The OS Quest Trail Log #73: Media Edition

Picture of a sunset over the waterIt was all about media on the quest this month. First I covered my tools for Blu-Ray ripping – MakeMKV and Handbrake. I finished going through and ripping the few Blu-Rays that I do have using the same method outlined in the articles. I lowered the Handbrake quality a bit on some to get a smaller file. I still don’t see myself getting a lot of Blu-Ray discs, but it does give me more flexibility with the ones I do get.

Then it was on to music in the cloud. At the time I wrote the articles I had settled on iTunes Match. I’m going to have to go back and update these articles. iTunes Match is history, It made a complete mess of smart playlists, especially on iDevices. The good new is that turning it off and everything was nearly back to normal. The only remaining issue was that many songs had their play count set to 1 (not zero). This was rather bizarre. It was most noticeable because I have a playlist that includes songs played just once. That list went from empty to over 300 songs. There were plenty of songs I knew had played many times although I’m at a loss as to why the play count is back to 1. It could be a lot more counts are off, just not as obvious.  So for now I have iTunes Match disabled everywhere. At least I got the DRM removed from my older iTunes purchases, but I probably won’t be renewing.

Amazon Cloud Player had its own problems. The iOS app wouldn’t display a complete list of songs available on the web cloud player. For example, a recently purchased album that Amazon automatically added to the Cloud Player showed 3 songs on my iPhone and 9 on my iPad. There were a total of 12 songs on the album. This wasn’t unique to purchases as any artist I checked had some missing songs on the device.

Google Play Music is the only one that hasn’t caused me any problems. Then again, I haven’t used it beyond some simple testing. I did have one unexpected problem. Unlike the other players it does support .flac files. For the CDs I ripped I have both MP3 and FLAC files in the same directory. The other players simply ignored the FLAC files. After Google got done uploading I noticed I had duplicates of everything. I couldn’t find any way to tell which song was which format so I deleted everything and I’ll re-upload just the MP3 files. I don’t see any reason to stream the larger FLAC files from the cloud. Although I want to do some research or testing to see if Google transcodes the FLAC files when streaming.

I have to say, Google seems to have the more reliable and solid tech in their web player. While I wouldn’t call it feature rich, it includes features that Amazon doesn’t: Instant Mixes, Play Counts, Thumbs up/down ratings along with a more flexible uploader. I may change my opinion once I actually look at using it. I’m still working on re-uploading the music. Like I mentioned in the article, I have a lot tied to my Google account so it’s not something I want to enter into a 3rd party app, so the lack of an official iOS app is a problem.

Tablets From the Source

Microsoft had a big news month and got a lot of positive spin. Although, their Slate announcement seemed to create more questions than it answered. Hopefully it lives up to the heightened expectations. It will be nice to have some competition and options for Apple. If nothing else, the MS Slate should be lacking the crapware prevalent in Windows OEM and Android devices.

Google also announced a 7” tablet that’s got the Kindle Fire in its sights. It seems promising. Hopefully the new version of Android will be tablet friendly. The few Android tablets I’ve seen appear to have an identity crisis trying to decide between a small or large display. Hard to put my finger on anything specific, but the just seemed “off”. iOS apps which can have distinct personalities depending on the hardware. I have to admit I find it tempting even though I can’t justify it.

One thing I found interesting was the hue and cry over Microsoft usurping their OEMs while I didn’t hear much complaints about the Google Nexus 7 despite Google saying they’ll sell it at a price to break even on the hardware absorbing any marketing and miscellaneous costs.This despite Google owning a Android hardware vendor (Motorola) and other OEMs using Android.

I’m not predicting any decline for Apple, but it looks like I’ll be able to consider alternatives when it’s time for my next phone and tablet. This can’t be a bad thing.

Wrapping UP

Looking at the various cloud players has go me into playing music more than I had in the recent past. For the most part it had been audio books and podcasts but I’ve been playing music again. I’m finally getting around to trying out the media related apps on my Synology DiskStation. It’s still to early to tell if they’ll be worth using. Then for true cloud music there’s always the subscription services.

