ala Spotify or Pandora. Apple has “fixed” that with their iTunes Radio app which is now prominently displayed in the top row of icons on the ATV screen. Also, more and more TV network apps have been added to watch programming like ESPN (Watch ESPN), the Smithsonian Channel, Disney Channel, and Sky News. The ESPN and Disney apps require that you have a cable subscription and that you authenticate with your cable provider account. The question going forward is whether there will be more independent apps that WON’T require cable. There are other services that would be nice on the device, but you can always use an iPod/iPhone/iPad to Airplay the missing apps to your TV. I do prefer them built-in though. The other issue is that the home screen is getting crowded since Apple has been adding more apps. This may be addressed with an updated device and new interface.

The final piece to this puzzle for me (and the purpose of this post) is the ability to play my HiDef movies (Blu-ray in most cases) through the ATV. That is, I have Blu-ray discs that I’d like to “rip” and then play on the device, and since it doesn’t have a hard drive built in, it means serving them up via my Mac Mini and iTunes. It has been possible since the beginning since the Blu-ray copy protection was cracked almost since day one. I have been using a program called Make MKV (a free program in what seems like a perpetual beta) which will create a single HD video file from Blu-ray movies using the h.264 codec. The problem was (is) that the ATV won’t recognize the .mkv format (actually mkv “container”), even when the h.264 codec is used (most of the apple video out there – QuickTime movies – uses the h.264 codec). So the next step was to use something like Handbrake to re-encode it into an Apple TV friendly file. The problem with that workflow is time. To re-encode a file of this size takes, depending on the processor speed, many hours (like 4-8 hours or more). There’s two problems with that. The first is, who wants to wait 4 to 8 hours? The second is when you re-encode, you’re losing quality. Even though the x.264 codec that Handbrake uses is extremely good quality.

So the solution is a program that I discovered recently called Subler (free from Google’s code repository). What it does is “re-wrap” the file in an Apple compatible wrapper (like an .m4v file that iTunes recognizes). If you’re not familiar with re-wrapping, it essentially takes the files inside one “container” (like .mkv) and puts it in a new container (again – .m4v). The advantage of Subler is that it takes considerably less time to re-wrap than it does to re-encode. So even though the file is several gigabytes in size, it will take about 30 minutes to complete. Note – that is on top of the 30-60 minutes that Make MKV takes to rip your Blu-ray disc. So an hour and a half versus 4+ hours. You decide.

Once you have your .m4v file, just add it to your iTunes library and then if you are sharing iTunes, your ATV will see it. Subler also adds metadata so you can indicate that the file is a movie, in 1080p HD, and even include the artwork for the movie (a google image search for the movie will give you what you need). It will then appear in your list of movies with the artwork and an “HD” indicator. I can report that the video looks fantastic – and I have one of the 2nd generation ATVs that only does 720p (I also have a TV that is 720p). Obviously the 1080p files get scaled down, in case you were wondering whether a 1080p file works on a 720p Apple TV. On a new 3rd gen. Apple TV with a new-ish flat panel it will look, well, like a Blu-ray disc should.

Two final notes. First, 1080p, Blu-ray quality video is only half the equation. When creating the MKV file and then using Subler, you need to make sure to use the multiple channel information (i.e. 5.1 surround) to get the full glory of the movie on your home theater.

Second. You should know that Subler will only be able to re-wrap to an Apple format if the MKV file is using the h.264 codec. I have HD-DVDs that I have used codecs like MPEG 2, and VC1, so they will need to be “transcoded” to h.264 (or x.264 in the case of Handbrake). That means get ready to wait.

I’ll be working on some screencasts to show you some of this as soon as possible. Those of you who know your way around this stuff already can get started with moving your Blu-rays to your Apple TV right away. Enjoy the Apple Event tomorrow and here’s hoping that they have something truly new to show off.

 

YouTube Video and Downloads

We got off to a good start, but we’ve been quiet of late. I’ve got lots of ideas for posts that are coming, but c’est la vie, I haven’t written them yet.

