Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Apple TV: Using an AirPort Disk, Part 2

Apple TV plays iTunes media files from your computer — movies, songs, podcasts etc. — on an HDTV via a wireless home network. In Apple TV: Using an AirPort Disk, Part 1 I told how I began using an external USB 2.0 500 GB hard drive to store large movie files. The drive connects to an AirPort Extreme 802.11n base station (an "Extreme-n"), which is Ethernet-connected to my original AirPort Extreme 802.11g base station (an "Extreme-g") ... which in turn is Ethernet-connected to my cable modem.

My original intent was to have the two base stations form a "dual-band network." The Extreme-n would handle all the traffic in the 5.0 GHz band — the one used by 802.11n transmissions, which are faster than 802.11g. The Extreme-g would handle just the 802.11g traffic, which is located in the interference-prone 2.4 GHz band.

The Apple TV is capable of using speedy 802.11n transmissions in the interference-free 5.0 GHz band, if an 802.11n-capable computer running iTunes is available to it ... otherwise, it contents itself with 802.11g. My (erroneous, as it turned out) assumption was that my MacBook Pro could use 802.11n as well, provided I ran Apple's 802.11n Enabler on it. But, no. My version of the MacBook Pro has but a lowly Intel Core Duo processor in it. Of the MacBooks, only those with the Intel Core 2 Duo can be 802.11n-enabled. Oops.

That letdown meant that (since I have only one n-enabled device, the Apple TV) I would be stuck in the 2.4 GHz band that 802.11g uses for its relatively slow traffic. Unless you have at least two devices that "speak" 802.11n, you are necessarily stuck with 802.11g all the way down the line.

Which meant that I had to revise my original configuration of the new Extreme-n. I initially set it up manually (after having completed the assisted setup phase) to use the radio mode called "802.11n only (5 GHz)." With that radio mode, neither of my Macs even saw the new base station's network (actually just a segment of the previously existing network, which was now dual-band). Because of that, I could not get my Macs to join the new network segment, and they could join only the original network segment ... the one operating at 802.11g speeds.

Not being able to join the 802.11n segment of the network, neither of my Macs could stream or sync iTunes media to the Apple TV on that relatively swift segment. Which, sadly, defeated the intended purpose of the dual-band network.

In order to get my new network segment to be one which my Macs actually could join, I had to reconfigure the Extreme-n, by way of AirPort Utility's manual setup process, to the radio mode of "802.11n (802.11b/g compatible)." That meant my Macs could join the new segment (hosted by the Extreme-n) or the old one (hosted by the Extreme-g). Alas, no matter which segment I had them join, they would be limited to using 802.11g speeds, even when talking to the Apple TV.

The next thing I wanted to do, of course, was see whether I could copy my movie files to the hard drive attached to the Extreme-n — called an "AirPort disk" in the lexicon — and then stream them via iTunes on my MacBook to the Apple TV for viewing.

Lo and behold, it worked!

But there was an issue: speed. Where the speed of 802.11g had been perfectly adequate for streaming from movie files on the internal hard drive of the MacBook, it was not adequate for streaming from the AirPort Disk, via the MacBook, to the Apple TV.

As a result, every minute or two the Apple TV's input buffer became depleted of contents, since the network couldn't keep up. The Apple TV would freeze the frame on the TV screen briefly and wait to fill up its buffer again, showing a progress bar at the screen's bottom while this went on. It took only about two seconds, but it was irritating to have to put up with the "buffer underflow" hiccup time and time again.

Experiments with other movie files tended to confirm my suspicion that this "buffer underflow" problem was likely to happen only with movies whose bitrate — the number of bits per second of video and audio — was fairly high. Lower-bitrate movies had few if any "buffer underflow" hiccups.

Still, I considered the hiccups too annoying to live with, so I looked for a fix.

I reasoned that the borderline speed insufficiency of my network just might be gotten around by having my Macs and the Apple TV join exactly the "right" respective segments of my dual-segment network. (I'll call it a dual-segment network, not a dual-band network, because it it no longer consists of one band isolated on each base station. Both base stations host network segments operating in the 2.4 GHz 802.11g band.)

Perhaps, I thought, if I had the Apple TV join the Extreme-n's segment while the Macs were on the Extreme-g's segment, that might speed things up.

And it seems to have done just that — but not enough. There were fewer hiccups, but still some. No amount of rejiggering my devices-to-segments-joined protocol seemed to eliminate the hiccups entirely.

I don't mind saying I felt a bit flummoxed at that point. It was beginning to look as if there was no way for me to painlessly achieve my original goal, which was to have all my movie files stored on a capacious hard drive attached to my new base station.

Then I hit upon the expedient of connecting my iMac to the new Extreme-n via Ethernet, where it originally used AirPort.

I ran an Ethernet cable from the iMac to one of the spare LAN ports on the Extreme-n. In the Network panel of System Preferences I selected Built-in Ethernet (rather than AirPort) under Network Status. Under Built-in Ethernet, I selected "Using DHCP" as my choice from the Configure IPv4 pop-up menu, and I entered the requisite DNS Server and Search Domain information specified by my Internet provider. I clicked "Apply Now," and my iMac switched from using AirPort to using Ethernet to contact the Extreme-n and go online!

I was worried that perhaps doing this would make it impossible to access the AirPort Disk from the iMac. I didn't have to fret: the AirPort Disk remained mountable on the iMac.

Which meant that the movies on it could be opened in the iMac's iTunes and streamed to the Apple TV. And, wonder of wonders, stringing Ethernet between the iMac and the Extreme-n had cured my "buffer underflow" hiccups!

My reasoning on that is this. When iTunes was streaming movies from my AirPort-connected MacBook to the Apple TV, all the data had to make three trips through my wireless network:

  1. From the AirPort Disk to the MacBook's iTunes, via a base station
  2. From the MacBook's iTunes back to a base station, en route to the Apple TV
  3. From the base station to the Apple TV

When the movie's bitrate was high, three trips were too many. The wireless network bogged down.

But when there was a "Fast Ethernet" (100 megabits per second) link between the iMac and the Extreme-n, only Trip 3 was wireless. Trips 1 and 2 still were being taken by all the data from the movie file, but they now took advantage of the Fast Ethernet connection. So the wireless network itself never got bogged down.

My hunch is that I could ditch the Fast Ethernet connection between the iMac and the Extreme-n if I were to replace my MacBook Pro (and/or the iMac) with a Mac that is 802.11n-capable. Then I could reconfigure my wireless network as truly dual-band, and then I could have both the replacement Mac and the Apple TV join the 802.11n segment, thereby taking advantage of its higher speeds. All three trips taken by the movie data would then happen at those speeds, which would presumably be fast enough to avoid all "buffer underflow" hiccups during streaming.

