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Andy IhnatkoHow to Stuff a Wild iPod

by - October 13th, 2005

 

 

As I sit down and write this (about 12:30 EST on Wednesday afternoon, the video iPod is a Maybe. Sure. Okay: definitely there's a possibility that there'll be an iPod that can play video, which will be released sometime, today possibly, or maybe sometime next year.

Not to worry; by the time I upload this, the Big Announcement will have been made and I'll have replaced the preceding intro with something that stresses that I obviously knew what the announcement was going to be all along. The point is that whether or not there's a video iPod inside someone's chest cavity waiting for its moment to burst out and start tormenting Siguorney Weaver, having movies and TV shows on your hard drive is going to be a big deal.

Because otherwise, I mean, you're stuck with a $400 iPod Video that can only show iMovies of your sister's wedding. And you were just barely interested enough in that to sit through it live. So you're going to need to start converting things that are actually watchable. Your allies in this struggle are many and powerful:

Elgato's EyeTV

Well, what could possibly be simpler than having fresh content delivered straight to your Mac minute by minute, and automatically saved to disk? And it's free! Just think of the $329 cost of the EyeTV 200 box as a one-time signup fee. Didn't your cellphone company teach you that one-time signup fees don't count?

The high-scoring idea is that you plug this shiny little box into any available USB port, hook it up to either your cable or a set of rabbit ears, launch the EyeTV software and bingo: your $3000 Mac is now a $100 TV set. But! With the ability to live invisible and undetected inside your office cubicle (good) and to record TV shows (even better).

The temptation is to describe the EyeTV as like a TiVO for your Mac. Alas, it falls somewhat short of the desired ideal. You can't tell it to simply record every single Stockard Channing show or movie that comes along, for example, and if there's a last-minute schedule change, EyeTV isn't smart enough to figure that out. "According to Jim" will doggedly record every Tuesday at 8 PM, even after the network has decided that thirty minutes of dead air would be just as entertaining and they cancel the show. But there is indeed an onscreen programming guide (through TitanTV.com) and if EyeTV isn't a superlative PVR, at least it's a solid one.

And it'll give you the video files you want. Just select a show from your "EyeTV Programs" window, hit "Export..." from the "File" menu, and wait and watch while the show is duly transmogrified into a universal MP4 QuickTime file. EyeTV also features a simple but slick little editing tool tuned specifically to the task of deleting commercials and other nonsense.


EyeTV - Garbage in, garbage out: it's the perfect TV processor.
(Click the thumbnail for a larger image)

Needless to say, you're probably going to want to resize the file to something that your hard drive (and the storage capacity of whatever-it-is you're going watch that video on) can handle. No sweat; EyeTV's export feature is customizable. And note that in the above screenshot, that episode of "Late Show With David Letterman" is particularly gi-normous. That's because I've got the EyeTV 500, which records in high-def. Grabbing Letterman with enough resolution to make a 4x6 print out of every frame is nice, but the real bonus of popping for high-def is that it's a digital signal. No ghosting, no snow, the colors are perfect...it's like the show came straight off of a DVD.

Speaking of DVD

But maybe you're not necessarily keen on spending $300 to acquire video files, nor does the idea of having an entire season's worth of "The Apprentice: Martha Stewart" in your pocket fill you with awe and wonderment. The whole point of iTunes was that you could convert all of the discs you already have into a useful, friendly, and eminently huggable digital format.

The bad news is that DVDs, unlike CDs, are encrypted to prevent copying. The good news is that the trade organization that developed the scheme brought the same amount of insight and know-how to the problem as Sherwood Schwarz brought to the average episode of "Gilligan's Island," and the scheme was quickly and thoroughly cracked. Bad News(2) is that breaking such encryption is illegal under the terms of US Copyright Law. Good News(2) is that copyright law also says that you have the specific right to duplicate that DVD for your own purposes -- such as moving it from one form of media to another -- provided that you purchased the thing legally. Bad News(3) is that no court has yet determined which of these two sections takes precedence, but then there's Good News(3): specifically, I just don't care.

So head on over to http://handbrake.m0k.org/ and download a sweet little utility called "HandBrake," which can rip a commercial DVD into a QuickTime file in just a few simple steps. It isn't quite as easy to use as iTunes, and after having ripped about 200-300 discs with it I would put its success rate at about 95%, but it's an essential tool in the fight for your fair rights as a consumer. I urge you to download it right now before the Evil Lizard Scum contingent of the movie industry (ie, everyone except for Reese Witherspoon) gets all lawyer-ey and try to have HandBrake crushed.

