Posts Tagged '#inspectorgadget'

The Killer Three-Step Streaming Movie Hack

Around the time that The Beverage’s hard drive crashed, the July issue of MacLife arrived with a typically triumphant cover promising “15 Essential iPad How-Tos!

An issue of MacLife is always good to inspire a project or two, and after having just resurrected the MacBook Pro from the ashes with spare parts and tiny screwdrivers, I was feeling the urge to take on something else. A tantalizing item on the cover tease said, “Rip & load DVDs,” so I cracked it open and flipped to the story.

You can find the on-line version of the MacLife article here, and it has a bunch of good tips for iPad owners. But the real killer hack is the process (described at page 5 of the link) for ripping and compressing DVDs into iPad compatible files. That handy step-by-step provided the tools and inspiration forming the first link in a chain that eventually led to a long sought holy grail of sorts in my digital life – streaming movies on the home network.

We own not a small number of DVDs. Over the course of a decade, they’ve been picked up from grocery store checkout counters and giant bargain bins at Blockbuster, exchanged as gifts and accumulated in big, heaping binders under and around the TV. Some are classics, some are special personal favorites and some are forgettable. Over time, they had proliferated to the point that they became unwieldy and difficult to enjoy.

Various efforts to order this chaos – including a painstakingly constructed Bento database – had proven insufficient to bridge the gap between wanting to watch a movie and quickly finding a movie that we wanted to watch. Research revealed that giant DVD-changers often worked well for a bit, until the disks became so dusty that they would no longer play. The answer was obvious, if seemingly unattainable: digitize the collection onto a giant hard drive, get them into the magical iTunes database complete with metadata and stream them to the Apple TV.

The Apple TV is an awkward beast, a machine with seemingly great potential but left orphaned by Apple. The Beverage has included one in the home network for several years, but it has never seemed to work well for much of anything. It is, basically, a wifi-enabled video iPod with an HDMI-out port, and it syncs with iTunes running on another machine.

If you don’t have an Apple TV, don’t stop reading. This story ends perfectly well if you just want to watch movies on your laptop or even iPad. But for The Beverage, the Apple TV gathering dust next to the piles of DVDs gathering dust formed a perfect pair. One month and a lot of sweat equity later, I have nearly 100 movies stored in a 500 gig external drive attached to my old iMac and available for streaming to the Apple TV, each one complete with spiffy poster art and sorted into custom genres.

The process to get there is basically the same as the one you likely went through over the past 10 years with all your old CDs. It is more cumbersome and substantially more time consuming, but basically the same. Once you get used to the workflow, it is mindless and repetitive, but the result is glorious! It is ultimately three steps: (1) creating .m4v files, (2) importing them into iTunes and (3) syncing them to Apple TV (or iPad, if that’s what you want).

In case anyone is wondering, The Beverage does not offer legal advice, but this is clearly fair use under existing copyright law. The Supreme Court previously held in the Betamax decision that so-called “time shifting” of programs aired on broadcast TV by recording and replaying them later was protected fair use and did not constitute copyright infringement. The Ninth Circuit has recently reaffirmed that analogous “format shifting” or “space shifting” of media that you already own from one physical incarnation to another is “paradigmatic noncommercial personal use” protected under copyright law. The key words there are “personal” and “noncommercial.”

Step one in this process – creating a usable .m4v file from a DVD – is the hardest. Again, it is covered step-by-step in the MacLife article (skip to page 5), and I won’t recount it here. Briefly, you’ll need three pieces of software: RipIt, Handbrake and Subler. You use them in that order, and the process can take up to a few hours for one DVD, depending on how fast your machine runs. This is a pure speed test for CPUs, and the MacBook Pro encodes video literally twice as fast with its 64-bit processor than its 32-bit cousin the iMac does. You can queue up a tranche of files to encode overnight, so it isn’t like you have to sit there watching this work the entire time, but it isn’t quick.

Subler does the special work of adding the metadata to the file – like actors, directors and the all-important cover art – that makes it look pretty in iTunes. Sometimes Subler doesn’t find good cover art, but you can find it yourself. Just type the movie name into Google and do an image search. Find a good poster that you like, right click and “copy image,” then paste it into the “artwork” tab in the Subler window.

