HandBrake – My new favorite video conversion tool

Since moving to an Apple iMac a few months ago, my new favorite video conversion tool is HandBrake. I still use ffmpeg, mencoder, and AtomicParsley as my batch-processing tools, but for queuing up multiple video files for conversion from AVI to MP4 format, I like using HandBrake (with its easy-to-use GUI). The version I have (64-bit for the Mac Snow Leopard OS X) runs very fast and produces excellent output. It also has numerous controls for adjusting the converted output video.

Note, that HandBrake is available for the Microsoft Windows OS, and I in fact used it a few times on my Windows 7 machine in the past. However, when I used my Zune HD I primarily converted my videos to WMV fomat which is something HandBrake didn’t do too well. So if you’re looking for a robust and fast video conversion tool for either the Mac or Windows machine, I recommend using the freeware Handbrake product and converting to MP4 format (for the Zune or iPod device).

Life with an iPod Touch

Last Friday my wife gave me an Apple iPod Touch as a birthday gift to replace my Zune HD. Since I recently switched to an Apple iMac system, it made sense that I also switch to an Apple-based media device since my Zune won’t sync natively with my Mac. I’ve never used an iPod before, so this was a new experience for me. If you’re into “apps”, then the iPod Touch beats the Zune hands down. There’s lots and lots of apps available and they load and run fast. The iPod has other features that seem better that what is currently available for the Zune HD (e.g., assisted GPS for use with Google Maps, better web browser and email app, etc). However, I do favor the Zune HD for use as a media player.

For example, with the Zune HD you can see much more metadata for TV shows than what you see on an iPod Touch. The Zune HD will show the show’s title, description, date aired, etc. while the iPod will only show the show’s title and a small part of the description. Also, the iPod Touch doesn’t have fast-foward/back buttons to allow skipping ahead in a show. All you have is a slider bar control that is really sensitive and difficult to use at times. In addition, when playing music all you see is a static album art image with the iPod while for the Zune you see a very nice animated graphic with moving text. Although most people don’t stare at these graphics while listening to music, it does show that someone at Microsoft had put in a lot of thought to make the Zune more polished.

Another disappointing thing is that the 4-generation iPod Touch does not have an FM radio while the Zune HD does have an HD radio built-in. So it seems to me that an iPod Touch is a a good device if you want to do more things than just play media, but a Zune HD is a far superior media player device.

Finally, I find using the iTunes software somewhat unintuitive, where I don’t understand how to control what is synced to my iPod Touch. I do see small symbols and checkboxes next to my media files, but I don’t know what that they do or mean. So, I’m having to watch some recorded training material to understand how to use iTunes more effectively. So I give the Zune Software an edge over iTunes.

What would be really great, is if the new Windows Phone 7 device could serve as a smartphone and as a Zune HD replacement. If the 7 phone had 32 or 64 GB of storage, then it would for all intensive purposes be a Zune HD that could sync with my iMac system. And to top it off, if the 7 phone had the high-resolution “retina” display that would be the icing on the cake!

Using Live Mesh to access my recorded shows

For the last year I’ve been using Windows Live Mesh to sync files between my desktop PC and various laptops that I own. The process works well, and is very transparent. I basically have folders on my Desktop PC that I’ve designated as Live Mesh sync folders, and any files put in those folders are automatically synced with a similar folder on my other laptop machines. Thus, I can have certain files synced an accessible on all my computers.

In addition, Live Mesh has a “virtual desktop” which is in the cloud (Internet) where I can sync files (there is a limit on total storage size, though). That way, I can store and backup important documents online just in case my computers are damaged in a fire, stolen, etc. What’s really nice, is that Windows Live Mesh is free to use and works very well.

This week, I’m traveling up in Canada and although I brought my Zune HD for watching recorded TV shows, I can’t access the shows that are being recorded nightly on my home PC system. So my favorite shows for this week (24, Fringe, etc) are inaccessible to me while I’m hundreds of miles away…. or are they?

The hotel I was staying at had a fairly high-speed Internet connection (4 MB/sec download), so I was able to access my home PC via a Remote Desktop Connection using my Dell 11z netbook. I then copied two WMV video files (converted from the Windows Media Center WTV format to WMV using DVRSMToolbox) from my standard Zune sync folder to one of my Live Mesh folders. Once I did that, those two WMV files were automatically synced to my Dell 11z laptop via the internet. Each video file was about 450 MB in size, and they seemed to sync over to my Dell 11z in about 2 hours. It was slow, but worked automatically.

So now I can watch those WMV files on my Dell 11z using Windows Media Player. Although these video files were converted for the Zune screen resolution, they seemed to play back just fine on my Dell 11z’s screen when I enlarged the playback window.

So, I now have access to my recorded TV shows even when I’m away from my home PC. If I start the syncing file transfer before I leave my hotel room for dinner, the video files are usually synced by the time I get back. Of course, YMMV depending on your Internet connection speed.

