Getting movies to play on DLNA-compatible devices isn’t easy.  Welcome to my first blog of 2011: where middle-classes commit crime, get confused, and have to go back to playing Doom for a count-to-10-fest.

In the Beginning

After some suspicious law-breaking caused by not wanting to spend £200 on Ikea Shelves, many of the DVDs I own suddenly, and quite by surprise, found themselves stored on two PCs in my house.  Magically catalogued in a Danish “My Movies” system, I can access these movies through a fab looking graphical interface across my network.

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Many LCD / LED televisions allow us to watch movies stored on a computer across our home networks.  Radios supporting the “digital home” mean we can be in our kitchens or bathrooms listening to the music we’ve bought and put onto home PCs.  Even mobile phones now support DLNA!

imageThe pretty Danish thing is not an example of a DLNA Digital Home. It’s a computer database that tells other computers what file to get to play a movie.  Maybe you’ve got something similar already running in your home – a shared folder with all your Music in, for example.

DLNA, on the other hand, works more like this:

A digital home reads original media (it could be a video from your camcorder) and then stores it somehow in the right format.  Next, it is converted before being broadcast by your digital home servers over your network.

The device you’re using (like an iPad) then receives the media, and might convert it internally into a usable format.  The player on the device then turns that into a format that encourages the dunking of biscuits.

Read on to find out how I investigated and decided on a digital media home set-up for myself…

The Library

Stored and Viewed Media

Containers

A media container wraps up the sound and video and puts it into one large file on your computer.  Container files have special file extensions, and include:

  • AVI
  • VOB
  • FLV (Flash)
  • MKV (Matroska)
  • MP4 (MPEG-4)
  • RM (RealMedia)

A container has the important job of holding the audio and video together in such a way that the device that plays it doesn’t have to do much work to play the audio and video (and subtitles) at the same time.  At a meal we need a bit of food, a bit of beer, and then a bit more food, a bit more beer etc. A digital device that gets too much food or too much beer will just get sick and ruin your entire film-watching experience.

Audio

The main audio formats on computers are:

  • AAC
  • MP3 (you’re sure to know this one!)
  • Windows Media Audio

On the other hand, movies use AC3 (Dolby Digital to you and me) and some have DTS audio extensions.  Some still say that DTS is better then Dolby Digital.

While your amplifier or DVD player can use AC3 directly, your PC is likely to need an AC3 filter to play the audio as part of the incoming conversion process.  Some media players have these AC3 / Dolby Digital filters built in, and you don’t have to do anything extra.

I began this journey insisting on Dolby Digital (AC3) – afterall, why bother changing to something else?  I learned, counsellor, that AAC is next generation.  It has better clarity, range, and compression.  And while it may not “upgrade” the original sound quality on a DVD (which is old hat now) it will produce a much smaller audio stream within the container for the same result.  MP3 is just rubbish – it only contains stereo tracks (yes, STEREO!  Even my CAR has more than two speakers) and the encoding routines have been far outdone and improved upon over the past decade or so.

AAC has made me think seriously about re-ripping all my CDs to AAC: CDs in their original form sound much better than MP3s you will recall – and people “out there” have rated AAC much better for sound quality. I will let you know how it goes!

Video

Video formats – well that’s where it gets into the land of graphs!

All computer videos are compressed: the original “film” is turned into a smaller version that can be transported and used in a home environment.

Common compression techniques for video include:

  • MPEG-2 (DVD, also known as H.262)
  • MPEG-4 (Blu-ray, also known as H.264)

Highly paid individuals make the best possible output from their source material using hundreds of options in their compression and conversion tools.  The rest of us are likely to be interested in:

  • How much space we have on our server (or, if we’re buying one for the job, how much cash we have!)
  • What visual quality you can live with – maybe on a film-by-film basis
  • How wide and high you want the image to be (resolution and ratio) and whether the device can stretch or squish the image to the original height and width
  • The size, quality, and resolution of the original – no point using 1080p if your original film is from VHS!
  • Whether or not in can be converted from by our digital home system (that’s the Outgoing Conversion box)

The Player

Every device has a player installed on it. It takes the incoming media and renders it in the real world, like a mystical chef working in a far away land using magical fish and mysterious potatoes to make this amazing dish…

For each device owned, it’s critical to look at the audio and video formats its player can handle, and what containers it understands.

