Posts Tagged ‘Video’

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How to Press your TV into Service as Video Podcast Player

October 21, 2012

Vista busy cursor  Acquiring a TV that can connect to my home wifi, more specifically a Samsung Smart TV, has proven to be transformative.  Surprisingly so. I finally have a proper solution to a problem that has been bugging me for a long time, namely how to watch video podcasts on an HD TV. That is, as opposed to on a phone, tablet or computer, and as conveniently as if I were watching normal broadcast programmes.  It’s not that I spend a lot of time watching video podcasts; currently I only watch three shows a week. Still, when I do take the time to watch them I want to do so in comfort and with a minimum of hassle.

Before arriving at the complete solution, there were a couple of false starts.

False Start 1 – Laptop and HDMI cable

Our Samsung Smart TV, bought for the master bedroom to replace a dying cathode ray TV, was not our first HD TV. We had already acquired a 42″ Toshiba TV for the living room, albeit not a Smart TV. My first attempt at “lean back” podcast viewing involved hooking up my laptop’s mini displayport, via adapter and HDMI cable, to the Toshiba TV, having used iTunes to download my video podcasts to the laptop over the home wifi. This setup did work, in the sense that I could sit back in my armchair and watch my podcasts on the TV, but it was hardly a slick solution, the downsides being:

  • It was not trivial to get the laptop (running Windows XP) to recognise the TV and send a video signal to it
  • The TV would cut out when I closed the lid of the laptop! If I left the lid open I could see the video in two places and found that disconcerting. After a fair bit of Googling and messing with the Windows settings I did manage to cure the problem
  • I was forever having to use the TV’s own remote control to switch the picture size to “native” (as opposed to, say, “wide”) otherwise parts of the picture would get cut off
  • I had no remote control for video playback! I was effectively using my TV as a PC monitor so found myself having to use the mouse for play/pause/rewind, etc. The HDMI cable was too short to allow me to use the mouse from the comfort of my armchair, so I had to get up to pause the video if the phone rang.
  • I couldn’t really leave the laptop on and connected to the TV the whole time, so whenever I wanted to do some video podcast watching there was the faff of booting the laptop up, connecting the cable up, often having to wait for my shows to download and then having to disconnect it all afterwards.

False Start 2 – Android phone and MHL cable

When the Samsung Galaxy SIII was announced, one of the features that caught my notice was Allshare Cast.  It allows you to mirror the phone’s display on the TV in real time, although you have to buy a specific Samsung accessory, a wifi dongle that plugs into the TV. This sounded like the ideal solution for my video podcasts, but I had by then already upgraded to a Samsung Galaxy Note which does not support Allshare Cast.  The Note does, however, support HDMI out, or at least MHL over micro USB which amounts to the same thing. The bottom line is you can still mirror the phone’s display on a TV provided you get the right cable and adapter. A cheaper solution than Allshare Cast but the phone has to be located close to the TV, because of the cable, so again I was missing my remote.  The beauty of Allshare Cast would have been that I could have kept the phone with me and used it, effectively, as a remote.

I had the idea of trying to use my old Android phone, an original Samsung Galaxy S, as a remote. I looked for apps that would allow me to control the Galaxy Note from the Galaxy S. The obvious choice would have been Droidmote, but that requires root and there is no way I was going to take a chance on rooting a Galaxy Note right near the start of a 2-year contract.

I also tried a curious app called Tablet Remote from Tournesol which uses bluetooth for inter-device communication and a custom keyboard on the “controlled” device to implement the transmitted commands without need for root. It is a bit of a fiddle to set up but did work very well for a day or so. Then the bluetooth connection started generating errors and there was no recovery from that.  I did have a dabble at writing my own Android apps to do something similar but have parked that since I now have a satisfactory solution.