If you happen to have an 802.11n-capable Mac and an Apple TV, you can probably already take advantage of a dual-band wireless home network, using the Extreme-g base station you presumably already have, complemented by a new Extreme-n with a commodious USB 2.0 hard drive attached to it, ready to store all your movie files.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Apple TV: Using an AirPort Disk, Part 1

Apple TV plays iTunes media files — movies, songs, etc. — on an HDTV via a wireless home network. I first talked about my own new Apple TV in Apple TV is a Winner!. In Apple TV: Getting Content I showed how to use HandBrake and especially BitTorrent to get movies to play on it. In Apple TV: Adding Subtitles I talked about overlaying subtitles for the hearing-impaired (like me). Now in this post I would like to discuss my experiments with storing Apple TV movie files on an external USB 2.0 hard drive attached to an AirPort Extreme 802.11n base station.

The AirPort Extreme 802.11n base station is a fairly new product from Apple. It replaces the old AirPort Extreme base station that looks like a tiny spaceship and lacks support for the emerging 802.11n wireless standard. The old AirPort Extreme base station is limited to 802.11g, which is not as fast. For brevity, I'll refer to the new AirPort Extreme 802.11n base station as "Extreme-n," and to the old AirPort Extreme base station which lacks 802.11n support as "Extreme-g."

Extreme-n is the first Apple base station to which you can hook an external hard drive, one that has a USB 2.0 interface. The drive can then be mounted, server-like, on the desktop of every Mac on the network. (I'm talking about Mac networks here. Much of what I say can also be implemented on PCs running Windows an linked by non-Apple WiFi gear, but the details are different, and I have no personal experience with them.)

I just got a new Extreme-n. I already had an Extreme-g, used (among other things) to provide wireless network access to my Apple TV. On the wireless Extreme-g network were two Macs: a MacBook Pro with an Intel Core Duo (not a Core 2 Duo) processor, and an iMac. Also on the network were three AirPort Express base stations, which were being used to extend the range of the network and to stream AirTunes.

I also just got a Western Digital My Book™ Essential Edition 500GB external USB 2.0 hard drive. It comes with a USB cable that allows it to be attached directly to a Mac ... or to an Extreme-g.

My purpose in doing this was mainly so that I could have a lot of storage for movies. To that end, I could have USB-cabled the My Book directly to the MacBook Pro that I use to rip DVDs and download movie files. But that would have turned the portable MacBook into a glorified desktop machine, so I figured hanging the My Book off an Extreme-n would be a better choice.

My reasoning, as it turned out, was in one way a bit flawed. I thought the MacBook Pro was capable of 802.11n speeds and could talk to the Extreme-n in that superfast way. I had simply misread the information I'd located on the Web about which current Mac models can be 802.11n-enabled. Turns out that MacBook with a Core 2 Duo processor from Intel can; those like mine with just a Core Duo processor cannot.

But I hadn't twigged to that when I installed my Extreme-n with the 500GB My Book hooked to it.

The installation went surprisingly smoothly. Note that you need a Mac with Mac OS X v.10.4 or later for setup and administration of an Extreme-n. Though the Extreme-n can be used by Mac OS X v.10.2.7 or later — I was running 10.3.9 on my iMac — I decided to upgrade that machine to the same 10.4.10 that runs on my MacBook. That meant I could use the new setup and administration software that comes with the Extreme-n, which bears the name AirPort Utility. AirPort Utility is the all-in-one replacement for the old AirPort Setup Assistant and AirPort Admin Utility.

Since I was laboring under the misapprehension that I would be able to use swift 802.11n connections to stream movies from my MacBook to my Apple TV via the Extreme-n, I decided to set up the Extreme-n in tandem with my existing Extreme-g, creating what techies call a dual-band network. I would configure the new Extreme-n to utilize only the 5.0 GHz band, which 802.11n is capable of exploiting in its search for higher transmission speeds. Meanwhile, the Extreme-g would be responsible for handing the lowly 2.4 GHz band, wherein 802.11g transmissions take place.

To create a dual-band network using two paired base stations, you first need to decide which base station will connect to your broadband Internet source ... in my case, a cable modem. (Other possible choices include a DSL modem and a broadband Internet connection provided by a wired Ethernet network.)

I read Apple's Designing AirPort Extreme 802.11n Networks (I recommend you do, too) and came away with the impression that the Extreme-n generally ought to be made the Internet-connected one, with the Extreme-g a subsidiary to it. But that would have meant I would have had to fool with my existing Extreme-g's configuration, which I was loath to do. So I looked for alternatives.

After much head-scratching and several visits to this MacOSXHints forum thread, I realized that I could safely reverse the order of the two base stations. That would involve leaving in place the existing Ethernet cable running from my cable modem to the WAN port on my Extreme-g, while hooking a second Ethernet cable from the LAN port on the Extreme-g to a LAN port (there are three) on the Extreme-n. (In my experiments, I found I could just as well hook that second cable into the Extreme-n's WAN port! It didn't matter! My possibly incorrect understanding of this is that operating the Extreme-n as a "bridge," not a "router" — see below — turns the Extreme-n's WAN port into just another LAN port.)

Doing things in that way let me leave the configuration of my existing Extreme-g base station, and all my existing AirPort Express base stations, completely alone. All I had to do was configure the new Extreme-n as a "bridge" in AirPort Utility. This simply amounts to selecting "Off (Bridge Mode)" as its method of connection sharing, rather than "Share a public IP address."

Here are more details on that. When "Off (Bridge Mode)" is selected in the Manual Setup mode of AirPort Utility, the Extreme-n acts as a bridge between the Extreme-g and the other devices/computers on the network. Basically, what that means is that it doesn't touch the Internet addressing information — the so-called IP addresses — contained in packets it transmits on the network.

Meanwhile, the Extreme-g uses "Share a public IP address" as its connection-sharing mode — just as it always did before — which means it dynamically figures out what my Internet provider has assigned as my current IP address, and it maps all downstream devices' (my two computers, my AirPort Expresses, my Apple TV, etc.) IP addresses (which it has itself assigned to them) to that one master IP address. In this way, the Extreme-g acts as a "gateway."

Inserting the new Extreme-n logically "between" the gateway and the lesser network devices does nothing whatever to change that, as long as "Off (Bridge Mode)" is used for its connection sharing, making it a "bridge."

Though it is blind to Internet addressing, thee Extreme-n sets up its own "network," which is actually just one of two segments of the entire dual-band network. I named this new network/segment "N net," while the original Extreme-g continues to host a network (now also just a segment, actually) called "X net."

Thankfully, you don't really have to understand all this stuff about gateways, bridges, etc. to set up the Extreme-n the way I set mine up. This is because AirPort Utility defaults to an assisted setup mode, rather than manual setup (which you can select if you don't want to do an assisted setup). In assisted setup mode, when the proper time comes you simply specify that you want the Extreme-n to be used as a bridge.