However, I have recently done a couple of screencasts having to do with downloading YouTube videos. On my personal blog I wrote about the paradox of YouTube’s terms of service as it relates to the technology of “progressive downloads”.

The conclusion is basically that there are legitimate reasons to download videos from sites like YouTube and Vimeo. You just need to follow copyright and “Fair Use” guidelines. However there is no way NOT to download a video to your computer from these sites, because that’s how the technology works.

So here is my screencast recommendation for the best way to obtain media from sites like YouTube.

Until next time (which I hope to be soon).

Ripping a DVD Using HandBrake

HandBrake is a free program that will encode (“Rip”) a DVD movie to your hard drive. In this recipe, we’ll show you how. It goes without saying that this applies only to DVD movies that you own, and that you will only use the encoded files in your own home. Otherwise, well we just won’t speak about how much trouble you’d be in. Continue reading

Play a DVD with VLC (Windows)

Play a DVD with VLC (Windows) from Home Theater Cookbook on Vimeo.

Ingredients

1 – A Windows computer with a DVD-ROM drive.

1 – The VLC Player program.

1 – A standard DVD.

Directions

  1. Insert the DVD movie or video you want to watch into your Windows computer.
  2. There generally is no default program set for a DVD inserted into a Windows computer. What you are likely to get is the AutoPlay dialog asking you to select the program to play your DVD. If VLC is installed properly, it should be one of the choices to play your DVD. To make VLC the default player for a DVD, check the box “Always do this for DVD movies” and then choose Play DVD movie using VLC media player.
  3. The disc should begin playing. You can use the arrow keys to navigate the menu. Press Enter to make a selection.
  4. You can view the movie full screen by choosing Video>Fullscreen from the menu. You can also use the F keyboard shortcut. Press the shortcut again (or ESC) to go back to the smaller window.
  5. That’s it. Enjoy your movie.
  6. Another way to start the movie playing from the DVD with VLC is to have the Computer window open, right-clicking on the DVD and choosing Play with VLC media player.
  7. Yet another way to play a DVD is to have the Computer window open along with the VLC media player window open and drag the DVD icon into the VLC media player window.

DVD Ripping, Shrinking, Copying

A Somewhat Long Introduction

Here’s a question that was forwarded to me recently – “is there a program you would recommend for ripping a dvd on a pc?”. This came across my Twitter feed, so while I was tempted to write a response, it would have been a long one, meaning it would be several tweets long. Some responses were offered which included using programs such as MPEG Streamclip, VLC, and HandBrake. Another program was mentioned, Free DVD Decrypter, which gets past the “encryption” of a DVD and copies all the files to the hard drive. It’s typical of a number of programs out there. Ever since DVDs have existed, people have had the desire to back those discs up, since DVDs as it turns out are not indestructible and what do you do if it becomes unreadable? The problem is that there are also a few people who want to copy DVDs to give, or even sell to other people, thus breaking copyright laws and essentially committing an illegal act.

The law that governs the “decrypting” of a DVD is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) passed by the U.S. Congress in 1998. If there were no need for decrypting, you could simply copy the files from the DVD to your hard drive and use them as you wish. However, the movie studios, like their record company brethren before them, felt that you can’t just have these digital files so easily copyable. You must prevent copying because stealing (as they call it) is bad. Never mind that people have legitimate needs to backup their movies, or would like to exercise their Fair Use rights to use clips from movies. The DMCA says that any circumvention of the encryption on DVDs (and other digital media) is a criminal act.

As it turned out, the encryption of the digital files on DVDs was pretty feeble. The encryption was broken (or in the vernacular, hacked or cracked) rather easily by a guy from Norway known as “DVD Jon” . Jon is a villain to some, but to others he has enabled law abiding citizens to exercise their rights of limited copying (for home use) and of creating new works (video, music, etc.) by way of the Fair Use clause in copyright law. DVD Jon’s software development skills feature largely in what’s available for people to take advantage of these rights.