So far nothing has been perfect. It will be more a matter of figuring out what I want and then picking the solution strongest in that area. The summer heat seems like it’s here to stay for awhile. Those hot humid days will be good for laying around listening to music, or staying in the air conditioning working at the PC.

For those of you in the States, have a happy 4th!

Blu-Ray Ripping & Viewing

videostreamI’ve been ripping my DVDs as a long time standard practice so I could pack them away in storage boxes and just play them from my Windows Home Server.  I’ve had a few Blu-rays but never spent the time figuring out what was needed to rip them. I have so few of them they don’t take much shelf space so I lacked the motivation to deal with them. I recently decided to give it a try and see how things went. I’m basically lazy and lacked any serious motivation to do this, so I’d be looking for the path of least resistance. It ended up being pretty easy to get working video files. It’s a bit more difficult to then view these files everywhere I wanted.

Software

I already have Slysoft’s AnyDVD HD and I use the Open Source Handbrake. Technically that’s all I need but it’s pretty messy figuring out which title’s I want. MakeMKV is frequently recommended so I looked at that.

MakeMKV is “free while in beta” and costs $50 for a permanent license key. The beta license key needs to be updated every month. The program author could decide to end the beta program at anytime and just go to a limited trial. (IMO this is more a trial software scheme than a beta program. The software seems fully baked.) The online help has the screenshots that show the screens so I won’t do my own screenshots. I did not test it on regular DVDs but according to the site there is no charge to open regular DVDs. MakeMKV is available for Windows, OS X and Linux, I used the Windows version.

I only encountered one title that MakeMKV couldn’t rip and I did go the AnyDVD route for that one.

MakeMKV is extremely easy to use. I just have it load the Blu-ray and select the largest title that it lists. (technically I deselect all the others since everything is selected by default). I also select all the English audio and the English forced subtitles. There isn’t any compression used to create the target file. They’re smaller simply because they only have the tracks needed. By default any title that’s less than two minutes in length is ignored. This is configurable and helps limit the title list to just the titles that may be of interest. If you want multiple titles they may not be in the same order as the disc menus list them (for example, TV show episodes). I found they were in the same order in most cases, but there were exceptions.

The only way I can play the MKVs directly is with VLC Media Player. So once I have the MKV file I use Handbrake to convert it to a more compatible format. I use the “High Profile” preset that is bundled with Handbrake. I find this setting to be compatible with all the devices I want to play them on, from iPad to TV. I’ll talk about it more later, but the resulting file is huge which brings problems of it’s own.

As far as time to do all this goes – I didn’t do any benchmarking and my process is to be ripping DVDs with MakeMKV and then put them in the Handbrake queue so both are going at the same time. MakeMKV is only going to go as fast as the Blu-ray drive can support and mine is fairly slow. It took me just over an hour to rip a full length feature. The Handbrake encoding takes much longer. With six cores kept busy it still takes about 5 hours to encode that movie so Handbrake is queued to overnight and runs until all the jobs are done. Handbrake settings can be tweaked to decrease the time but at the expense of either file size or quality.

Viewing the Files

There are still issues with the resulting file, mainly around file size.

To my surprise, my 3rd gen iPad is the most reliable and had the fewest problems, other than VLC on my computer. I was also able to stream some of the smaller, and lower bitrate, files from my Windows Home Server for viewing on my Gen 3 iPad (By “streaming”, I mean simply loading and playing the file across the network, there’s no special re-encoding or software.) I stream across an 802.11n network running on the 5Ghz band. There’s less interference from other wireless networks at 5Ghz since most hardware either only supports 2.4Ghz or defaults to 2.4 GHz. The initial load may buffer a bit and hesitate but after about 30 seconds it begins playing and has been solid straight through. Once I tried larger (higher bitrate) files I had some buffering problems. Copying to my iPad resulted in problem free playing.

The picture quality is great. But I don’t care what people say about resolution and distance making it equivalent to TV viewing. The experience is not the same, even if the math says it is.

My LG Blu-ray player was OK with some files but just would not play others. While I’m sure it’s files size or bitrate limited, I didn’t find a solid line that would be a problem if crossed.  I generally found this to be too aggravating to deal with due to all the issues. My Blu-ray player does have wireless 802.11N but only on the 2.4Ghz band. This did not result in a pleasant streaming experience, even for files that could be played.