After encoding the files and loading them up with metadata, you have an .m4v file of around 1-2 gigs, which you can copy onto an external drive. For step two you need to get that file into iTunes. This is easy, except that you don’t want iTunes to copy the file onto your internal hard drive where the rest of your iTunes library resides (unless you have a massive internal drive and aren’t worried about a couple hundred gigs of movies). Here’s how you do it:

Open iTunes and the Finder window for the external drive where you copied the .m4v file. Now, hold down the option (alt) key then click and drag the file into the iTunes library. This will create a reference in your iTunes library to the file on the external drive without copying the file into your main iTunes library. The trick of this is of course that you have to have the external drive connected to watch the movie, but that shouldn’t be a problem.

Now you can watch the movies on your computer in iTunes, but that isn’t quite good enough. If you want to enjoy a movie on the big TV in your living room or the tiny screen on your iPad, you’ve got to take it to step three and sync-up.

The trick with syncing movies to the iPad is that the external drive again needs to remain connected to the computer when you sync with iTunes, but beyond that you should be able to figure it out.  At 1-2 gigs each, you can fit a few movies on even your 16 gig iPad, and Half-n-Half took several kid movies on hers for the long vacation airplane trip.

For living room viewing, you could simply copy the files over to the Apple TV, but that takes forever over wifi and the hard drive on mine is only 20 gigs. What you want is for the movies to stream to the Apple TV while still residing on the large external drive. The trick to do this is to set up the syncing preferences correctly on the “Summary” tab of the iTunes sync screen for your Apple TV.

First, select “Custom Sync” and then uncheck the button that says “Show only the synced items in my Apple TV.” Now, when you sync your Apple TV, you should see all the movies that you’ve mapped to iTunes from your external drive available for immediate viewing under “My Movies.”

This all sounds hard, but you can do it. The result is amazing. It is already changing the way I interact with video content in the same way that ripping all that audio into iTunes did 10 years ago.

It used to be that we listened to entire CDs. We may have skipped a bunch of tracks, but you popped one in, used it up, then popped it out and listened to something else entirely. Now, we pick up audio in bite-sized chunks. In fact, a whole genre of modern popular music is composed of basically assembling bite-sized chunks of audio from other sources into nifty new patterns.

The same thing is happening with video. We used to watch whole shows, but then TiVo liberated us to skip the parts we didn’t like. Next YouTube gave our attention-starved brains a limitless source of tiny bite-sized videos. Now people are creating new forms of art by mashing together videos from many different sources into compelling montages.

With our old DVD collection digitized for on-demand streaming, I am starting to watch only parts of movies. Maybe I’ll watch the last half-hour of Miracle before a big game, or the “Coffee is for closers” scene from Glengary Glen Ross to get fired up for a crucial meeting. Eventually, the idea of sitting down to watch an entire two-hour plus movie will seem like sitting through the Vienna Opera wearing a tuxedo and holding tiny spectacles up to your face. People will still do it, but only out of a sense of ostentatious anachronism. Welcome to the future.


Hard Drives, Entropy and the Wisdom of The Breakfast Club

Hard drives die. As Bender says in The Breakfast Club, “Screws fall out all the time. The world is an imperfect place.”

If you’ve never experienced this special joy, count yourself lucky. If you have, the first thing that went through your mind on recognizing the device’s mortality might have been something like:

“Baby pictures? *Random Sailor Cursing*. BABY PICTURES!”

The hard drive on The Beverage’s Macbook Pro began its death rattle on a Sunday. Fortunately, because we have many, many Macs and hard drives in the family network, I was spared any real concern over baby pictures or music or the like.

What followed was a few days of trying to save then resurrect the dying drive, replacing it with a new drive and restoring data from backups. I had originally intended to write a post on the technical lessons learned from this adventure, but as it took shape in my head, I realized that it was of very narrow interest and already well covered elsewhere. So, the short version is this:

  1. have (very) tiny screwdrivers
  2. keep an old computer working so that you can get on the Internet if your primary machine dies
  3. don’t be afraid – you can do almost anything with step-by-step instructions from the Internet (iFixIt is good for Mac, iPhone, iPod) coupled with sufficient time and motivation
  4. maintain frequent, redundant backups

Here’s the rest of the story: To repay what I view as a karmic debt from the survival of my laptop, I set about telling everyone point 4 above as a public service message. Briefly, if you have a Mac running Leopard, it is shamefully easy to maintain good backups. Buy an external drive at least as large as your internal drive, plug it in and set up Time Machine. You don’t need the very expensive Apple wireless Time Capsule product. You can pick up a good, portable external drive for under $100, and the Time Machine setup screen ought to launch when you plug it in to the computer. Here’s the Apple instructions page.  If you still need any help, just let me know. (I’m sure there is also some easy way to do this on a PC, but you can figure it out yourself.)