My assumption (which turned out to be wrong and had to be corrected manually later) was that I also ought to set up the Extreme-n to use the 5.0 GHz frequency range of 802.11n exclusively, while the Extreme-g continued to use just the 2.4 GHz range associated with 802.11g. Had I realized from the get-go that my MacBook is not 802.11n-capable, I would instead have accepted the default option in assisted setup, the one which allows the Extreme-n to operate in both ranges.

So the actual process of hooking up and configuring an Extreme-n to act as a bridge to an existing Extreme-g's router turns out to be simple. Ignoring niggling details like installing the AirPort software from the CD that comes with the Extreme-n and then allowing Software Update to replace it with the most up-to-date version, it involves:

  • Setting up the new Extreme-n physically
  • Hooking an Ethernet cable from any Extreme-n LAN port (or even the WAN port!) to the LAN port on the existing Extreme-g
  • Setting up the external hard drive physically, plugging it in, and USB-cabling it to the Extreme-n
  • Powering up the Extreme-n
  • Running AirPort Utility in assisted mode to configure the Extreme-n
  • Designating all the parameters you typically need to designate when configuring any base station
  • Making sure you put the Extreme-n in bridge mode during the configuration process. Using assisted setup in AirPort utility, you select "Bridge mode" instead of "Share a single IP address using DHCP and NAT." Using manual setup, you click on the Internet icon and use the Connection Sharing popup menu to select "Off (Bridge mode)"
  • Optionally setting the Extreme-n during the configuration process not to use the 2.4 GHz band employed by 802.11g, provided you actually have computers and othe network devices that can take advantage of 802.11n and don't rely on 802.11g or 802.11b. When using assisted setup in AirPort Utility, you do this by selecting "802.11n (802.11a compatible)" as the Radio Mode, instead of "802.11n (802.11b/g compatible)." Better yet, use manual setup to select "802.11n only (5 GHz)," which avoids diluting transmission speeds by maintaining 802.11a compatibility
  • At the end of the configuration process, clicking Update

When you finally update the Extreme-n's config in this way, after it powers back up you will hopefully be rewarded (perhaps after all too many excruciating seconds of a slowly blinking amber status light) with a solid green light which says it has successfully established an Internet connection. That means you're good to go.

Note that the status light typically comes on solid amber at power up, then after a few seconds turns briefly green. Then the blinking amber status light takes over. Out of the box, since the Extreme-n doesn't yet know how you want it to connect to the Internet, the blinking amber light tends not to go away. But after the Extreme-n is successfully configured the way you want it, a solid green light becomes your eventual reward. (Also, there is a way in AirPort Utility's Manual Setup to change the solid green light of the Extreme-n to a green light that blinks when there is activity on the base station ... a good way for you to tell whether the Extreme-n or Extreme-g is doing the lion's share of the work.)

After I got the Extreme-n configured, it didn't take long for me to start gloating over the fact that each of my Macs could join either one of the two "networks" (actually segments of one dual-band network) I now had. That is, both "X net" (the original network) and "N net" showed up in the AirPort menu of each Mac, and whichever one I chose, from whichever Mac, worked fine.

At first, the My Book didn't just show up on my desktop, however. I had to open AirPort Disk Utility and check "Show AirPort Disks in the menu bar," at which time a new AirPort Disks menu popped onto my menu bar. It allowed me to select and mount the My Book. Also, checking "Automatically discover AirPort disks" makes them auto-mount, I found ... though you have to enter the password you assigned to the disk, earlier in AirPort Utility. (Alternatively, you can sign on to the disk as a "guest," with whatever privileges you gave guests in AirPort Utility.)

So. It turns out to be pretty easy to attach an Extreme-n as a bridge to an existing Extreme-g and its network, thus providing a second network — which is actually part of the original network, using a different network name. The second network, handled by the Extreme-n, can be just for swift 802.11n connections in the 5.0 GHz band, while all slower 802.11g connections are handled by the Extreme-g. This is what a dual-band network is all about.

In my arrangement, the Extreme-g became the Internet gateway. In Apple's literature, the Extreme-n is used as the gateway. Other than that, my arrangement started out being just the same as Apple recommends.

But that soon had to change, once I found out my MacBook Pro was not capable of being 802.11n-enabled, after all. More on that in Part 2 of this post ...

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Dispatches from the Format War, #3

In my last post in this series, I concluded that the Blu-ray/HD DVD format war was tipping decisively in favor of Blu-ray. But wait! Now comes this news of Paramount and DreamWorks dropping Blu-ray support entirely.

According to the article, Paramount and its subsidiaries, including DreamWorks Animation, will cease releasing high-def discs of their movies in both competing formats side by side. For now at least, they will put out discs only on HD DVD (and on regular DVD, of course).

But the Blu-ray camp immediately fired back with this: upcoming releases on Blu-ray include such sought-after titles as Master & Commander, Ronin, Cast Away, Independence Day, A Bridge Too Far, 28 Days Later, The Day After Tomorrow, and the Die Hard trilogy. Also, the Paramount deal doesn't include any of Steven Spielberg's movies, which Paramount releases, and the deal runs only for 18 months anyway. Spielberg's company is DreamWorks SKG, not DreamWorks Animation.

The New York Times reported in Two Studios to Support HD DVD Over Rival that "Paramount and DreamWorks Animation together will receive about $150 million in financial incentives for their commitment to HD DVD, according to two Viacom executives with knowledge of the deal but who asked not to be identified." Viacom owns Paramount.

Who ponied up the $150 million "in a combination of cash and promotional guarantees"? At least some of it came from Toshiba, prime mover of the HD DVD camp. Microsoft? It denied writing any checks.

Stay tuned ...

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Apple TV: Using Multiple Movie Libraries

My new Apple TV plays iTunes media files — movies, songs, etc. — on my HDTV via my wireless home network. In Apple TV: Getting Content I showed how to use BitTorrent to get movies to play on it.

I also mentioned ripping DVDs you own into iTunes-playable format using HandBrake. I covered that more fully in my Apple TV is a Winner! post as well as in earlier posts in my Ripping DVDs category.

My movie library is accordingly getting way big ... which means scrolling through all the titles on Apple TV can be a chore. I wondered whether I could split them up into two separate iTunes libraries.

Apple TV can sync to just one iTunes library, but it can stream from up to five separate iTunes libraries. They can be on separate computers. But two or more of them can well be on a single Mac.

iTunes has the ability to create and use more than one library, each with different contents. You can switch among them in iTunes' Preferences/Advanced/General pane. Or you can choose which library to use — or establish a new one — by holding down the Option key (Shift key on Windows) as you start iTunes. But any one invocation of iTunes can use just one library at a time. How can you have multiple iTunes open at once, each using a separate library which Apple TV can stream from?