I decided to pull out my old Roku player.  It’s an older Model 2100X but has a USB port and HDMI-out. Since USB thumb drives generally have FAT32 file systems with a 4 GB file size limit, I reformatted one of my USB external drives as NTFS so I could play larger files. I didn’t have any problems playing anything through the Roku player.  The largest file I had was approx. 15 GB and had an average bitrate of 21775kbps. This played fine using the Roku with the file on the attached USB drive.

My Conclusion

I had more Blu-ray discs than I thought, thanks to two Criterion Collection sets and a couple HBO series (Game of Thrones & Band of Brothers). But they fit fine on a small shelf next to my TV, making them easy to find. Thanks to some strange pricing and promotions Blu-ray’s may be cheaper than DVD,. so while my movie purchases are just a trickle, I may be buying a few.  For the Blu-rays I have, I want the quality. So re-encoding at a lower bitrate isn’t acceptable for me. So for now, the Roku with an external drive attached will be my solution.

If I decide I really do want my Blu-rays for streaming I’d probably go with ripping them as full ISO’s and then use software/devices capable of playing the ISOs. For the Blu-rays I have, I’m as likely to want the extras as the movie itself.

That said, the MakeMKV/Handbrake combo is a perfectly acceptable solution for turning Blu-rays into streaming media. Both are easy to set up (I used the pre-baked settings for both) even if it does take considerable time to chug through all the processing.

The New Handbrake Rocks

Handbrake icon graphicI’ve been using Handbrake to encode video for a couple years and love it. The open source Handbrake works on Windows, OS X and Linux. I’ve always preferred and used the OS X version. It had been about a year without a new version of Handbrake but the drought was ended in November 2009 with the release of Handbrake 0.94.

I was a bit slow to upgrade since the old version was working fine for me. Finally I upgraded. I had an issue (it wouldn’t encode) and kept using the old version when needed. Finally I researched the problem and found the simple solution – just delete the old presets in the Library/Application Support/Handbrake folder.

At first I was bummed because I’d lose my settings. But I soon realized that those settings were useless anything. The changes in Handbrake were significant which made it worthwhile to retest and come up with some new settings. The built-in presets now centered around getting the best quality while maintaining device compatibility.

I did a bunch of testing and ended up using the “Normal” preset with a Minor change to maintain Apple TV compatibility. I still have the Apple TV and while I don’t use it as frequently as I used to, I still do use it and want the video to work with it. I added the parameter weightp=0 to the Normal profile to maintain Apple TV compatibility.

The big benefit is the smaller file size that’s created for the video, yet the quality is maintained. The change has been so significant that I am re-encoding all my video in order to recover disk space. In general, my disk usage is shrinking about 50%. Some files are less than a quarter of the size while most are about 60% their previous size. There are some videos that shrink less and even a couple that have gotten larger so mileage will vary.

The new Handbrake is faster too. In general I assumed 1 hour to encode every 45 minutes of video using the previous Handbrake. On the same hardware Handbrake 0.94 as reduced these estimates t0 being able to encode 1 hour of video in 1 hour. Again, these are rough estimates which vary with the video. Also, different hardware will yield different speeds. My new Mac Mini only needs about 30 minutes to encode an hour’s worth of video.

If you already use Handbrake you need to upgrade to Handbrake 0.94 even if it means taking some time to evaluate the settings. If you haven’t been using Handbrake and want to encode video you should check it out.

Video Encoding: Handbrake

HandBrake Logo After ripping the DVDs I’ll be needing to encode them so I can watch them on my various devices. The premier software in this category is the open source Handbrake. There’s versions for Mac OS X, Linux and Windows. I’ve been using Handbrake 0.9.2 for OS X.

Handbrake can encode directly from DVD if they are unencrypted or encrypted with CSS encryption. But Handbrake isn’t a dedicated ripper and feeding Handbrake unencrypted video is recommended for best results. I took the approach of first ripping the DVDs to disk using either Fairmount or AnyDVD. This resulted in mostly problem free files. I did have to re-encode a few files that worked in VLC but locked up iTunes/AppleTV/Quicktime and I had an occasional odd problem. But the failure rate was less than 1%.

