Contrary to recent pontifications, black is still the elegant device color of choice for many of us. Over the past couple of weeks, I have been converting DVD's to my black PSP, iPod, Zune and Zen. Although many people feel it's terrible difficult to move video around, it's getting easier. Here's some information on my adventure.
I've been using a Sony PSP since they launched. Come to think about it, my PSP will have a second birthday in March. Although I'm a console and PC gamer, I didn't buy the PSP for gaming. I bought it to be a travel companion so I could watch videos during my "spare" time. It was my key requirement then, and still remains my main requirement today. My audio interest is relatively low although it will pick up some in 2007 as we shake down the podcast tools. That's another blog post down the road.
The Cream of the Crop
There are a bunch of kewl devices on the market, but I believe I have four of the top five or six devices. If you read my previous blog post on the Portable Media Players (PMP) that I was interested in, you'll see I managed to acquire all but the top Archos players. In my stable of players, I now have the Sony PlayStation Portable (PSP), Creative Zen Vision W, Apple iPod Video, and the Microsoft Zune. Each player has it's strengths and weaknesses. I will not give you in-depth analysis of each, but will offer some observations from my testing.
For those of you unfamiliar with the PSP, it has one of the largest screens on the market (4.3"), but does not have a hard drive. The PSP uses Memory Stick Duo media for storage and I consider this to be a key downside for the PSP. The upside to the memory stick is the miserly power consumption. Power is a key factor for extended use in situations like a flight of three hours or more. I've never actually run out of power with my PSP and have used it on flights from Texas to Hawaii and Texas to Alaska. Those flights are 10+ hours although the PSP was not in use the entire time.
The second addition to my device portfolio was the Creative Zen Vision W. I wanted the same size screen as the PSP and a hard drive. My Vision W has a 4.3" screen and a 60GB drive. I'm getting about 4.5 hours battery life out of the Vision W. The Vision W has a rare feature. Like the PSP, it has a removable battery. This of course means you have the option to carry another battery for those long flights. The Vision W uses a Lithium Ion battery so I'm sure the spare isn't cheap.
The most recent additions to my device mix are the iPod and Zune. They were purchased by Microsoft for a podcasting and screencasting project we kick off in a couple of weeks. The iPod is the 80GB Video player and of course the Zune has a 30GB drive.
The iPod has a 2.5" screen and has excellent battery life. I was astonished to see it run non-stop for 9 hours. The Zune has a 3.0" screen and the worst battery performance of the bunch. My Zune will only play video for 3 hours. My son managed to get 3.5 hours one day on his. Compared to the 9 hours of the iPod, I was disappointed to say the least. I'm hopeful better battery performance can be addressed in firmware updates down the road, but who knows. Time will tell.
DVD Conversion Tools
There are a million utilities on the Internet for converting from one video format to another. My first taste of transcoding was using the Sony PSP software to convert Windows Media Center 2005 recorded TV to the MPEG4 format used by the PSP. See the old blog post at http://blogs.technet.com/keithcombs/archive/2005/04/02/403248.aspx for that information. Next came the need to convert DVD video to the PSP. Again, there are lots of tools that can be used to convert DVD to a variety of formats. PSPVideo9 turned out to be a handy little tool for that, but it was the second phase of a two step process. See http://blogs.technet.com/keithcombs/archive/2006/02/14/ripping-dvd-s-to-the-playstation-portable-psp.aspx for more detailed information on using PSPVideo9.
What I really needed was a tool that would convert to all of my devices. It just so happens, I stumbled across a great software program that met my needs perfectly. Let me highlight that last phrase again. MET MY NEEDS. As I see people rant and rave on this subject, one thing become very clear to me. Most people want a free tool that does everything quickly and efficiently. They want batch processing. They want it to work with all forms of DRM.
I have yet to see a tool do everything. My primary need was to be able to convert DVD video to my player(s). Since the Zen Vision W is my new personal workhorse, the utility must obviously work with it. As it turns out, the Xilisoft DVD Ripper Platinum (XDRP) worked the needed magic across all of the players. I made up the XDRP acronym and will use it for most of this post. You can download the XDRP trial version and create five minute video segments to test the output. After I did initial testing to all of the players, I forked over the $45 to purchase the product.