The answer involves setting up a separate user account for each extra open iTunes you want. If you as administrator open System Preferences and click on Accounts, you can unlock that preferences panel by clicking on the lock icon and typing in your password. Then you can create a separate new account just for running another iTunes. It's a good idea to checkmark Fast User Switching under Login Options so you will be able to toggle back and forth between the new account and your main account by selecting items in a special menu that now appears at the right end of your menu bar.

Once you have the new account set up, toggle to it (entering its password when asked). Start up iTunes for the first time in it. In iTunes Preferences/Advanced/General, de-checkmark "Copy files to iTunes music folder when adding to library," since you don't want to create new copies of big movie files each time you import one of them into the (currently empty) library of this new user environment's iTunes.

Also, under Preferences/General, make sure you see the Shared Name you want to appear as a source on Apple TV. Since I created my alter-ego "user" as dalekhound — I'm a Doctor Who fan — the default Shared Name was "dalekhound Library," which I saw no need to change.

Now toggle back to the original user environment and move the folder(s) containing your iTunes movies from wherever it is (or they are) to the Shared folder. The Shared folder is in the ~/Users folder (where '~' represents your hard drive) right alongside one folder for each separate user account on your system. The contents of your Shared folder are available to all users.

Toggle back to the new user environment. Open the Shared folder in the finder. In it you will find all your movies (possibly nested in folders within Shared). Drag any or all of their icons into the new iTunes — it's still open, right? — or onto its icon in the dock. They'll quickly show up and be playable as movies within the new iTunes.

If you toggle back to the old user environment and its iTunes, you can still see the movies originally listed there, and they play just fine. iTunes lets you move movie files around on your hard drive without losing track of them.

So now you have two iTunes libraries in two separate user environments, both active at once!

You can tailor each one to your liking. For example, I removed all my TV episodes from one of my libraries — the original one — without telling iTunes to drag their files to the trash, mind you. From the other iTunes, I deleted everything except TV episodes. Or, to be precise, I simply failed to import anything other than TV episodes into it, when I populated it for the first time.

Once all that is set up as you wish, go to your Apple TV and navigate to Sources. With some finagling, I was able to use "Connect to New iTunes" and arrange for "dalekhound Library" to appear in the sources list, right next to the Shared Name of my original iTunes, which was "Eric Stewart's MacBook." Also in the sources list was (still) the Shared Name of the iTunes I run on completely different Mac, wherein I have all my song files.

Keep in mind that each time you use "Connect to New iTunes," Apple TV gives you a new five-digit passcode that you need specifically to type into the iTunes you want to connect to. In my case, I made sure the new iTunes user environment was the active one, and I selected "Bedroom Apple TV" from the Devices list along the left side of the iTunes window. I typed in the passcode ... and lo and behold, Apple TV immediately let me start streaming movies from "dalekhound Library"!

My original "Eric Stewart's MacBook" still worked as a source for streaming movies as well! And my other Mac's music library also remained available, just as it always had been. So I had three streaming sources, two of which were separate iTunes invocations running in separate user environments at one and the same time on a single Mac!

"What about syncing?" you may ask. It's no real problem. I already had my "Eric Stewart's MacBook" iTunes set up to sync to Apple TV. After all the shenanigans I just told you about, it was still set up to sync. And syncing still worked just fine ... just as it had always done.

I intend to add copiously to my movie library in the future. Each new movie file will be created in (or moved to) my Shared folder. I'll import it into whichever iTunes library I want it in in the customary way. I.e., I'll drag its icon into the iTunes window (or onto the iTunes icon in the Dock) of whichever user environment it "belongs" to.

Nor is there any reason why I cannot have a given movie shared by both environments. I can't think of a reason why I would want to do this, offhand. After all, my original object was to keep each list of movies short and sweet in Apple TV. Yet it's still a possibility, if I should ever want to take advantage of it.

Furthermore, if I wanted to, I could expand the above to up to five separate iTunes user environments — counting the one on my other Mac as one of them — each able to stream to Apple TV, with one of them the designated syncing source for the Apple TV as well.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Apple TV: Adding Subtitles

In Apple TV is a Winner! I wrote about my new Apple TV, which plays iTunes media files on my HDTV via my wireless home network. In Apple TV: Getting Content I showed how to get movies to play on it using BitTorrent (plus, of course, buying them from the iTunes store or manually ripping them from DVDs using HandBrake). Now I'd like to discuss how people who are like me in being hearing-impaired can add subtitles to their content. (Of course, you don't have to be hearing-impaired to want subtitles. Maybe you don't speak the language the movie is in. What I'm about to discuss can help anyone who wants subtitles for any reason.)

If you rip your own movies using HandBrake, you have the option of telling HandBrake to burn the subtitles (a.k.a. captions) that are right on the DVD into the image on the output file. End of story.

But if you get movies in any other way, there will probably not be subtitles or captions included with it. Never fear. You can probably remedy that situation.

In broad overview, what you need to do is, first of all, obtain a movie file from, say, BitTorrent. As an example, I'll be using a copy of the 1994 movie Maverick that I downloaded as a torrent file in the .avi format.

Then, you go to one of the websites where subtitles are available, locate a subtitle file for the movie in question, and download it. I've been to two such sites so far:

I found my Maverick subtitles at OpenSubtitles.

You also need to download and install software that will let you make use of the downloaded subtitles files. I currently have two such packages for the Mac:

I'm going to show how to use TitleLAB in this post. In a coming post I'll discuss Submerge.

Edit: Since I wrote the following,
I have run into a strange problem using
movie files that TitleLAB subtitles
have been added to in QuickTime.
Although the files played fine initially,
they've ceased to work after a day or so.

In iTunes, they simply won't play when asked to;
nor will "Convert Selection for Apple TV"
in iTunes' Advanced menu work with them.

In QuickTime, they fail with the message
"The movie could not be opened. An invalid
public movie atom was found in the movie."

I don't have any idea what could account for
this strange behavior, or how to fix it. For now, I
have to recommend that no one use TitleLAB in
the way the rest of this post describes.

The Maverick subtitles I downloaded from OpenSubtitles unzipped to a folder on my desktop that contained two files. One was subtitles.nfo, whose utility I haven't a clue about. The other was The .srt extension was the key: it meant this file contained the actual subtitles. (The filename, anglais, was whatever the maker chose to name the file. It could have been whatsis or lollapalooza, for all anyone cares.)

I opened in TitleLAB, which presented me with a window:

Each line in the window was a subtitle for a line of dialogue in the movie, with its start and ending times. I selected the first line and selected Set Sync Point A in TitleLAB's Syncing menu. I then scrolled down to one of the very last lines in the movie, selected it ...

... and selected Set Sync Point B in the Syncing menu.