There are plenty of lists on the internet. There are lists for the PS3; the XBOX specifications are difficult to findAndroid mobile telephones support some formats:

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And as a case in point, the HTC Desire HD might be an Android device, but its player has a very specific list of types it can handle.

So remember when picking your stored media format – it needs to be as close as possible to the media types your devices’ media players can handle.

The Reader

The magical reading of DVDs onto the Danish software happened mysteriously, so I cannot explain this process.  (There are other people that do, anyway).  However, the conversion process is a third-person type of fact-impartation.

Software

There are many different converters and “rippers” out there and it would take someone who was looking for one hours to find one they like.  The short version of such a person’s experience could be:

  • DVD Fab 8 doesn’t combine DVD VOBs together to make one file
  • Arcsoft Media Converter only outputs 2-channel AAC and doesn’t allow AC3 pass-through into the container.  It does have SimHD, however, which does a good job of up-scaling to HD.
  • DivX Plus does everything you’d want but doesn’t let you save your own profiles
  • Tipard DVD Rip and AVS DVD Ripper Platinum are the same program with different skins over the top and just as “powerful” / “crap” as each other.  Xilisoft DVD Ripper Ultimate may as well have been the same program as the other two.  These apps seem more geared to people wanting to put stuff onto the 5 billion iPad, Droid, Apple TV, market stall, P2P file sharing, and miniature finger-nail LCD screens that they (or their customers) own.  They’re also expensive.  Pavtube DVD Ripper was nicer, but the video quality just wasn’t there.  In fact, it was crap.

The DixX Plus Converter with the MPEG-2 pack can convert the MPEG-2 video inside the VOB containers, but you will need an AC3 Filter to decode the Dolby Digital and convert it (if needs be) into AAC.  A video bitrate of 2.5Mbps still results in MKV containers half the size of an original – and has the appearance of up-scaling – which is nice.

If you’re looking to get your hands dirty, don’t get DivX. Try something else like the AVS Video Converter.

imageOn another important note, be wary of “AAC” converters.  Some, like the Arcsoft Media Converter, lose multichannel audio (and no, their pre-sales still haven’t explained why). Converting that HD video of you breaking a leg skiing in Les Gets will be smurfled into stereo.  I can confirm that the DivX converter doesn’t lose multichannel in its AAC audio, as you can see in the screenshot for the film “Finding Emperor Nero”, which is a blast for people of all ages, I can tell you.

When you’ve finished converting some samples, use an application like MediaInfo to check out exactly what the conversion process has done.  When converting some of home movies, for example, the AC3 Filter churned out AAC-LC 6-channel audio – sometimes it didn’t (usually because I forgot to set something).  Know your source media – it’ll stop you bashing your amplifier, laptop, or PC later for not churning out 7 channels of audio ecstasy from a 2-channel original.

Transmit and Receive

Network

The central decision (for me) is about the bit rate, or “power”, that the video and audio in my container has.  It is measured in a rate per second – thousands (kilobits) or millions (megabits). The higher the power, the better the quality.

It’s directly proportional to the disk space you need (i.e. film length in seconds * bitrate), and influences the capacity and quality of the network connections between devices.

A fast network means higher transfer speeds, and higher speed transfers means better quality video. And better quality video means points and points mean prizes.

As everyone remembers, Three got a huge amount of stick when it launched 3G in the UK.  Just because the UK had 3G didn’t mean anyone could actually get it.  Thus it is the same with wireless networks in a digital home. Having a beautiful Wireless N router doesn’t mean you’ll get super fastness in every corner of your house.

imageWhich is why you need Powerline. Two PC World-purchased HomePlugs from Devolo in a 16th Century building give a consistently fast 170Mbps connection between the equipment in the front room and my office upstairs. That’s a lot of bandwidth to be playing with.