The solution – Samsung Smart TV, Allshare and Juice

I bought the Samsung 22″ 1080p TV because I needed a new TV, not because I had a fix for my podcast problem in mind. And I bought a TV with Internet connectivity simply because more and more new models are offering this and there seemed no sense in investing in older tech just to save a few coppers. In truth, I was not sure what the benefits of a Smart TV really were. Very likely a lot of people buy Smart TVs because they are the “latest thing” but then just proceed to use them with broadcast TV, satellite or cable, which is what they are used to, without ever taking the time to explore the additional options brought by Internet access. Samsung do at least recognise this by featuring a very large, colourful and conspicuous button, right in the middle of the remote, to activate the “Smart Hub” screen. It just begs people to ask “What the hell’s that button for?” and maybe give it a whirl.

In my own case I have made considerable use of the Samsung’s Smart TV capabilities but it is not really the Internet access that made the difference. Wifi connectivity to other devices in my house has been the key to my podcast viewing, allied with support for the DLNA protocol. Samsung don’t refer to DLNA explicitly – they use the Allshare brand  – but it is just their own implementation of DLNA. Clearly they want you to buy lots of Samsung devices and connect them up using Allshare, which is understandable to a point, but this goes against the grain of DLNA which is all about ensuring interoperability between devices from different manufacturers for sharing of video, images and audio content over wifi.

The specifics of my podcast solution are as follow:

Source device

I have my video podcasts downloaded automatically to a selected folder on my desktop PC running Windows 7. Should anyone be interested, the shows I currently follow are from Leo Laporte’s This week in Tech (TWiT) network, namely “All About Android“, “Before You Buy” and “Know How“.  They all come out weekly and the latter two are available in HD.

Podcatcher software

I’m using the Juice application, formerly known as iPodder. It looks a bit old-fashioned and clunky but it works very well.  I have it set up to delete the files automatically ten days after download.

DLNA broadcast software

Surprisingly, all you need is Windows Media Player. If you activate the sharing feature, and include the relevant folder in your media library, then WMP will act as a DLNA server, making the files in that folder and its subfolders available for consumption by any DLNA client on the same wifi. Interestingly, I couldn’t make WMP recognise files sitting within the Windows “My Documents” tree, which is where my iTunes  music and videos are located. That meant I couldn’t use iTunes as my podcatcher unless I changed the default iTunes folder and moved all the content across. It was easier to use Juice and pick a download location that WMP could access.

Accessing the video content

Even with the WMP application window closed, the DLNA service is running in the background. I can then press the bright, cube-shaped Smart TV button on my Samsung TV remote and wake up the Smart TV functionality.  From there it is a matter of navigating to the Allshare icon, selecting it and navigating to the “videos” option. My DLNA-enabled desktop PC appears in the list of sources.  I select it and navigate to the folder with my content and select the show I want to watch. It buffers very briefly then plays perfectly.  Beautiful quality, no stuttering.

Remote control

I now have not one but two remote options. I can use the Samsung TV remote to play, pause and FF/FR in 15 second steps.  Unfortunately the 15 second interval is fixed. I can though navigate to any part of the show by using the “tools” button on the remote then selecting “time search”.

An even better option is to use my Galaxy Note as the remote. If I launch the Allshare app on that I can again select the desktop PC as source, navigate to the show I want and then launch it directly from my phone.  I am presented with a dialog box asking whether I want it to play on the Note itself or send it to the Samsung TV for playback.  If I choose the latter, it plays perfectly on the TV as before but I can now use the Galaxy Note as the remote. The advantage is that I get fine control of playback navigation.  Instead of the 15 second forward/back, or the slightly clunky time search, I can navigate within the show to the second by swiping on the Note’s screen.

The upshot is that my podcasts are just there, available to be watched on my Samsung TV, very shortly after each episode is published. No faff, no hassle and I have full remote control for comfortable “lean back” viewing. Heaven.