Ripping a DVD with HandBrake is a piece o'cake:

1) Insert a DVD. 2) Select "Open DVD..." from HandBrake's "File" menu. If the disc appears on the Desktop, HandBrake will be able to find it via its "Detected Volume" radio button. 3) Click "Open." HandBrake opens the DVD's directory file and analyzes its programming and content, eventually taking you to the apps' main transmogrification window. You'll find that a couple of popup menus have been populated with the disc's titles and chapters.


HandBrake - DVDs of the world...unite and embrace freedom! You have nothing to lose but your encryption!
(Click the thumbnail for a larger image)

Of course, it's possible that the aforementioned Evil Lizard Scum did something screwy with the supposed-to-be-standard format of this particular disc's directory, and that the disc is one of that 5% that HandBrake can't deal with. Well, note the date and the time. You'll need those records for the inevitable class action suit later on.

Handbrake offers a fairly bewildering array of settings, but most of them can be ignored. You do want to take interest in the "Source" section. This is where you'll choose which bits of the DVD you'd like to convert. Here, I'm converting a "West Wing" disc. HandBrake can see six different titles on the disc: four of them happen to be the 43 minutes long, the length of a typical episode; one is 2 hours 50 minutes, the length of all four episodes played back-to-back-to-back; and the last is about the length of the annoying repeating title menu that I wake up to in the morning, after falling asleep on the sofa midway through the disc.

Hence the small amount of nuisance compared with ripping DVDs in iTunes. There's no convenient central database from which HandBrake can collect title and program info. It's up to you to figure out which title is which, although HandBrake doesn't care if you keep DVD Player open in the background so it's easy enough to pull episode titles and whatnot from the DVDs menus.

Each title can also be broken down into chapters, as you can see. So it's fairly easy to nose in on exactly the stuff you want.

You can live a long and happy life even if you rip your DVDs using HandBrake's default Video settings. Knocking down the framerate will result in smaller files, but who wants to watch "Chinatown" at streaming-video quality? And the default quality settings are perfectly fine...a nice compromise between fidelity and filesize. I rip mine at an average bitrate of 1000 kbps. For comparison, when news organizations archive B-roll footage, it's often stored at 4K. I've ripped at 2K and found that the increase in quality, while noticeable, wasn't nearly worth the added filesize.

Onward. "Grayscale" is worth checking if you're ripping "Citizen Kane," and "2-pass encoding" should always be turned on. As the name implies, it doubles the encoding time, but the improvement in quality is well worth the investment.

File Format: for maximum compatibility, I keep it set to MP4, using MP4 video and AAC audio. Freestyle with these settings at your own peril; remember, the point is to rip this show into a file that you can use with as many different devices and apps as possible. Here's the spot where you give the Quicktime-To-Be a name, too.

"Subtitles" and "Audio" can trip you up a bit. Here, you choose the subtitle track and the audio track of the final file. If you want to rip a copy of "American Movie" with Mark Borschardt's killer commentary track enabled, you're going to have to fiddle with these settings to get what you want. This is another spot where playing the disc in DVD Player is a big help; the available settings in the popup will mirror what you see when you cycle through Subtitles and Audio options in the actual disc.

Finally, there's the "Picture Settings" button. By default, HandBrake encodes the video at maximum possible resolution (usually it's just a hair under the DVD's original res) and crops the image intelligently; if the video has been formatted for 1.66:1 widescreen, the Quicktime will be formatted that way, too. But if you want to rip a 320x240 version intended specifically for your PDA's screen, throwing out all of that extra detail in the pursuit of an edition of "Lord Of The Rings" that'll fit on a 256 meg memory card, here's where you tweak the size down, and/or tell HandBrake to crop off the top and sides. You're going to want to crop the sides if you've got a widescreen DVD and a non-widescreen PDA, where the real estate is too precious to devote 1/4 of it to black bars.

I don't bother with that stuff. My goal is to build a digital version of my DVD library, and to my eye that means maximum resolution at all times.

I find that the "De-Interlace" option, while well-intentioned, never improves the quality of interlaced video, so I leave it alone. But I often use the "Previous" and "Next" buttons to quickly preview what I'm about to encode. You'll see one frame of video for every chapter, so it's a handy way of double-checking your selections.

Back in HandBrake's main window, you just click "Rip" and you're off and running. Literally. Like, out to see a movie, and maybe get some dinner afterwards. Converting a DVD to a QuickTime isn't one of those blurringly-rapid processes that Steve Jobs would engage during a keynote to demonstrate the Mac's speed and agility, unless he was saving Paul McCartney for his "One More Thing..." and a he's been informed by a flunky that the guy's plane will be at least ninety minute late.