Now that I had identified two widely spaced sync points in the list of subtitles, I chose Synchronize from the Syncing menu. That caused TitleLAB to ask me what movie file to sync the subtitles with. I navigated to it in the Open File dialog, and TitleLAB opened a new window. In that Window I clicked Go There under Sync Point A, and got this:

As you can see, TitleLAB had opened a viewer for the .avi file containing Maverick. The fact that it was able to do this at all had to do with my already having installed DivX and XviD codecs on my Mac — see Apple TV: Getting Content for more on that.

When I clicked Go There, TitleLAB positioned the viewer to the time given in the subtitles list for the Sync Point A subtitle, "Almost got hung myself once." It then allowed me to click the play button, and the movie started to play from that point.

Only problem was, I soon found that 0:01:31.58 wasn't the right spot for the Sync Point A subtitle. That didn't come until 0:01:47.14 in the movie. Why there was about a 15 second discrepancy I had no idea. But never mind — I simply clicked Set at the exact right spot in the movie, and 0:01:47.14 immediately became the starting time for the Sync Point A subtitle line.

Sync Point B was even further off, it turned out, so I used a similar method in the TitleLAB Sync window to change it to 2:02:11.28. Then I clicked the Apply button. The TitleLAB Sync window with the movie viewer in it closed, and I saw that the original window's list of subtitles had had their times adjusted for proper synchronization with this version of the movie.

I next clicked on the Settings tab, and got this:

I clicked on Find Best to have TitleLAB determine the optimal width and height of the subtitle area that would eventually be combined into the movie image. This is what I got:

TitleLAB had located both the widest and the tallest subtitles and set the width of the subtitle area to 433 and its height to 40. (If you don't set the subtitle area's width and height in Settings, TitleLAB will default to a square subtitle area that is much too narrow and much too tall for my taste.)

Then it was time to select Save and Preview from TitleLAB's File menu. TitleLAB let me name the output subtitles file whatever I wanted (I chose Maverick 6) and let me put it wherever I wanted on my hard drive. Notice that this is a separate file from the original input file, which does not change or get overwritten. After TitleLAB saves the output subtitles file, it previews it in a dropdown sheet in the main window, which shows what is in effect a little movie of just the subtitles! I closed that boring thing right away and quite TitleLAB.

At that point, I had nothing but a revised set of subtitles, synced precisely to the movie file, but not yet applied to that file. My next step was to open in QuickTime both the Maverick 6 file with the subtitles in it and the .avi file containing the movie.

That's right: there were two separate windows open in QuickTime, one for the movie and one for the Maverick 6 subtitles file, which QuickTime treats as a movie with just a Text track (no Video or Sound tracks).

I made sure both "movies" were set to their starting points, so synchronization would not be a problem, and with the subtitles window active I did Select All and then Copy (both from the Edit menu). Then I made the "real" movie window active and did Add To Movie in the Edit menu. (Note: don't use Paste instead.)

This added my subtitles to the real movie as an extra track, Text, in addition to its existing Video and Sound tracks.

Next, I had to reposition the Text track in the movie window so that the subtitles would show up centered at the bottom of the frame. (Their default position is upper-left.) To do that, I chose Show Movie Properties from QuickTime's Windows menu while the actual movie window was active. In the properties window which then opened, I made some strategic changes under the Visual Settings tab, with this as the result:

Specifically, I changed the Offset from 0 x 0 pixels to 140 x 280. The first number represents 140 pixels from the left edge of the image. The second, 280 pixels from the top. I found these offset numbers by trial and error, inasmuch as each time I changed a number the subtitle moved to a different position in the movie window. A different set of subtitles for a different movie might well have somewhat different offset numbers.

I also used the popup menu at lower-left of Properties to change Transparency to Blend so the movie image would "show through" the subtitle area behind the actual subtitles. The default behavior is for the subtitle area to have a solid black, opaque background.

Once I had done all that, I selected Export in QuickTime's File menu. In the resulting dialog I selected Export: Movie to MPEG-4, which meant that the output movie would be playable by iTunes and Apple TV. (The input version of the movie was an .avi file that iTunes can't use.) I exported the movie to a file and location of my choice, with encoding settings I discussed in Apple TV: Getting Content. The hours-long process of having QuickTime convert the input movie without subtitles to the output movie with subtitles began.

When it eventually wrapped up, I discovered I had to make sure the output filename had been given an extension iTunes would recognize. I chose .m4v, though .mp4 and .mov would have worked too. (My originally chosen filename had no extension. If I had but known, I would have specified the extension at the time I exported it from QuickTime.)

Then I added the output movie to my iTunes library, by dragging its icon in Finder to the iTunes icon in the Dock. The movie opened up in iTunes and began to play. Here's a frame from it:

Meanwhile, iTunes began automatically syncing the subtitled movie to my Apple TV. It played there just fine, too.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Apple TV: Getting Content

In Apple TV is a Winner! I wrote about my new Apple TV, which plays iTunes media files on my HDTV via my wireless home network. Playing movies is one of its strengths. But where do the movies come from?

Apple would like you to buy movies and TV episodes at the iTunes store and download them into iTunes. But the selection isn't great yet.

Another option is to rip DVDs you own into iTunes-playable format using HandBrake. I covered that in my previous post as well as in some of the earlier posts in my Ripping DVDs category.

Yet another option is to download DVDs someone else has ripped and made available on the Internet. This can be more time-efficient, since you can only rip one DVD at a time but you can download several pre-ripped ones at once.

Of course, the download process can take a very, very long time ... but so does ripping DVDs yourself. With downloading, though, you can initiate several downloads and (if you like) go away and do something else. Hours later, you come back to your computer and (hope to) see that all your downloads have completed.

There are legal issues here. If you download a title that you own a copy of simply to avoid having to go through the dicey and tedious ripping process yourself, you will wind up with effectively the same media file you could have ripped yourself. You probably think that you would not be breaking the law. Well ... maybe yes, maybe no.

Making an archival copy of something you own is almost certainly legal — though there are laws against defeating digital content protection, which HandBrake does when it rips a DVD.

On the other hand, even if defeating the CSS copy protection on a copyrighted DVD for the purposes of making a personal archival copy is legal, taking the easy way out and simply downloading the same title, ripped by someone else from a different DVD, remains of dubious legality. Technically, you are not copying your own copy of the intellectual property represented by the DVD. You are copying someone else's copy of a copy which you do not own.

And if you download a copyrighted title you own no copy of, period, you certainly are breaking the law.

It's pretty easy to download movies for free, legally or not. One way is to use BitTorrent.

To use it, you don't really have to know that it is a peer-to-peer file sharing (P2P) protocol for distributing large amounts of data widely across cyberspace in a decentralized way. The general idea is that every file — movie or otherwise — is divided up into many, many, many tiny pieces, every one of which can be redundantly stored in different computers on the Internet. The pieces can be downloaded all at a time, in no particular sequence, from any of these locations. The BitTorrent client software that you run on your computer finds a source computer for each piece, downloads all the pieces one by one, and assembles them in their proper order to make a single file on your hard drive which is exactly like the original file.