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Vista vexation to vice-free video

January 29, 2008

Vista busy cursor The focus of this blog has changed over the last couple of months or so. At one time posts about Vista were predominant, but the emphasis has shifted to Internet video technology, at least for the time being.

It’s not that I’ve gone soft on Vista and its unimpressive track record to date. I did start this blog quite explicitly to record my experiences as an early adopter of Vista, but clearly there was always going to be a strict sell-by date on any such project. Even if Vista had not become more tolerable it was only a matter of time before a replacement OS came out. We now know Windows 7 is scheduled for release sometime next year. It sounds like Microsoft can’t wait to put Vista behind them, and small wonder.

Even if discoveries of Vista shortcomings are now less frequent than in the past, I shan’t be mothballing this blog. The name will not change; in its own small way it has established a little “brand”. And there will still be Vista related posts, or commentary on Windows 7, as and when I have something worthwhile to contribute.

Going forward I will let this blog evolve naturally, driven by whatever seems to be interesting and topical. For a while now I have been concentrating on the challenge of how to embed good quality video in blog posts, because this has been relevant to my needs. No doubt when I’ve exhausted that, I’ll shift my attention elsewhere.

Wherever we go from here, I’ll be sure to keep it focused and constructive.

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Vista’s Video Nasties #4: H.264 recipe revealed

December 4, 2007

Vista busy cursor Here is the promised magic recipe, the complete solution, for automated H.264 encoding on Vista (or XP for that matter).

(Note that since I first published this post I have found an alternative, direct way to embed video into blogs where the video quality is as high as I wish. Details are here.)

Scenario

Input: The video to be encoded is an avi file in DV format, such as you might capture from a camcorder using Windows Movie Maker or other video editing application. The video may have been edited, so long as the edited footage has then been saved in DV format in an avi file. Audio content is assumed to be in PCM (uncompressed) format, typically with a 48,000 Hz sampling rate.

Output: The encoding process results in an mp4 file containing H.264 encoded video and AAC audio. The output file is suitable for uploading to on-line video hosting services such as youTube or vimeo.

Defaults: The default settings are video resolution of 448 x 336 and H.264 encoding quality of 26. These can be overridden by changing the relevant lines in the video.avs and video.bat files (see below).

Preliminary

It makes sense to create a folder on your PC where you will keep the relevant programs and working files. For the purposes of the post I will assume this is c:\videoenc

What you need to download and install

AviSynth

AviSynth 2.5 is a frameserver which we use here to perform the preliminary processing such as cropping and deinterlacing. Download the file Avisynth_257.exe from here. Run it to install AviSynth. Accept all defaults.

Smooth Deinterlacer

Get it from here and save the file smoothdeinterlacer.dll to c:\videoenc. Be sure to select the version designed to work with AviSynth 2.5x not the older version for AviSynth 2.0x.

x264

This is the H.264 encoder program itself. You can get it from here*. Click on any of the mirror links, e.g. mirror 01, next to x264.exe in the table of encoder download options. Save the x264.exe file to c:\videoenc. You don’t need to install anything. The file just needs to be in that folder.

[*Update 5 Dec 07: The link above appears to be down or unreliable. I have found another source for the x264.exe file here but have not yet had the opportunity to check its origin, version or to test it]

MP4Box

MP4Box takes the raw compressed video file and places it in an mp4 container file. The program is available from here. I downloaded version 0.4.4 compiled 3 June 2007. Again, you just need MP4Box.exe to be in the folder c:\videoenc.

MPlayer

You can get this from here. Download “MPlayer 1.0rc1 Windows” (not the GUI version) from any of the mirror site links. You need MPlayer to extract the uncompressed audio from the DV video file, so it can then be compressed as AAC audio. You only need the mplayer.exe file. Put it in c:\videoenc.

faac

The utility that compresses your extracted audio in AAC format. Available from here. Download the faac-1.26.1.zip file. Place the faac.exe file in c:\videoenc.