This article will be long enough, but I want to start to answer the basic question of “how do I rip a DVD?” Had I answered the question on Twitter (or started to), I would have asked, as I often do, what do you want to do with the video from the DVD? It does make a big difference as to what the answer would be. I’ll try to cover some of the most common scenarios.

First, a very short amount of background on the interaction of DVDs on computers. Standard DVD players that connect directly to your TV have software built into them to play DVDs. Therefore they have the ability to “decrypt” the DVD and show it on your TV. Computers with DVD drives have the basic hardware to read the discs and display the video on screen. However, there is a need for software to act as the intermediary. That raises the dicey question, as it relates to the DMCA, what do you let the software do? As far as the movie studios go, they would say, you can play this movie on your computer and that’s it. But, the computer is reading digital files. What stops someone from copying those files to the hard drive instead of just watching the movie? Well, the encryption stops them (theoretically). Occasionally that encryption also kept people from just playing DVDs on their computers. What if I want to backup my DVD? Now we get into the aspects of the DMCA law. Breaking the encryption makes it easy for anyone to share those files locally or globally (you’ve heard of the Internet, right?). From the movie distributors perspective, if anyone can share these files, then anyone and everyone will. Keep in mind that the DVDs that I am talking about are commercial movies. The video or data DVD that you may have burned yourself on your home computer is not encrypted. You can copy files easily from “homemade” DVDs to your hard drive, without worrying about breaking the law.

So if you haven’t guessed by now, there are tons of DVD decrypter programs out there and they fall into a few different categories with different capabilities. In some cases you need to use the capabilities of one program in conjunction with another. Let me start by talking about one software program that has lots of capabilities and serves a crucial role in many of the solutions to ripping DVDs.

VLC

About that term, ripping. What does it refer to? Well, essentially it’s that breaking of the encryption and getting those files off of a DVD. You figuratively are severing the files from media that normally doesn’t let you have the ability to copy files to your hard drive. One example of the software that will play DVDs on your computer is a free program called VLC. Stick a DVD in your computer’s DVD drive and run the VLC software. Choose File>Open Disc… and soon you’re watching movies on your computer. What VLC has built-in is the necessary encryption capability to allow you to watch a DVD. You can even select a menu item to go full screen on your computer (go to Video>Full Screen).

Great, VLC lets you watch DVDs. How does VLC help you rip files? Well, just by having it installed it will coexist with another software program called HandBrake. VLC includes a “library” file, libdvdcss, that allows for the decryption of DVDs. One of the people responsible for this is DVD Jon. A new version of VLC has just been released (v2.0). The HandBrake website will warn you that the Mac version does not include the libdvdcss file. It is a separate install.

HandBrake

HandBrake is really an encoding program. It takes a video file and converts it to a format known as h.264 (a high-quality version of MPEG-4). Specifically you can convert a video to play on various Apple devices such as an iPhone, iPod touch, iPad, or Apple TV. If you’re not in the Apple ecosystem, don’t worry. You can create files that are more universal. When you encode with HandBrake you choose a profile that is appropriate. As you mouse over the profile names, they give you “tools tips” that help explain what they do. The h.264 format is becoming THE web standard, featured quite prominently in what is known as the HTML5 standard. What HandBrake is good at is taking a DVD and converting just the movie (no menus and such) to a playable file that resides on your hard drive. These files would play in QuickTime or iTunes.

Back to VLC, there is also a somewhat hidden feature that allows you to record a portion of a video and save it as a clip to your hard drive. For instance, you would play a DVD on your computer using VLC and press the record feature. That will set the beginning point of a recording. Play the DVD to where you want your clip to end and stop the record feature. The result will be a video on your hard drive. That file will be in MPEG-2 format, so it will be somewhat problematic to use in most editing programs. What you would do next is run the file through HandBrake to give you that h.264 version (use the Regular>Normal profile), which could then be imported into most video editors. This procedure saves you the time of “ripping” the entire DVD with HandBrake.