Using Xilisoft DVD Ripper Platinum
If your collection is like mine, then you have a variety of movies in 4:3 and 16:9 formats. In fact, I'm sure you also have 1.85:1 and 2.35:1 widescreen formats. For this reason, my testing included using all of those formats and outputting them to the four players I have. The only corner I cut was on the PSP since I've been doing that on it for almost two years, and it's getting close to end of life (for me).
XDRP comes with a variety of profiles already predefined for the various players. Since the Vision W is new to the market, they did not have a profile. So, copied the existing Creative Zen Vision profile and added some widescreen resolutions.
I had a few videos with some juttering, so I queried the support folks at Xilisoft. They suggested some settings changes. I went into the Settings | Preferences | DVD (Global) tab pane and turned on Detect progressive 24Hz, Force progressive 24 Hz, and Audio/Video synchronization. This solved the juttering and audio sync issues nicely.
Creative Zen Vision W Output Details
4:3 Full Screen DVD - I used the base Creative Zen profile, 640x480 resolution output, 1200bit rate, Pan Scan Zoom setting. This produces a nice .AVI file and although you can see some blockiness, the result is very good. Since the Vision W is a widescreen, the output is pillar boxed with black bars on the left and right. The Vision W lets you stretch the screen to use all of the pixels resulting in fat characters. I prefer to watch that way but it annoys other people.
1.85:1 Widescreen DVD - this is the best format DVD for most home theatre HDTV's as well as the Vision W. The resulting output does not have the black bars above or below the picture. I used the custom profile I created although the base profile will work as well. I used the 480x272 output resolution, default bit rate, pan scan zoom.
2.35:1 Widescreen DVD - this is the prevalent widescreen format. It has a wide field of view and black bars above and below the picture. I prefer to crop the output on this type of video, or at least crop the black portion thus giving me the option to stretch the screen with the player. For this reason, I created a custom profile, but could have just added the needed resolutions to the existing Creative profile. I output the .AVI file in 480x210 resolution with pan scan zoom.
XDRP comes with a Windows Media Video (WMV) profile. I copied it and changed the description, then added some resolutions I wanted to test. I have read a number of complaints about this tool from people trying to use it. Now I know why. The WMV transcoding takes three times longer than the transcoding for other formats. Since I began my adventure looking for a tool that would handle the Vision W well, I couldn't understand what all the bitching was about. Three times as long is a big difference but heck, it still works nicely. I'm using a dual core machine for transcoding, so your mileage will vary.
[UPDATE] I altered some comments in the paragraph above and changed the wording from Zune, to Windows Media Video (WMV) which is much more accurate. By the way, my son has five movies on his Zune now and off showing off his Christmas present to his friends. I'll let you know in a few days what his peers think. I'm betting his iPod buddies will be impressed as hell.
Zune WMV Output Details
For 4:3 Full Screen, 1.85:1 Widescreen, and 2.35:1 Widescreen DVD, I used my Zune WMV profile and the 320x240 resolution, pan scan zoom, and either 1200 or 1500 for the bit rate. This produced a nice .WMV file.
iPod Output Details
Like the Zune, the XDRP software comes with an iPod profile. Also like the Zune, I used 320x240 as the output resolution and pan scan zoom on the 4:3 Full screen and 2.35:1 Widescreen DVDs. However, I found that the Letterbox zoom setting worked best for the 1.85:1 Widescreen DVDs. The output was a rich MPEG4 format that looked very nice on the screen. The MPEG4 format that was produced was also the smallest in the base testing. It was hard to see blockiness or other defects on the small screen, but I was actually pretty happy with the results. The video results combined with the long battery life and 80 freaking gigs of disk space... no wonder Apple stock is where it is.
PSP Output Details
I did not transcode a bunch of DVDs for the PSP. I did however do a speed and size test with one DVD and targeted all of the above platforms. The XDRP tool comes with several PSP profiles and I used the Excellent Quality profile with 368x208 resolution, 768 bit rate video, pan scan zoom, etc. The base DVD I used for the timings was transcoded the quickest using this profile at 1 hour 4 minutes.
If you are looking for a fast utility for the Zune, you might look elsewhere. However, if you are looking for a tool that can handle the Microsoft Zune, Sony PSP, Apple iPod and the Creative Zen Vision W players, then your search is over. The Xilisoft DVD Ripper Platinum utility will convert your DVDs in a single pass to the desired format. Download it from http://www.xilisoft.com/dvd-ripper-platinum.html and try the trial version before you buy. Good stuff.