You can now get even more capability from people like D-Link and Netgear.  Of course, if you have the time and energy, lay ethernet cable and buy switches and hubs. But if you could invest in Powerline, why would you bother with all that trunking and punching…

The Server

The default position for some people is to use Windows media sharing: it’s a part of Windows Media Player 11, and Windows Media Player 12 (on Windows 7) lets you open shared media, as well as just share it.  (Yes, that’s right – WMP 11 lets you give it out, but not look around).  So, if you have a PC with Windows 7, for example, why bother with something else?

Well, there are alternatives out there!  Some are free, some you have to pay for.  A cunning internet guide shortlists the products out there for you to take a look.  I’ve played with quite a few, and am happy with Twonky Media Server – but it did have a wobbly this last few days that I can’t rectify, so I gave up completely when it started asking me to pay.

Another alternative is to use a dedicated piece of hardware to hold your media and to publish it around your network.  As well as there being offerings that are protected from individual (or sometimes multiple) disk failures, they use a hell of a lot less power than a PC, and can happily sit in a cupboard somewhere, on all day, thinking about the meaning of life.

You might consider these “Network Attached Storage” boxes from any of these manufacturers. These three come with media sharing servers of their own:

Preparation

Outgoing Conversion

Let’s look at Windows Media Player, which will let you play any of these formats without any installation of other bits and pieces:

What if I have stored my media in VOB containers and have AC3 audio in them?  According to the bods at Microsoft, Windows Media Sharing will automatically convert a container as needed for the target device.  It’s not the only server to say this will happen.

But how well do servers do at detecting devices and their capabilities?

Nero MediaHome 4

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Notice how my HTC Desire HD shows up as, ahem, “Generic DLNA Device”.  No transcode to that phone for me – it doesn’t know what it can play, so it won’t bother changing anything.

(Oh and by the way, it has the uninstaller from hell)

TVersity

imageAlthough TVersity has some great online media streaming options, such as (in the paid version) pushing iPlayer to connected devices, it too doesn’t pick up the phone, and weirdly thinks I have a PS3…

 

Wild Media Server

The programmers have clearly gone to a lot of effort to give you access to absolutely every possible permutation of configuration possible in the universe.  It makes me think that this was actually built by Data.  It is therefore one of the most needlessly flexible pieces of software I have ever, ever seen.  It is so complicated to use that I gave up trying to work out whether it knew what my device was and uninstalled it instead.

Mezmoo

imageAt least WMS doesn’t install itself as a service in the context of the current in user unlike this silly programme.

That aside, it too was unable to detect my HTC.

Incoming Conversion

Here’s the Samsung 6-series TV’s compatible media list:

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The TV can understand an MKV container including H.264 and AAC – specifically High Efficiency AAC. But when the TV passes AAC to my amplifier, will it understand the audio stream? Answer? No. At best, I end up with just stereo. And how is one supposed to enjoy Inception if … actually, never mind that … how are you supposed to enjoy Inception at all?

The fact is that my amplifier only supports Dolby Digital and DTS for surround sound – i.e. the formats you’d have found for Home Cinema surround sound in 2001. There are not likely to be any amplifiers that can decode AAC natively for a very long time.

Even if your equipment says it can support AAC (like my TV or a Freeview HD set-top box) it may not carry out Incoming Conversion to mix it into a format your amplifier understands as “surround sound”.

Even though my TV supports AAC, it sends the audio as PCM to my receiver over the optical cable, and I end up with 2.0 sound.  Fine for music, but not fine for a movie.

Is there a future for transcoding?

With a PC I can always add software to play, for example, DivX or RealMedia, and why wouldn’t I just buy some other device I know will work with the format I choose?

So let’s see. If I had £3.6bn, what would I buy?

