21st Century Digital Boy | Localtype

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Ford Pantera

21st Century Digital Boy

Originally written on: August 18, 2011 at 3:38 am

Last Updated: August 18, 2011 at 3:38 am

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A couple of friends are building a tiny, cool PC to act as a streaming media client for their TV, using the PLEX client/server applications. I’ve been watching PLEX for awhile, and while their earlier incarnations seemed quite flawed in their usability, the modern ones seem to do well, coupled with the speed of modern hardware to decode complex media and output 1080p signals to a TV via HDMI. Now, they also have IOS/Android apps to both act as clients, or as remote controls for other clients. Suddenly we have convergence.

I’m taking a slightly different route: I’m not going to build a micro PC, I’m going to buy one of the new Mac minis which use very little power, and almost no power when sleeping. The form factor is perfect, and it has HDMI-out. In the past, people have hacked earlier minis to be media servers, but with varied success (they were underpowered, and they didn’t have HDMI, so getting it to the TV was a pain, and they often couldn’t decode a proper 1080p/24 file without stuttering).

Why not an Apple TV? They’re great toys, but they’re closed devices. They don’t do 1080p, and they only do a limited subset of H264 decoding (luckily it’s done in hardware). With the mini, I can read any file any mac can read, which includes the ubiquitous .MKV files the kids get off the interwebs, and with the new multi-core i5/i7 processors, and dedicated GPU, I’ll always be able to send 1080p content to my TV.

So over the week-end, I started ripping my DVD collection. It’s small by some standards, but it’s not inconsequential. I have a mix of old, unrestored films, B&W films, foreign films, some modern digital transfers, and both old and new animation. Logically, this means I had to do some homework to figure out what settings were best for the source material. Finding proper encode settings however, was like pulling teeth — painful, messy, and occasionally, inaccurate ;-). I rip all my DVDs to the hard drive prior to transcoding to H264, then batch transcode overnight. Here are some insights:

For transcoding, I prefer using the latest Handbrake, as it uses the very fast x264 engine for encoding to either .m4v or .mkv H264 containers. I looked around to find a good optimal encoder setting as a jumping-off point, but most sites had old information which wasn’t directly applicable to the latest version of the app. I did however, learn about some of the advanced options which did have a relevance.

I settled on starting with the “AppleTV 2″ preset for my non-animated DVD content, but that yielded an image that I found unacceptable in most of my test material. In most scenes, the entire screen seemed like it was underwater. The macroblocks would shimmer and shake, making it difficult to concentrate on the material. From this, I made some minor adjustments, and I am pretty happy with the results.

These settings may not be what you’re looking for in your application, but they work well for my purposes (finding a balance between file size and quality level). Perhaps you can use this information as your own jumping-off point. Experiment. Queue up several copies of the same source with different settings, and see what works best for you.

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