Now, if you want to put the entire DVD, with menus, special features, etc. on your hard drive, you’ll want to use a program that truly rips the entire disk. Most DVD movie discs come on what are known as dual-layer discs. The reason is that not only do these discs need to hold the movie, they also need room to hold those special features. A standard 4.7 GB disc just won’t hold all that data, so a dual-layer disc that holds about 8.5 GB of data is needed. VLC will play those ripped files from your hard drive, just like they were playing from the original disc. The quality will also be maintained as there is no encoding of the video, just copies of the files.

So in summary, standard DVD decrypter programs don’t encode the movie, they simply copy it to the hard drive in MPEG-2 format. HandBrake encodes the movie (in MPEG-4 format) and in the process makes the file smaller, meaning it takes up less space on the hard drive. HandBrake does such a nice job of encoding that it is very hard to tell the difference from the original. A standard feature film would take up about 2.5 – 4 GB on a hard drive using a decrypter. HandBrake would create a file of about 1 – 1.5 GB. You can see why HandBrake is so popular.

Here is a summary of the software and what it does:

VLC (PC and Mac) – A DVD player with decryption that assists other programs in ripping. Also has a record feature to save clips to the hard drive. Free.

HandBrake (PC and Mac) – A video encoder program that saves files in the h.264 format. Free.

MPEG Streamclip (PC and Mac) – A basic video editing program whose basic function is to extract short clips from video and save them as new files. Free, but the MPEG-2 plugin is $20.

Free DVD Decrypter (PC) – A DVD copier program. Essentially saves the complete file structure of a DVD to a hard drive. Free.

DVD Fab HD Decrypter (PC) – Similar to the above program, but will decrypt Blu-ray as well. Free, with extra features extra.

AnyDVD (PC) – Removes restrictions (copy protections) from DVD, Blu-ray, and HD-DVD discs. 79 Euros.

DVDRipper Pro (Mac) – A Mac decrypter program like Free DVD Decrypter. $20.

FairMount (Mac) – A restriction remover similar to AnyDVD, but only for DVDs. Free.

Mac-the-Ripper – 2.6.6 (Mac) – a decrypter only program written for PowerPC Macs. It will run on Macs up to and including Snow Leopard (OS 10.6), but because there is no PowerPC code (Rosetta) in Lion, it will not run on OS 10.7. There’s a newer version out there, but it may be hard to find. Free.

Make MKV (PC and Mac) – A newish kid on the decrypter scene. Rips DVDs, Blu-ray, or HD-DVD to an MKV (open source) container format. Full quality files using original VC1 and AVCHD (h.264) codecs. Free while in Beta.

We’ll get into more specifics of programs and how-tos in future articles.

cc licensed ( BY ND ) flickr photo shared by samantha celera

1080P Update for Apple TV

Apple isn’t ignoring the Apple TV, and that gives those of us who have made it a key component in the home theater a reassuring pat on the head. At Apple’s most recent event, where the focus was on the incredibly successful iPad, Tim Cook and company spent a few minutes talking about the update to the Apple TV. As it is with everything Apple, the upgrades don’t just come in the form of hardware updates, but in their ecosystem. Before announcing their 1080P Apple TV (with a new A5 processor), they announced that the movies and TV shows available for purchase from Apple have been updated to support 1080P. You can also re-download purchases to get a 1080P version if you purchased it in 720P. iCloud has added movies to its media choices so you can watch movies you purchased on your new Retina display iPad, or your iPad 2, iPhone, or iPod Touch. In addition, movies streamed from Netflix will now play in 1080P with Dolby Digital 5.1 sound on the newest Apple TV.

The Apple TV also got an interface update. Buttons have replaced the menus and it’s slightly quicker to get to most things. The changes are mostly cosmetic. Adding movies to iCloud and having iTunes Match available on the Apple TV is progress, but I am still waiting for a subscription service. Apple mentioned that TV shows are available next day, so we might be saying goodbye to our DVR sooner rather than later. However, all-I-can-eat music, TV, and movies is what I’m dreaming of. Maybe next year.