Creating the text files that automate the process

Within the c:\videoenc folder create a text file called video.txt. Open it and copy the following text into it:

LoadPlugin(“SmoothDeinterlacer.dll”)
DirectShowSource(“c:\videoenc\video.avi”)
SmoothDeinterlace(tff=false, doublerate=false)
LanczosResize(448,336)
converttoyv12()

Close it, saving the changes. Change the filename to video.avs.

Next create another file called video.txt. Open it and copy the following text into it:

@ECHO OFF
x264.exe –fps 25 –qp 26 –progress –output video.264 video.avs
MP4Box -flat -add video.264:fps=25 -v -new video.mp4
mplayer -vc null -vo null -ao pcm:fast video.avi
faac -b 128 –mpeg-vers 4 audiodump.wav
MP4box -add audiodump.aac video.mp4
PAUSE
CLS
EXIT

Close it, saving the changes. Change the filename to video.bat.

NOTE: The commands in video.bat as shown above assume a PAL DV source hence a frame rate of 25 fps. If your source video is in NTSC format you need to modify lines 2 and 3 to refer to a frame rate of 30 fps.

Encoding a DV avi file

Just save your raw or edited DV file to the c:\videoenc folder. It has to be called video.avi so save it under that name or rename it as applicable.

Double click the video.bat file in the same folder.

That’s it. The whole encoding process will now run from beginning to end under control of the commands in that file. You can go and make a cup of coffee.

Meantime a DOS box will open and display lots of stuff. Eventually, the display stops changing and the bottom line reads “Press any key to continue …” When you do that the DOS box disappears.

You can then find your encoded file, containing H.264 encoded video and AAC encoded audio, in c:\videoenc. It is called video.mp4. You can now upload it directly to youTube, vimeo, veoh, whatever.

Changing settings

The default resolution is 448 x 336 pixels. If you want something different just change line 4 of the video.avs file. You can just open the file with Notepad to make the changes. You must though ensure that both the horizontal and vertical resolutions are multiples of 16.

The default H.264 encoding quality is 26, on a scale from 1 to 51, using single-pass encoding. You can modify the quality setting by changing the “qp” parameter in line 2 of video.bat. Lower values for qp improve quality but increase the bitrate and filesize, vice versa for higher values.

In principle it should be possible to obtain better quality for the same filesize by using 2-pass or 3-pass encoding. So far I haven’t seen much improvement in my experiments with multi-pass encoding but it’s early days. I’ll report on my discoveries in a future exciting episode of Vista’s Video Nasties.

Credits

I found this very helpful when I was getting started with a command line solution for use of x264. It seems to be part of an encoding guide that looked highly promising but was abandoned years ago. Shame.

The rest of it was down to trial, error and slog.

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How to embed Vimeo clips into a Wordpress.com blog post

November 13, 2007

Vista busy cursor Vimeo, the on-line video hosting service, have promised that there will soon be an official WordPress tag to embed Vimeo clips in WordPress.com blogs, in much the same way we already can with youTube or Google videos.

They may or may not be referring to the VodPod facility which is already available in Beta. Create a new post and then, in edit mode, click on the Videos option in the blue bar below the word count.

vodpod wordpress

Follow the “Post to WordPress button” link. This takes you to the page you need on the VodPod website. Click the “Firefox bookmarklet” option.

vodpod wordpress

I installed the Firefox extension but the WordPress icon did not appear in the toolbar, maybe a clash with my chosen Firefox theme. So I dragged the “Post to WordPress” button to the bookmarks toolbar. That works fine.

You just go to the Vimeo page for your chosen clip and click on the Post to WordPress button. Then just follow the instructions. You do have to trust Vimeo with your WordPress username and password, but I can live with that.

The clip is embedded into a new post which you can then edit, or you can delete it having copied the embedding code into the post of your choice. Note that the embedding string contains parameters that control the height and width of the embedded video as displayed. You can just tweak those to suit your taste.

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