Take a look at the standards that the Samsung 9000 series televisions support, compared to the series 6 that was linked earlier.

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Not only are more formats supported than on the 6-series, they are supported in a wider combination.  It’s clear that, so long as you pick a mainstream winner, there will be a device on the market that will support it.  Only through testing and careful research, however, will you be able to guarantee success.

Conclusion

My DLNA world is beginning with this:

Transmit & Receive

  • A powerline network for the the TV and other video playing devices
  • A wireless network for audio and still images only
  • Windows Media (Windows 7 Homegroup, as it’s called) Sharing for everything
  • DLNA compliant devices every time – including a DLNA Radio so I can listen to Emma’s Imagination once I’m bored with Absolute Radio 90s, and a DLNA TV to watch the movie on

Future-wise, I’m gonna go with either a Synology DS411j or an Iomega ix4-200d Cloud Edition – but with H264 now under my belt, I don’t need to expand storage for a while yet – and I don’t have £1,000 in the bank for the 8TB array I want to build…!

Preparation

  • No transcoding between stored and broadcast versions from the server – if it doesn’t play properly, I need a new one for Christmas.
  • AC3 Filter only on PCs that need it for playback

I’m not even considering transcoding to solve my AAC to AC3 TV / amplifier issue.  I don’t gain anything (except a flatter bum) from converting to AAC from AC3.  However, I am going to check out the CD-ripping aspects of AAC to see whether it really is worth the time and effort required.

Library

Taking the advice from forums, I am going to encode at the highest quality (not smallest size) depending on use and capability of the very last device in the chain.

Way back at the top, I noted that home cinema is all about Dolby and DTS, so my audio for that will be in AC3, give or take DTS bits and pieces.  But both the PCs and my television support H264 video, so I can squish my video into that format and save a fortunes worth of space.  In other words:

  • All movies stored as H264 video with AC3 multichannel audio stored inside an MKV container, using DivX – why spend more time and money on something that also lets me convert it to (yuk, vomit, vomit, cough) Apple (ergh, cough, vomit, hurl) iPad format as well?
  • Bitrates based on the content of the film:
    • Action, fantasy, and sci-fi using a 3mbps video bitrate
    • Comedy, drama, and british rom-coms 2mbps
    • Everything else 2.5mpbs
  • LOTS of tea and biscuits

There’s no harm in me keeping my nice Danish program – I just share a different drive and point it to the new location.  The neat thing is that, because of the stored format of the media, Windows Media Player will continue to play those movies, and at the same time I also get DLNA across my entire home for everything else.

Job done!

Late edition…

OK so I got annoyed with DivX Converter.  It turns out that it can’t handle subtitles (for my hilarious translation of the Yorkshireman in the ski lift) or chapters (meaning the chapters added within DVDs you’ve paid to have transferred from Cinefilm will be lost).  So, I did some more hunting and found the brilliant Vidcoder, which actually sits on top of the already brilliant Handbrake.

Since I last used Handbrake, (a) I have learnt what the bloody words mean and (b) they have adopted a much better GUI – so good, in fact, that it’s cleaned up version of VidCoder, apparently.

Now, it’s not commercial, which means:

  • There are some bugs you just have to let lie
  • The codecs used aren’t top notch (e.g. one to convert to AAC is FAAC, rather than Nero AAC) and you end up with bigger file sizes than you would from, say, DivX Converter
  • It’s not as fast as the DivX Converter, or some others that make more efficient use of your graphics card (ATI Stream or nVidia CUDA) or processor (Intel Sandybridge)

But now, I can:

  • Add two audio streams – one in AAC (Dolby Pro Logic II) and one in AC3 (pass-through)
  • Have the original chapters properly marked
  • Include subtitles

What’s more, this is all within an MKV container with H264 video.  If only the makers of DivX had given Converter (a paid-for product) the same functionality as this app (a free one)! So, go get Handbrake instead of DivX Converter if you need more control over your conversion – which you’re sure to do eventually…

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