If you have the second generation Apple TV (the first “hockey puck”) the software update is available now. Pictures on this page are from my 2nd gen Apple TV (with the old and tired 720P video). That last snarky parenthetical comment brings up the question of 1080P video and high definition TV in general as we move forward. I’ll save it for a future article. Suffice it to say I’m still probably going to watch 1080P video on my Blu-ray player. I haven’t bought a movie yet through Apple, and 1080P alone isn’t compelling enough to dive into Apple movies. The Netflix 1080P announcement is of much more significance since I receive that service through a subscription. If you don’t have an Apple TV yet, the new one is a great place to start. Having said that, the 2nd gen Apple TV is now a bargain in the refurbished section of Apple’s store ($69). Though it’s hit or miss as to their availability. The new Apple TV is shipping on March 16. Oh, and yes, I’ll be getting one. Where the old one goes is the subject of another article.

 

and cc licensed ( BY NC SD ) flickr photo shared by rushaw

The Scorn it Deserves

As I mentioned on my personal blog, I wanted to find the most expensive HDMI cable, at least at a major online electronics retailer. I found the “AudioQuest – Diamond 3.3′ High-Speed HDMI Cable – Dark Gray/Black“. It’s almost $1,100. As I mentioned in my article about How I Picked An HDMI Cable, I spent $5.99 to have one shipped to my door. A quick calculation demonstrates that I could buy 183 of them for what BB is charging for one cable.

It’s shameful. However, in that vain, “reviewers” of that cable have shown it the necessary scorn by writing “glowing” product reviews. They are entertaining to say the least. As you’ll see, this particular HDMI cable is great for fighting Werewolves, will help you make sense of the movie “Inception”, and you can give your girlfriend a diamond while at the same time improving your home theater experience. Go read the reviews and then go order a cable that is twice as long (if you need it that long) for 0.5% of the price of the Audio Quest cable.

Funny that name “Best Buy”. Go see this and all the outrageously expensive cables they are selling.

By the way, I didn’t want to even get into the legalities of using a screenshot from the Best Buy website, so I used a generic image from Wikipedia.

Man Cave Makeover

Let me say from the outset that the space is really not cave-like, and makeover is a very loose interpretation of the word. This story is about an upgrade of a space that I would think is fairly typical, and more importantly, universal. Whether you live in an apartment, a small home, or a large home, a media room like this is typical. The acoustics are not ideal. In my case the media room is adjacent to the kitchen. This is not the custom basement home theater where you have full control of the conditions and room configuration (maybe one day!).

This is a before and after story, but there are several “before’s” that are worth revisiting. Early on in my technology career, I lived in an apartment with a guy who worked at a high-end audio store. He would hook me up with deals on some components that allowed me to slowly build up my audio system. I had a Sony STR-D865 Audio Receiver to start with and added JBL 4400A Studio speakers for right and left, and a MTX AAL525SB Center Speaker. For surround I had JBL Control 1 speakers for the rear right and left channels. Eventually all this ended up in my first home and it looked like this – Home Theater/Media Center version 1.0


cc licensed ( BY ND ) flickr photo shared by rushaw

An update came a short time later with my first flat panel TV, a 37″ Westinghouse LVM-37w1 LCD Monitor. Eventually I purchased a Pioneer 50″ Plasma Display, upgraded to an Onkyo TX-SR503 AV Receiver, and also added a Sony subwoofer to complete the 5.1 system.


cc licensed ( BY NC SD ) flickr photo shared by rushaw

Then we moved to a bigger house, one that had an unfinished basement to allow for a future (distant future) home theater installation. So with that dream remaining, I wanted to upgrade the audio/video system in the living room. Several years after moving in I was still sporting a 3.1 audio system. As you can see the JBL studio speakers are quite large, and I also hadn’t taken the time to install the Control 1’s yet. I also began to need to control more devices with HDMI connections.