The thing which describes all the pieces of the big file so that a BitTorrent client can access them is a small, information-containing pointer file called a "torrent." If you want to download, say, the movie Ocean's 12, you first need to find a website that publishes a torrent for that movie. Once you have gone to that site and clicked on the torrent, you click download, and your web browser downloads just the tiny torrent file.

You then open your BitTorrent client, if it's not already open and your browser doesn't automatically open it, and you point it at the downloaded torrent file, which is probably sitting on your desktop. After asking you where on your hard drive to put the big output file it is about to create, the BitTorrent client begins downloading the movie itself.

That can take a very, very long time. This is where the ability of a BitTorrent client to download multiple files pays off, for you can fire off multiple torrents almost as easily as one. They all download side by side. The BitTorrent client keeps you apprised of how much progress is being made for each file you are downloading.

Meanwhile — and this is interesting — once you have started obtaining pieces of a file, your computer becomes a BitTorrent "peer" for disseminating that same file. Other people who are trying to download the same target file can start obtaining (some of) their pieces from you.

The original BitTorrent client can be downloaded for free here, which is at the BitTorrent web site. It has Windows, Mac, and Linux versions.

I find a better choice for Mac users is BitRocket, which is likewise free. It is Open Source software: as many people as want to do so collaborate on its development, just for the fun of it. BitRocket has a much more usable interface than the original BitTorrent client, and it can also help you create your own torrent files.

I learned about BitTorrent and BitRocket from a useful post called BitTorrent 101 for Mac Users at MyMacBuzz.

Where do you find the torrents to download in the first place? First of all, there is the official BitTorrent site, where you can find a smattering of content that is guaranteed legal. Some is free, while some costs money to rent or to buy.

There are several other torrent sites I have found, much of whose content is presumably illegal:

The Ocean's 12 file you obtain from a torrent site is, sadly, not likely to be one that will play right away in iTunes or on Apple TV. It typically needs to be converted from an .avi file to an .mp4 file.

One way to do that is in QuickTime Pro on a Mac. If you open one of the .avi files you have downloaded in QuickTime Player, you can do a "Movie to MPEG-4" export, which will (slowly) convert the original movie to a new file in a format usable by iTunes/Apple TV. The old .avi file will remain untouched, while the new file, with .mp4 as its filename extension, can be imported into and played in iTunes ... which makes it available to Apple TV.

For all that to be possible, QuickTime must have access to the DivX codec, downloadable here. Or, some movies require QuickTime to use the XviD codec, available for the Mac from here. The XviD codec piggybacks on the DivX codec, so you need both.

Notice that the file format is not the same thing as the codec, also known as the encoder/decoder. The file format is .avi. The codec is DivX, or XviD, or whatever. (If it's "whatever," QuickTime may or may not be able to deal with it.)

When you want QuickTime Player to export a movie to MPEG-4, you select Export... from the File menu with that movie's window active in the player. In the Save As dialog, you choose Movie to MPEG-4 from the Export pop-up. You control exactly how the export is done by clicking on the Options... button.

From the Video Format pop-up in the MPEG-4 Export Settings pane, you will probably be best off choosing H.264, which results in the most advanced video compression available in the MPEG-4 family.

I'm currently entering a Data Rate of 1372 kbits/sec for H.264. I choose Current in the Image Size pop-up and also in the Frame Rate pop-up. I select Automatic for Key Frame, rather than telling QuickTime to shove in a so-called "key frame" every specified number of frames. (A "key frame" is an anchor point in a digitally compressed video stream: a single image that is entire unto itself and does not depend in any way on its neighboring images. The more often a key frame comes up in the digital stream, the better the video quality — at the expense of making the file less compact.)

In the MPEG-4 Export Settings pane, clicking Video Options produces a drop down sheet in which I am currently selecting "Restrict Profile(s) to: Main" and "Encoding Mode: Faster encode (Single-pass)".

Once you set all these MPEG-4 Export Settings up the first time, you can simply "Use: Most Recent Settings" from then on out ... unless you want to change something.

The typical movie export takes the better part of an hour to wrap up. Once it is done, you can add the resulting file to your iTunes library, and you're good to go.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Apple TV is a Winner!

An Apple TV (Appletv) now graces my bedroom TV entertainment center.

What is it? Wikipedia calls it a "digital media receiver." I think of it as an iTunes client. You hook it to an HDTV — either with an HDMI cable or with a component video or YPbPr cable supplemented with a left and right stereo audio cable. (You have to supply whatever cables you use. None come in the box with the Apple TV.) Apple TV pulls video and audio content out of iTunes over the network and plays it into your TV.

You can read a c|net review of Apple TV here.

Before hooking up the Apple TV, you fire up iTunes on one of your computers (which can be a Mac or a PC).

After hooking up the Apple TV, you then interact, via the included remote, with the user interface that appears on your TV screen. You are asked to idenfity your wireless home computer network (or optionally a wired Ethernet network). You enter the necessary network password on a popup keyboard on the TV screen.

The Apple TV puts a randomly chosen 5-digit code on the TV screen, which you duly type into iTunes on your chosen computer. Your iTunes library starts syncing to the Apple TV.

Sitting at your computer, you can interrupt that process to give yourself greater control over what syncs and what doesn't. You can sync music, movies, TV shows, podcasts ... and also photos from iPhoto. In each category you can either suppress syncing entirely or select from various subsets of eligible items. For example, under Movies you can choose to sync, say, just the five most recently added unwatched movies.

Movies and other media files that are synced to Apple TV are physically copied, via the network, to the Apple TV's internal hard drive, which in my $299 unit holds 40 GB. There is also a 160 GB Apple TV for $399. (Click this link for the tour of Apple TV at the Apple web site.)

Syncing to Apple TV is thus like what you do with an iPod. But with an iPod, you have to finish the syncing before you can access any media files. With Apple TV you don't have to wait, because Apple TV streams as well as syncs.

That means you can instantly navigate the new Apple TV to, say, the Lord of War movie file you just downloaded from the iTunes store, and start playing it right away ... regardless of whether or not the movie has synced (or will ever be synced) to the Apple TV.

I found movie streaming (which is more challenging to a network than, say, music streaming) operated smoothly and responsively on my existing wireless network. Doing things like pausing and resuming, stepping forward and backward to the next chapter or by a set amount in a movie without chapter stops, and fast forwarding and rewinding, I found myself grinning. No, it's not quite as responsive as a DVD player when you do these things while streaming a movie to Apple TV, but its quite good. Surprisingly good.

This is on my 802.11g wireless network. Apple TV also supports the much faster 802.11n standard, if you have one of Apple's latest AirPort Extreme base stations. I don't.