EncodeHD – Another video conversion utility

encodeHD_0EncodeHD is another video conversion tool that you might consider for your video needs. It is basically a simple front-end interface for FFMPEG, which does all the heavy lifting for the conversion process. You simply drag your source files into the main area of EncodeHD, select the output type, and click the “Start” button. Very easy to use, however, you don’t have a lot of control over the settings used (unless you already know the FFMPEG command line flags, in which case you can enter them under the “Advanced” screen).

encodeHD_2

Here’s a list of target devices that EncodeHD can create videos for. As you can see, there is an entry for “Zune” and “Zune HD”.

encodeHD_1

As a test, I converted a DVR-MS file (which is basically a container for MPEG2 video and audio) to a Zune HD output, and EncodeHD generated an MP4 file. So, EncodeHD only creates Mp4 formatted video files, not WMV files for the Zune. When I check the details of the generated MP4 file, I see the following attributes:

encodeHD_3

The video bit rate seems pretty high (which is good) but the frame rate doesn’t seem correct to me. In any case, this might be a good simple tool if you want to do some quick conversions. EncodeHD also uses other freeware utilities such as AtomicParsley to embed some meta data tags (e.g., video title, description, etc.), however, none of those tags are read by the Zune media player.

Microsoft Expressions Encoder 3

expressions_encoderMicrosoft Windows Encoder 9 has been my workhorse for encoding videos to WMV format for my Zune. It has a graphical user interface as well as a command line interface (which I mainly use), along with its own SDK that can be tied into custom applications (like the VisualBasic code, Media Encoder Batch). Unfortunately, in 2003 Microsoft decided to stop development to WME9 in favor of its replacement, Microsoft Expressions Encoder.

This evening, I decided to check out Expressions just to see how it compared to its predecessor, WME9, particularly for creating high-quality WMV files for the Zune HD. As it turns out, Expressions is designed to generate such files for the Zune HD. Below is what the main interface looks like with Expressions. It is actually a much cleaner GUI than WME9, in my opinion.

expression_0

Among the various predefined output settings, was one for the Zune HD and another for the Zune HD playback on a AV-Dock. The settings were defined as:

expression_1

One nice thing, is that Expressions can convert native WTV files (recordings generated by Windows 7 Media Center) which WME9 could not do. Also, you can use the Expressions to cut out commercial segments manually if you wish before the conversion process. As a test, I tried converting a WTV file which was in standard 4:3 format, and the default Zune HD conversion settings generated a 480×272 WMV file with black bars to the sides of the video (preserving the aspect ratio of the original 4:3 source). The quality of the playback was very good.

The only bad thing I see with Expressions, is that the version 3 does not have a command line interface. So you either use the GUI they provide or write your own code to interface with the Expressions SDK.

Most importantly, Microsoft Expressions Encoder 3 is free. You can download it from this link and run it on your Vista or Windows 7 system.

So if you want to use Microsoft’s latest free encoder software to create WMV files for your Zune, here it is.

Perfecting video conversion for the Zune HD

video_conversionFor you diehard videophiles who want the perfect video conversion, I think I’ve finally perfected the process of taking TV show recordings and turning them into WMV files for the Zune HD. There were lots of challenges to getting this to work, especially finding the right combination of tools and settings.

Now, the objective is to convert a TV show recording (WTV file from Windows 7 Media Center) into a WMV formatted file for my Zune HD media player. My TV recordings are in standard NTSC format (4:3 ratio) which is a squarish picture. The Zune HD has a wide-screen display (16:9) so I need to configure the conversion to handle this situation. One option is to stretch the picture side ways to fill the screen, but then the displayed image is distorted. Another option is to crop off part of the top and bottom of the TV image to create the 16:9 size. For my process, I decided to do the cropping option.

So, my first step is to convert the WTV file to the older DVR-MS format because most of the available conversion tools are compatible with DVR-MS and not WTV format. This is done by using a conversion program (wtvconverter.exe) that is supplied with Windows 7. Note, that the TV video resolution is 720×480, so we need to do some cropping to get it down to the 16:9 ratio size.

For this operation, I chose to use a freeware program called FFMPEG which is designed for video conversions. My goal in this step is to crop off 38 pixels from the top and bottom of the image, and then shrink the image down to a final size of 480×272 (which is the Zune HD screen resolution). I also want to convert the DVR-MS file to MPEG2 format at the same time. To do all this, I use the following command line with FFMPEG: Continue reading

My video conversion process

video_projectorOn a daily basis I record TV shows with my TV Tuner card and convert them for viewing on my Zune HD media player, so I automate the process using a wonderful utility called DVRMSToolbox (DTB). In conjunction with another great tool called ShowAnalyzer, I have a process of scanning through a recorded TV show file to find commercials, strip them out, and then convert the edited video file to WMV format for my Zune HD. All completely automatic.

Now, with a video conversion there’s lot of different converters, options, and settings you can use. For the Zune, I have the option of generating WMV or MP4 formatted files. I prefer using the WMV format, since it is designed to run on Microsoft OS devices. The MP4 is equally good, and is more universal as it can run on the Zune as well as the Apple iPod and other video media players. I opted for WMV because I can add more metadata (e.g., TV Show title, category, etc) than with the MP4 format.

With regards to playback quality, I’m not sure which of the formats (WMV or MP4) is better. That is one thing that I want to investigate in the future. Along with picking a format, there is a multitude of settings you can use. Video bit rate, Audio bit rate and frequency, frames per second, smoothness settings, keyframe rate, etc. are some of the different settings you can use. Each setting will affect the video playback quality as well as the final file size, so there’s a trade off. If you don’t care about file size, you can jack up the settings for the best quality. If generating a smaller file size is important, then you need to dial down these settings.

Being the stickler that I am with my videos, I’ll sacrifice having a larger file size if I can get better video quality. It really annoys me when the video I’m watching has a lot of video tearing, pixelation, bluriness, or jumpiness. I want a really smooth and high quality video for playback on my Zune. Continue reading