If I was to add up the amount of time I’ve spent in the last few years on encoding, muxing and generally getting audio and video into the format I need, it would probably scare the life out of me!
The good news is I’m now at a point where I’m in a generally happy place. And as a result I thought I would share. I’ll start by briefly describing what I have, primarily to highlight what my requirements are. I’ll then get swiftly into the detail. Before I do any of this, I’d like to say right from the outset that these techniques are for backing up media that you legally own, for personal backup and easier distribution around your own home and on your own media devices. In no way do I condone the copying of copyright material or material that you don’t legally have the right to.
OK, that said here is my set up.
My Set Up
I have an HTPC (with built in DVD/BluRay/HD-DVD combo drive) in the bedroom connected to a 32″ LCD Toshiba TV. In my living room, I have an XBox acting as an extender, a (new) Samsung 40″ Internet / DLNA enabled TV, Sky HD and an Apple TV. In the study, I have a Windows Home Server. In the kitchen I have BT Vision, but currently that sites pretty much standalone, as does the sky HD box in the living room. For audio only, I also have a Roku Soundbridge in the kitchen and an Apple Air Tunes express in the dining room. For travelling, I have an Apple MacBook and an iPhone.
Given my use of Apple devices throughout the set up, my video container of choice has to be MP4. Audio wise, MP3 or AAC is fine but again I tend to go for AAC – my ears aren’t so tuned that I can really tell the difference and AAC tends to come in a little smaller (file size wise).
So I have iTunes 9 on my WHS and that is my home media hub (in fact general home information & data hub). I have the Media Center connector set up to my HTPC. iTunes lets me sync content with my Apple TV and stream what I cannot fit on the 160GB drive. It’s wired in, so streaming works really nicely. For audio, again the WHS serves up content to the Roku soundbridge perfectly. And iTunes again serves up audio to the airport express, which I can control via my iPhone really nicely. I also have Spotify and Airfoil on the WHS to stream this to the airport express, the soundbridge, the Apple TV and my iPhone either independently or in multiples simultaneously. So as long as I add a video file in MP4 format to my video folder on the WHS and then into iTunes, and audio files as MP3 or AAC to my music folder and into iTunes, I’m all set. I should also mention that having the xbox as an extender and having a DLNA server on my WHS means I can stream MKV, WTV and DVR-MS and AVI files to my living room via the Internet TV or XBox.
So there it is, movies and long term TV shows tend to get converted to MP4 and made available from the WHS to the HTPC (which supports MP4 under W7) or the Apple TV. I can also push to my iPhone (or Macbook) when travelling – sometimes if the MP4 is too high res I need to create a lower res copy for this, but iTunes or other tools do this pretty simply. The Apple TV interface and access to the iTunes store mean this is beautiful to use for movies and TV shows I want to keep. TV shows that I’ve recorded on the Media Centre that I may only watch once, or files I have recorded on my Vado HD camcorder (AVI) get streamed via the XBox extender or directly to my TV via DLNA.
So now I’ve described my set up, here is how I get things into this structure.
For my DVD’s, I generally use Handbrake. This is a great utility for (Mac or PC) that will take a DVD (and other files come to that – flv, avi – although I’ve had no success with mkv) and convert to a great looking MP4 file. There are presets you can select for Apple TV, iPhone or iPod touch, amongst others. Or you can set the settings such as bitrate, resolution, frame rate, etc specifically if you prefer. Quite often I will use Media Info to establish the settings of a particular file and use those to create as accurate a copy within an MP4 container as possible.
HD-DVD’s & Blu Ray’s
For Blu Rays, if they are copy protected you will need to find a tool that can help with this. For my non-copy protected material I use ripbot264, written by Atak_Snajpera. A pretty straightforward tool, I open up the largest file within my bluRay folder (typically 25GB+). Ripbot then pieces things together and provides you the details of the main movie file. I set the picture size properties down to 720p, the sound to AAC-LC 6 channel and the output format to MP4. Then leave it to do it’s thing. A few hours later depending on your hardware) you will have an MP4 file of the main movie approx 3GB in size. I then move this to my video folder on the WHS, add to iTunes, sync to my Apple TV and possible have iTunes generate an iPhone version as well if I may need it when travelling.
All in all, a great solution for me.
I still have a way to go as it’s not perfect, but it keeps my file sizes pretty manageable and pretty good flexibility around where I play my content.