Most wireless networks use a "base station" or "WiFi access point," which also serves as an "router" of IP (Internet Protocol) addresses, so any computer on the home network can get on the Internet. "Base station" is what Apple calls it. In the world of Windows PCs, it's an "access point" or "router." I'll call it by Apple's name.

The base station is the main thing that determines whether your home network uses the slower 802.11g or the faster 802.11n technology (or both). But if a device on the network doesn't support 802.11n, speeds are limited to 802.11g for any transmission involving that device. The Apple TV does support 802.11n, so if you have the new type of AirPort Extreme 802.11n-capable base station and a computer that likewise supports 802.11n, you can stream or sync media files from that computer to Apple TV at the new, higher transmission rates.

Many of Apple's latest Mac models, including my MacBook Pro and other MacBooks and iMacs with Intel Core 2 Duo processors, need to have Apple's AirPort Extreme 802.11n Enabler software applied before they can use 802.11n. The enabler comes with the latest AirPort Extreme base station, or you can download it for $1.99.

In my experience, you don't need 802.11n. 802.11g is fine for both syncing and streaming.

At some point, you may want to sync/stream truly high-definition videos, none of which seem to be available today at the iTunes Store or in any video format that the iTunes software can accept. When HD videos become available, 802.11n speeds may become necessary. Time will tell.

The Apple TV user interface that appears on your TV screen is elegant and intuitive to use. You navigate it with the Apple Remote which comes with the unit.

The tiny remote looks a bit like a wrapped stick of chewing gum on steroids. It's the same remote that comes with a MacBook Pro or various other Mac models today. It has just six buttons, all of which do double duty, depending on the context. For example, the play/pause button in the middle of the circle doubles as an "OK" button, while "Menu" is also "Back" (to the previous menu, that is).

Apple TV is very easy to learn to use. Apple has spent a lot of time refining the interface so that it does what you want it to do without a lot of false moves and puzzlements. Of course, different people have different intuitions about these things, but I personally found the Apple TV interface most gratifying. In fact, I have never even looked at the user guide which comes with the unit.

True, if you have never used iTunes or an iPod and never played a media file online, you may face something of a learning curve ... but not an insurmountable one.

Picture quality on Apple TV is, in my humble opinion, more than acceptable. The movies I have tried thus far are copies of DVDs that I made on my MacBook Pro using (mainly) HandBrake. See my earlier posts in the category Ripping DVDs for more on how to turn your DVDs into video files which iTunes can play.

These files are not fully up to standard DVD quality, admittedly. Nor are they high-def. You do get a few "digital artifacts" (mostly "macroblocking") in some scenes, but most scenes look just fine. Resolution is good enough that you don't feel you are looking at an overly "soft" picture. A ripped file for a full length movie will typically be about 1 GB in size — a fraction of a regular DVD. The time it takes to rip the DVD depends on how fast your computer is. My MacBook Pro can do a movie in well under an hour.

So it's eminently possible to computerize your entire DVD library of, say, 200 titles into that many gigabytes of hard drive space. If your computer doesn't have that much space, you can get an external drive for (very roughly) $100-$150 per 250 GB. If you get one of Apple's new base stations, you can hook a USB-interface external drive to it and share it among all the computers on your network.

Because Apple TV streams so well, it doesn't really matter that you can't sync all those movies on the network hard drive to it, be aware.

Of course, if you don't want to rip DVDs, you can purchase movies and TV shows in downloadable form at the iTunes Store. The selection is pretty good and getting better. The day is coming (but isn't quite here) when you will be able to buy any movie at the iTunes Store that comes out on DVD.

Unfortunately, you can't necessarily get movie downloads at any other site that can be imported into, and will work with, iTunes. It depends on the format and codec used to encode the video.

iTunes prefers videos encoded in

These are the formats that will work on Apple TV without conversion. They will also work on a video iPod. (However, to work on an iPod they have to have certain characteristics which may not conform to Apple TV's needs. The main difference is that an iPod has lower resolution than an HDTV fed by Apple TV.)

There are other video formats which iTunes can also import and play, but which will not play on Apple TV (or iPod) unless they are converted. iTunes has "Convert Selection for Apple TV" and "Convert Selection for iPod" choices it its Advanced menu for this purpose. I have not tried these.

Generally speaking, any video format which is supported by Apple's QuickTime Player — as opposed to a QuickTime plugin — can be converted to an Apple TV-ready format in iTunes in this way. Among these formats are QuickTime' own movie (.mov) format, AVI, and several others. However, if a video is copy-protected, it cannot be converted.

Certain popular video formats are not supported. These include the well-known Windows Media Video 9 codec, now named VC-1. Another unsupported codec, as far as I can tell, is DivX. (I am taking this information about what video formats are not supported from various Web sources. I have not confirmed it.)

The latest Apple TV software, which can be downloaded and installed on Apple TV via the on-screen user interface, does support YouTube videos (even though they're not in iTunes). Cool!

As for music files, if they're in iTunes you can sync/stream them to Apple TV. They turn your TV into a giant iPod, they're easy to locate via such standard categories as title, album, playlist, etc., and they sound great. Unlike most other iTunes-aware digital music receivers, Apple TV lets you play all those "protected AAC" music tracks you've downloaded from the iTunes store. Major kudos for that!

Saturday, August 04, 2007

TiVo Series3: More Storage Capacity

In Three Cheers for TiVo Series3, I said how happy I am with the digital video recorder I'm using with my bedroom TV. It contains a pair of CableCARDs that let it receive and record any two programs at a time on channels which my cable company grants me access to, including high-definition channels such as HBO, Showtime, and STARZ. It records them onto a 250 GB hard drive, big enough to hold about 32 hours of HD material, or 303 hours of standard-def stuff.

It would of course be nice if it would hold more ... but how can that be arranged?

An answer comes from this thread at the TiVo Community Forum. The Series3 TiVo has a connector in back for an external eSATA drive. Hook such a hard drive to the Series3 and hit certain keys on the remote as it is booting up, and the S3 "marries" the storage space on the eSATA drive to that on its internal drive. From that time on, the S3 uses the storage on both drives as if it were in one big pool.

An external eSATA drive is one that uses the Serial ATA (or SATA) bus interface, which was originally intended for computer-internal drives. (ATA stands for "Advanced Technology Attachment," if anyone cares.) An eSATA drive is nothing more than an internal SATA drive with an external, standalone enclosure around it. The "e" in eSATA stands for "external."

The eSATA drive connects with a host device — in this case, the TiVo Series3 — by means of (you guessed it) an eSATA cable that plugs into both the drive and the host device. If the host device is a TiVo Series3, the cable needs to be an "eSATA II" (a.k.a. "SATA II") cable. It has longer connector plugs than an "eSATA I" (a.k.a. "SATA I") cable. If you use the latter type with the Series3, results are unpredictable. The whole thing is apt not to work. The SIIG, Inc., CB-SA0111-S1 1-meter eSATA II (eSATA-to-eSATA) cable (available here for $17.59 plus $4.95 shipping) is a good choice because it snaps into place to provide a solid connection.