The list of supported sources and outputs is listed on the Handbrake web site as:

Supported sources:

* Any DVD-like source: VIDEO_TS folder, DVD image or real DVD (encrypted or unencrypted, but protection methods other than CSS are not supported and must be handled externally with third-party software), and some .VOB and .TS files
* PAL or NTSC
* AC-3, DTS, LPCM or MPEG audio tracks

Outputs:

* File format: MP4, MKV, AVI or OGM
* Video: MPEG-4 or H.264 (1 or 2 passes or constant quantizer/rate encoding)
* Audio: AAC, MP3, Vorbis or AC-3 pass-through (supports encoding of several audio tracks)

Handbrake Presets

Handbrake provides a multitude of settings for tweaking the video but also comes with numerous presets which are shown to the left. In my case I was looking for quality and didn’t care too much about file size. I also didn’t care about playing the video on my iPod. I wanted to play the video using iTunes, Front Row and Apple TV but I didn’t want to be locked into that software.

I played around with various bit rates and other settings and watched several test encodes on my computers and TV. For awhile I was considering different settings based on how much I valued the video. Older TV shows or movies I didn’t watch very often would have gotten lower bit rates to generate smaller files. I eventually decided that since file size wasn’t too important to me I’d be better of with one standard setting and since quality was my primary concern I might as well pick a “constant quality rate” (CQR) setting.

The CQR setting is a percentage. I’d be using the x264 encoder and according to people who know (in the Handbrake docs and forums) a setting above 80% doesn’t improve the quality while still increasing the file sizes. This is because the DVDs already use compression and 80% is roughly equivalent to the DVD compression. I ended up picking a setting of 64%. I still couldn’t see a difference between this and a lower setting on my computers and TV but I figure this would allow for some upgrades to my video hardware. Some of my test encodes where at 54% and were “good enough” so I haven’t bothered to re-encode them.

I encode the audio at 160kps and encode the videos as an MP4 file but I change the extension to .M4V so that iTunes will recognize chapter stops. (There’s a setting in Handbrake to rename the extension automatically. The files also play fine in VLC although there aren’t any chapter stops. I don’t generally use chapter stops but figure they’re nice to have.

All my settings for video and audio are shown in the screen shots below, click the thumbnails to see them full size. My chapter and advanced settings are still at their defaults. These settings resulted in a file size between 185 and 250MB for 15 minutes with most videos being around 200MB per 15 minutes.

Handbrake Video Settings Handbrake2

I’ve only had a few minor problems with Handbrake. As I mentioned some of my encodes had to be redone. The most common were videos that worked fine with VLC but not in any Apple product. There was less than a handful of problems of any type and they were solved by re-encoding. I didn’t have to re-rip or change any settings so it appears to be just “one of those things”. But it does mean I check all my videos in QuickTime rather than VLC or MediaInfo Mac. There was one DVD that encoded with a 14 hour playtime even though it was only about 2 hours. The solution here was to drop the last chapter, which was only 1 second in actual length.

I’ve also encountered a few Handbrake crashes, usually when using the file open dialog to either select the source files or destination location. This typically happen after many file opens in a session but wasn’t consistent. It was annoying when setting up a night of encodes only to have it crash near the end. So I began to skip changing destination file names and stick with the default, renaming the file when it’s done. Handbrake default to the source directory name when creating the output files so I’ve been making the directories match the file name I want.

HandBrake can create video files greater than 4GB but since 4GB is the maximum size supported by many players I haven’t enabled this feature. This means HandBrake crashes for me when it reaches 4GB. When this happens I set it to encode a file of 4GB and let it figure out the bitrate to achieve that. This has been very rare and only when the source files are approaching 4 hours.