In the course of spreading the gospel of Time Machine over the past few weeks, it turns out that almost everyone has a story about backups that they’ve been meaning to set up or wished they had. Once you have this conversation a dozen times, it starts to reveal a certain pervasive unease regarding the fragility of our digital lives. But I think our instincts are probably precisely wrong about this. The things we have long viewed as solid and permanent – hard copies and steel file cabinets – are much more ephemeral than the ones and zeros, the bits and bytes that have come to comprise our external world.

If a meteor had hit your house in 1990 (while you were fortunately away on vacation), most evidence of your previous existence would have been stricken from the face of the planet. Maybe there would have been a bank box somewhere with vital records, and there would have been a few childhood pictures scattered among the shoeboxes of relatives, but almost everything you ever recorded for posterity or filed for future reference would have been gone. From the most mundane to the most precious – pictures, correspondence, bills, recipes, VHS tapes, CDs – there would have been one extant copy at the bottom of a smoking crater.

Twenty years later, we live in a cloud of data, most of it our own. Many pictures of you and your kin likely exist in dozens if not more copies on the computers of friends and family and Facebook, and hardly anything of consequence that crosses our paths these days is entirely analog. If the meteor struck your house today, much of your life could be quickly – if not entirely easily – reconstructed from the cloud. Even if you hadn’t backed up anything, you’d be surprised at how much data is just sitting in your pocket. Email, electronic banking and the rest of the ministerial fabric of your life would come flying back good as new when you found a computer, a working electrical outlet and a Starbucks wifi hotspot. If you also happened to have good Time Machine backups on a portable drive in your carry-on bag, then you’d have almost everything. That and homeowner’s insurance without the falling celestial bodies rider and you’re golden.

So each of us is individually probably more ok than we think and better off than we were in the analog world, but what about all of us together? The new engineering library at Stanford apparently will have very few books, and this certainly marks only the beginning of the end for the dusty stacks. But if we have our Jurassic moment with a big meteor, are the underground dwelling post-apoclyptic unfortunate survivors better off with hard copies or digital?

This philisophicopractical question is well above The Beverage’s pay grade, but just for fun…At first blush, one is tempted to jump to the same answer that we do instinctively on the individual level. When the walls finally come tumbling down, it somehow seems like it would be better in a world without much electricity to have hard copies around for reference by the light of torches. This is probably also wrong.

More copies in more places in more durable formats are better. Some mad monks somewhere could figure out how to get a computer working and resurrect the step-by-step for smelting copper from the ashes of civilization. Also, The Book of Eli is not a good movie. I haven’t thought much more about it than that, but The Beverage would love to hear your views.

Anyway, after all the fussing and fixing of the Macs prompted by the hard drive death, I ended up with much more electronic storage space and a renewed technical confidence. Those conditions permitted the accomplishment of a long sought goal – digitizing the movies from our trove of DVDs for streaming to the Apple TV. In what will constitute Part II of this post, next week The Beverage will discuss that process and what the end state means for how we experience video content. Until then, thanks for reading.

iPad Update – Where we learn if optimism be virtue or vice

Two weeks ago I wrote of how boundless optimism and a bit of research was helping me avoid worrying about the 10 most common iPad complaints and make the deal.  I promised to post an update on whether my optimism was misguided.

Before addressing each of the 10 iPad complaints and whether they proved valid or significant, I’ll say as a general matter that my optimism has been handsomely rewarded.  The iPad is a great device.  Simply put, I knew within about an hour that I’d need to get another one for The Beverage’s better half (mother’s day provided the perfect opportunity).

The iPad does not lack for people extolling its virtues, so I won’t linger here over the more common “wow” experiences on which others have reported at length.  What I’ve not seen discussed much is how good the email client is.

Click here to read more

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the iPad

Tomorrow is iPad day.  Having waited patiently for 3G models, The Beverage intends to make the purchase at the Apple Store tomorrow evening.

In the month since initial iPad launch, people have identified enough potential problems with the new device to turn some away.

The Beverage has never been one to fret too much over naysayers when discharging his function as a gadget early adopter, but there’s been enough heat and light around the reported iPad problems to make even me a little nervous.

So, I set about to collect the top 10 problems with the iPad and convince myself to stop worrying about them and make the deal.  Optimism is powerful medicine, but there are some facts behind this.

  1. WiFi Connectivity – People seem to be reporting two different kind of problems with WiFi, signal strength and IP address leasing.  

    Read all 10 problems and why you shouldn’t worry about them