So this begins our true “before” data point . . .


cc licensed ( BY NC SD ) flickr photo shared by rushaw

Here’s the full room . . .


cc licensed ( BY NC SD ) flickr photo shared by rushaw

One of the big advantages of going from an AV receiver with component video to one with HDMI is the reduction of cables. One cable will give you both video AND audio. All of the RCA, and most of the digital audio (S/PDIF) cables, were retired. I say most because I still used a TOSLINK (optical audio) cable to send audio out from the Mac Mini to the AV receiver, and I would use a coaxial digital audio cable to connect to a new sub-woofer. This is what things looked like in an intermediate stage . . .


cc licensed ( BY NC SD ) flickr photo shared by rushaw

Just in time for Super Bowl Sunday 2012, I finished the new system. I added a Pioneer VSX-1021-K 7.1 Home Theater Receiver, and the Energy 5.1 Take Classic Home Theater System. As you’ll see in the final pictures, it’s a much more streamlined setup. No big honking speakers to the side of the monitor. The next step may be wall mounting the plasma, or wall mounting some new display (???). Regardless, this “makeover” is a jumping off point for what this site will present going forward. Reviews, resources, and recipes for how to accomplish a highly functional and very flexible home entertainment system. I have learned a great deal from this upgrade, and I hope you can benefit from it as well.


cc licensed ( BY NC SD ) flickr photo shared by rushaw


cc licensed ( BY NC SD ) flickr photo shared by rushaw

How I Picked an HDMI Cable

You shouldn’t ever – ever, ever, never – spend more than $100 for HDMI cables. Really, $10 is even a bit on the high side. You’ll see $400 ones hanging in Best Buy (in the “Magnolia” section), or go online for an even bigger laugh. There are reasons to spend a little more to get certain features in an HDMI cable, those being a durable and/or fire resistant jacket around the cable that would allow you to go inside a wall for more complex home theater installations. However the $400 cables aren’t offering that. I honestly don’t know what they are offering except, well, I’ll stop short of calling fraud.

Having said that, most of the time, the HDMI cables that you will buy should cost about $5 to $10. You can go even cheaper and at that point you’ll probably pay more in shipping charges. For instance, at Monoprice.com you can get a basic high speed HDMI cable for $1.97 (at the time of this writing – model #3872). The shipping and handling to my area of the country is $2.80.

So here’s what I did. Amazon is my favorite online store, and I’m an Amazon Prime member. This gets me free 2-day shipping, so I looked for an HDMI cable that got good reviews and was Amazon Prime eligible. So I ordered a

BlueRigger High Speed HDMI Cable with Ethernet 6.6 Feet (2m) – Supports 3D and Audio Return [Latest Version]

This cable was $5.99 shipped to my door.

For a little background on the research I did on what to look for in an HDMI cable, I consulted articles by Geoffrey Morrison who writes for Cnet and for HD Guru. The first article, Why all HDMI cables are the same, gives an overview of the types of cables that are available, as well as what to look for when a cable “fails”. Morrison has also written an article with the tests he performed to back it up.

Both articles are well worth a read, but the summary is this. In most cases, unless you’re using long cables (50+ feet) or installing cables in walls, inexpensive is the way to go. If you are using long cable, relatively inexpensive is the way to go. As Morrison says, just test the cable before you put it in a wall. A cable will either work or it will fail. Failure can mean either a black picture, or various amounts of white “sparkles”. It boils down to the fact that there is no such thing as an HDMI cable that produces a “better” picture. It’s either there or it isn’t. To further summarize Morrison:

Here’s the deal: expensive HDMI cables offer no difference in picture quality over cheap HDMI cables.

The other major point I want to make here is to plan ahead. It will save you money. If you want an inexpensive cable you generally need to order it online. Don’t wait until the last minute (you know, the day of the Super Bowl) and say oh, I need an HDMI cable. You’ll pay way over $5.99 and probably $20 or  more at your local Target/Walmart/Staples.

So I didn’t order the absolute cheapest HDMI cable at Amazon, but I did get the free shipping, and several others had used the cable successfully. And I didn’t spend a lot of money.

Blue Rigger HDMI cables:

cc licensed ( BY ND ) flickr photo shared by http://www.samcatchesides.com/