On my dual-processor G5 tower, HandBrake can convert a 2-hour movie in about an hour. On my single-processor G4, it often took five or six. But the app is friendly enough to give you a status bar to watch while it works, and an ETA that's usually accurate.

The only other gotcha of encoding is that it obviously causes your Mac's Barbie-Tronic "Math Is HARD!" reflex to kick in. So don't count on smooth video or audio chatting -- or anything else requiring number-crunching -- while all this is going on.

The end-result is a friendly little QuickTime that will play in the Mac and Windows editions of QuickTime Player without any further ado.

But What About Converting Videotapes?

What about it? I mean, sure, you could buy an analog to DV bridge (such as ADS' Pyro A/V Link - http://www.adstech.com/) but I can think of no dull drudgery any duller or drudgerier than sitting down and pusing Play on a VCR and starting something recording in iMovie or QuickTime Pro and sitting there until it's done so I can manually stop it.

Honestly, if you don't already own a bridge, my advice is to spend a smidge more dough and buy a DVD recorder. Make all of your video recordings on that badboy, and then bring the disc back up to your home office and convert the video with HandBrake.

And Then...QuickTime Pro

In any event, it might be worthwhile to finally -- finally -- consider breaking down and actually paying for the upgrade from QuickTime to QuickTime Pro. Pro offers two big advantages to the budding digital cineaste: first, it's much much (much much MUCH) handier and faster at editing QuickTime video than iMovie. If you just want to snip some commercials out of "Murder, She Wrote" or stitch all three "Lord Of The Rings" movies into one 10-hour bladder-bursting epic, iMovie couldn't be a worse solution. Step One is to convert the whole thing to DV, and Step Two is to remember that you started Step One three days ago and got so bored waiting for it to finish up that you moved on with your life. And then you wind up with a gi-normous file that will then have to be re-compressed and exported.

Whereas making those kind of edits in QuickTime Pro is only marginally more difficult than cutting-and-pasting text. But there's another Pro feature that you keenly want: you want the "Present Movie..." and "Full Screen" playback menus to be enabled. With "Full Screen," watching a QuickTime of "The Bad News Bears Go To Japan" is just like watching it in DVD Player. Without it, you're stuck looking at a big window with Mac's menubar and bits of the Desktop peeking through. Which is hardly a cinema-like experience.

Now it's about two hours since I started writing this thing, and it's official: there is no iPod Video. It's just an iPod iPod, amazingly enough, and from now on, everything but the Shuffle and the Nano is going to be video-studly. Cool. Again I say that I didn't get to see the live unveiling, so I've no idea how well any of this works. I notice from the specs sheet that it supports MP4 video with up to 768kbps playback speed and 320x240 video resolution. Which is either Good News ("Hey! It'll play any video file you copy onto it!") or Bad News ("****! It demands that the video either be iTunes Store content, or that it be encoded by iTunes...so any "untrusted" content might be blocked! Bastards!") or maybe something in between ("Hmm. It'll play anything, but it has to be re-encoded to the iPod's specs. Inconvenient, but hey, I can Automator my way out of that.")

I expect to have one in my hands tommorrow, and will write y'all a new piece on how to cowboy your own video onto the thing, assuming that's possible. If not, I'll talk about other movie players on other handhelds that can handle QuickTime just fine.

But even if you have no intention of ever watching "Nanny And The Professor" in the palm of your hands, it's so hugely worthwhile to convert your movies and shows to digital video. You get many of the same benefits of digital music, even without an iPod: I've got a hard drive with hundreds and hundreds of hours of entertainment on it. Anytime I want to watch something, I don't need to go crawling through shelves. If I'm downstairs, I can watch content that's stored upstairs. If I send El Gato some more money, they'll even sell me an EyeHome box that'll stream video straight from my G5 to my home theater downstairs.

And just as iTunes meant never again having to stay awake late at night before flying off on a trip, trying to decide which 10 and only 10 CDs I'd be listening to over and over again for an entire week, having all those movies on my hard drive means never having to fill a DVD case ever again. 30 gigabytes of free space, whether it's on my PowerBook's hard drive or on an external pocket drive, means that I take my own pay-per-view library with me wherever I go. Except without the "pay" part, and without quite so many titles centering on the theme of naughty stewardesses washing vintage sports cars.

The sooner you start ripping your DVDs, the sooner you'll have that library. Better start cracking!

digs the Mac, and has been writing about the Mac for longer than most of us could tell the difference between a bite of Apple Sauce from a byte of Apple code. You can read his monthly column at Macworld magazine, and his blog at the Colossal Waste of Bandwidth.

Andy's latest book is The Mac OS X Tiger Book (US$16.49 - Amazon).

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