Ripping is CPU intensive and it’s the one thing that affects speed. My iMac rips faster than my mac Mini. While there’s a lot of things that affect performance I estimate roughly 45 minutes of ripping per hour of content on my iMac. This flips on my Mac Mini which takes about one hour to rip 45 minutes of content. I never sit around waiting for a rip to finish, rather they get queued up and run overnight or when I’m otherwise not using the computer. My Mac Mini also serves as a media computer but if I was looking for something to dedicate to ripping I’d look for a cheap windows PC with the fastest CPU I could afford rather than buy a Mac Mini to dedicate to ripping. (Having said that, I haven’t tried the Windows version of Handbrake).

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is Handbrake is the only ripper I looked at and it hasn’t given me a reason to look elsewhere.

DVD Ripping Software: Fairmount & SlySoft AnyDVD

AnyDVD Logo I’ve been looking at two pieces of software to rip my DVDs as part of my Video on Demand project. They are pretty much polar opposites. One is free (open source/GPL license) while the other is commercial. One is for Windows and the other is for the Mac.

Fairmount is Open Source for the Mac that is included in the download for DVDRemaster. DVDRemaster is a commercial product that does not have to be installed (and I haven’t installed it). Fairmount does require that the VLC Video Player is also installed. VLC is also Open Source.

The Fairmount product page outlines it’s basic operation:

    * A disc is inserted by the user.
* FairMount receives a notification about the new disc.
* If the disk is a video dvd, the original disk is unmounted.
* It then starts a local web server (which is only accessible by the local host), to serve the decrypted image.
* The decrypted image is then mounted using Apple’s tool (hdiutil).
* When the user ejects the image, the web server is stopped, and the original disc is ejected.

The Fairmount screen is shown below:

Fairmount Screen

Once Fairmount has opened the drive it appears in Finder as a mounted DMG (disk image) file. Files can be copied using drag & drop.

I had good success using Fairmount but there were several DVDs that it couldn’t handle. Also, while I can’t prove it was Fairmount, I did have considerable system instability issues on my iMac after using it for awhile. I’ve since stopped using it on my iMac and it’s been stable since. I’ve also used it on my Mac Mini and it’s been stable there, although that machine typically gets shut down daily and only runs a few different apps.

For the DVDs that Fairmount couldn’t handle I’ve been able to use AnyDVD from SlySoft which is commercial software for Windows. I’ve used the 21 day evaluation version which doesn’t save settings between sessions but is otherwise fully functional. In the 21 days I evaluated the software there have been three updates to fix issues or handle new DVD copy protection schemes. I’ve been running AnyDVD under Parallels on my Mac (a Windows XP vm) and haven’t had any problems. I also haven’t encountered any DVDs that it hasn’t been able to rip.

The AnyDVD settings screen and DVD ripping screen is shown below. Files can also be copied using drag & drop.

AnyDVDSettings

AnyDVDRipper

I haven’t done any precision tests but ripping using AnyDVD seems faster than Fairmount although each can take an hour or more depending on the DVD.

AnyDVD is 49 Euros direct from SlySoft. They are currently running a 20% off promotion (listed as ending June 22nd but already extended once). There’s also a version for ripping high-def DVDs although I didn’t look at that.

Bottom Line

Since I have a large number of DVDs in my personal library that I want to rip and have already encountered some problems with Fairmount I will probably buy AnyDVD during the promotion. It’s handled all DVDs I’ve thrown at it and it’s obviously kept up to date.

The pattern I’ve fallen into is I have Fairmount on my Mac Mini but not on the iMac. I pop into the bedroom room (where the Mac Mini is) every hour or so and swap the DVDs. This has resulted in a relatively stable system. The only other things I do on the mac Mini are encoding and watching video.

I’ve been using AnyDVD on my iMac (under Parallels). This doesn’t add any noticeable overhead over Parallels itself so I can rip DVDs while I’m working at my iMac as long as I don’t need the resource parallels is using. I’m typing this blog post now in Windows Live Writer while a DVD is being ripped. Neither CPU or memory usage in the VM is stressed.

There’s also MacTheRipper which is a classic DVD ripper for the Mac. MacTheRipper Version 2.6.6 is still free but it is a couple years old. I had more problems with MTR than I did with Fairmount although it was fine for older DVDs. There is a MacTheRipper 3 but this requires going through a donation process in order to get it and future updates are dependent on the level of donations being sufficient. Register in the forums to find out about version 3.