One fairly inexpensive way to implement the above would be to get a Western Digital My Book Premium ES Edition 500GB External eSATA and USB 2.0 Hard Drive, model no. WDG1SU5000N, available for $159.99 at 500GB would give me a total of three times the storage capacity I now have, for 98 hours of HD programs or 927 hours of SD. Throw in the cable and the total price is $177.58 before sales tax/shipping.

The downside of choosing the WDG1SU5000N:

  • It has no fan
  • It only has a "soft" on-off switch
  • It is not certified for 24/7 operation
  • It is not specifically designed for DVR use

A fan, though far from silent, helps cool the drive. I don't think that matters to me, for where I would put the drive has unobstructed air circulation — but sometimes it's better to be safe than sorry.

A "hard" on-off switch is recommended that mechanically locks in the on position so, upon restoring power after an outage, the drive powers up right away without user intervention. If an eSATA drive with a soft switch isn't on during TiVo startup, the Series3 will sit at a "reconnect the drive" screen until you physically turn the drive on, which means any programs you have scheduled do not get recorded until you intervene. That's why it is important to have an eSATA drive/enclosure with a hard power switch that will automatically power back up after brief power outages.

The WDG1SU5000N does not have a hard power switch but it does turn on automatically when the device it is connected to is supplied with power. It is not clear whether that would avoid getting stuck at the "reconnect the drive" screen or not. (I'm not quite clear, for that matter, whether the drive would need to be plugged into the wall, or would it draw power from the Series3?)

Not being certified for 24/7 operation, the WDG1SU5000N might be more prone to failure than a drive with 24/7 certification. The warranty on this drive is only for one year.

Not being designed for use with digital video recorders, the WDG1SU5000N lacks a firmware modification to reduce seek noise, at the expense of seek-time performance. Performance is very important in a desktop drive for a PC, but less so for eSATA expansion on the Series3, which still uses the internal drive for all guide and index information — which is where seek-time performance is crucial.

A 500GB drive that meets
the above criteria — 24/7 certification, DVR quiet-seek design — is model ST3500830SCE of Seagate's multi-model DB35 series. I can get it at for $170.30, with no tax and free shipping. But, as an internal SATA drive, it lacks an enclosure, which I would need to buy separately.

One such enclosure is Antec's Veris MX-1, which comes with a fan and eSATA cable and costs $55 (with free shipping) at It has a hard on-off switch.

So for a total of $225.30 I could have it all, so to speak.

Upping the drive capacity to 750 GB by opting for the Seagate ST3750840SCE, I'd be paying $277.93 at With enclosure, that's $332.93 — $107.63 more for that third quarter-terabyte of add-on storage. wants $75.80 (including $5.24 for shipping) for the ST3250820SCE 250 GB drive from Seagate. Add the enclosure for $55, and the total is $130.80 — a saving of $94.50 for eschewing a second quarter-terabyte of add-on storage.

Decisions, decisions, decisions ...

Dispatches from the Format War, #2

The format war of high-definition video disc formats proceeds apace. An excellent website that provides in-depth reviews of discs on HD DVD and Blu-ray, without bias toward one side or the other, is High-Def Digest.

The site is the brainchild of publisher Jed Rosenzweig, editor/senior reviewer Peter M. Bracke, reviewer Kenneth Brown, and engineer Zachary Holt. Also featured at the site are news reports on upcoming Blu-ray and HD DVD releases, plus an easy-to-access list of past, present, and future release dates for both formats.

The Digital Bits has long been a must-visit website for me and other DVD lovers. It does what High-Def Digest does, but for regular DVDs plus HD DVD and Blu-ray. Inexplicably, although it has adopted a pro-Blu-ray stance and predicts that the format will eventually win out over HD DVD, it has as of August 4, 2007, reviewed only six Blu-ray discs! The number of HD DVD discs it has reviewed totals 36.

TDB is useful for keeping up with the official stats as to how each format is doing in the marketplace. As of the end of July 2007, 60 percent of the high-definition discs that have been sold are Blu-ray, while only 40 percent are HD DVD. In the week ending July 22, the split was an even more lopsided 66/34.

Meanwhile, 274 Blu-ray titles have been released, to 259 for HD DVD. Blu-ray has announced 63 additional titles, HD DVD 47.

This is an impressive tilt in Blu-ray's favor, especially considering that HD DVD players and discs hit store shelves first. Then when Blu-ray debuted, it did so with a player, the Samsung BD-P1000, whose picture quality the manufacturer had inadvertently crippled. (A scaler chip had been told to do unnecessary noise reduction, softening the supposedly razor-sharp high-def image. That's now been fixed with a firmware update.)

Add to that the fact that the first Blu-ray releases did not take advantage of the next-gen video codecs the HD DVD side was already chortling about, VC-1 and MPEG-4 AVC. Using the same stodgy old codec used on regular DVDs — MPEG-2 — made for poorer video quality, said high-definition aficionados. To offset that complaint, MPEG-2 could yield tolerable results only by producing files that took up more space on the disc than the newer codecs would have needed. Since the Blu-ray camp was at that time not yet able to manufacture dual-layer, 50-gigabyte discs — it can now — there was little if any room left over on the discs for extras.

When the home theater fanboys started howling about all those complaints, I wouldn't have given you a plugged nickel for Blu-ray's chances to best HD DVD.

But how the mighty have fallen. Today it's HD DVD that looks like it's on the ropes.

Now, if only The Digital Bits would put its money where its mouth is and start reviewing Blu-ray releases by the boatload! If High-Def Digest can do it, so can TDB.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Dispatches from the Format War, #1

Blu in the Face, a posting from Scott Hettrick's blog at, makes interesting reading for those of us following the format war between HD DVD and Blu-ray. The blog and site are frankly biased in favor of Blu-ray, so what Hettrick posts is anything but evenhanded. Still, the news is good for people like me who suspect Blu-ray will win the war and wish it would happen sooner rather than later:

  • Blockbuster will be stocking Blu-ray and not HD DVD in most of its stores
  • Target will be selling Blu-ray models as its first high-def disc players starting this fall
  • A special "Ultimate Edition" of Close Encounters of the Third Kind will be released by Steven Spielberg exclusively on Blu-ray
  • BJ's Wholesale Club will stop selling HD DVD products in its stores
"Most of the biggest upcoming hi-def disc titles announced in recent days, such as Cars, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Spider-Man 3, will be available only on Blu-ray," says Hettrick. " Meanwhile, almost all the major new HD DVD titles will also be released simultaneously on Blu-ray, including 300 and Ridley Scott's latest and definitive cut of Blade Runner."

Even so, Hettrick has to admit that most of the attractive price slashing right now is happening on the HD DVD front.