SmartHome Improvement: The Video Encoding Blues

You may think smart homes are a thing of tomorrow, but you can make your house a smart home today. Thanks to our regular do-it-yourself series with tips from Darren Gladstone and Josh Schoonmaker, we’ll super-size your nerd cred.


2010-12-02 16.12.17.jpgAfter a long day, it's always nice to kick back and veg out to a movie. The old-school home would force you to get off the couch and fish through a wall full of discs. Quaint, I know, but in this age of smart homes, digital downloads, and media streaming  it should be so much easier, right? Wrong!


Here’s the trouble –the movie file you want to watch is encoded in .avi for Windows; meanwhile, some device wants it as a H.264 in a .mp4 shell with AAC audio, so without a codec update you can’t interpret the compression… Huh?  Feeling lost?  Don’t worry you’re not alone. So was Darren.


Video encoding issues have become the Achilles’ Heel of home entertainment.  With iTunes, Amazon, Netflix, and PlayOn showing us how great it can be to have video as data instead of on discs, one major point is underscored: If we own video content, we should be able to watch it wherever we want! For this installment of SmartHome Improvement, we're going to try and make things a little easier for you.


VLC – Encoding Genius

Let’s start by introducing VLC – VideoLan Client.  Often called the VLC Media Player, this is a free piece of software that plays just about anything.  I don’t know of any other software that is more capable across the entire breadth of video formats. Besides that, you can’t beat the price.  VLC does not have a lot of bells or whistles and doesn’t have pretty skins like Windows Media Player or iTunes, but you can count on VLC to play the file.  No more warnings that “you must download a new codec to play this file” or “that format is not supported”. Have a raw .mkv file – VLC plays it.  How about a Flash movie? VLC plays it.  DivX or Xvid? Done and done. What about .mp4, .m4v, .avi, .wmv....I think you get the idea. 


In addition, VLC apps for WebOS, Android, and iPhone give you remote control of the VLC media player through a WiFi connection.  So, for those of you with a computer connected to your television, you can now play practically anything using your phone as a remote control to access it all. 


Software Encoding

 As you can guess, VLC is fantastic if you’re plugging your PC directly into the TV. Just open the file you want to view and you’re off. However, not everyone is plugging their PC directly into their TV, so the trick remains getting your video into a format that other devices can use. You can, of course, look for video encoding software online -- there are plenty of options, but which ones are among the best?


  • Freeware: Try VLC for conversion encoding.  It is solid for basic needs, but be forewarned that it doesn’t handle HD content or very large files well.  Also, AVS is an option for conversion.    The interface is not as clean as purchased software.  As a freeware program, I liked it, but I didn’t think it was worth paying for a full version.
  • Paid Software: Pinnacle Studio (previously “Avid”) is my top recommendation for performance encoding conversion on the home PC.  I find it much more effective than Adobe PremiereRoxio Creator 2011 is another solid converter/editor/burner.  And, yes, I also need to acknowledge Final Cut Pro – but remember, it is only available to Mac users.

For those of you who don’t have a computer connected to your TV, a Digital Media Receiver will stream these converted files directly to your television.  See our previous episode if you’d like to hook your Xbox up as DMR for your TV. Darren and I can keep dreaming of the day when any video you own can be viewed easily on any device you want....


Hold up a minute there, Josh!


Darren’s (DRM-protected) Diatribe

Believe me, I understand the importance of getting paid for your creations as much as the next “artist.” (Writing at magazines for years gives you a whole new level of appreciation when content gets plageri…I mean attributed…online.) What irks me, though, are some of the iron-fisted methods implemented over the years in the name of protecting intellectual property. Without naming names, there’s got to be a better way to make it legit to get your video wherever you see fit – especially if you plunked down your own money for it.

Some places sell DRM free, no-strings attached music – but where’s the video equivalent? Well, I should say legitimate video equivalent. A quick Google search for DRM-free video will quickly lead you to the Internet’s red light district. So consider yourself warned.

Take an example from the gaming world and look at how Valve runs Steam. You buy a Valve game through Steam and you can download it on any computer – no penalties, no nonsense. It keeps a record of everything you buy and if you need to download it again somewhere else, no problem. It keeps a record of everything you buy – an easy-to-read list – and if you need to download it again somewhere else, no problem. Just look at your list of owned games. If Valve started offering movie and TV content, I’d buy it in a heartbeat. Until then, I suppose I can stick to streaming video where I can, and serving up recorded video from my home server for stuff I’ve backed up.


Hope our tips help cure some of your video encoding blues.  Maybe you have some tips you want to share with everyone else? Make sure to you leave it for us in the comment box below.  Have more questions?  Drop us a line so we can help.


Also, a disclaimer around video encoding:

There have been some programmers who have tested doing a VLC Plugin for MCE.  I should point out that none of them have found wide acceptance, and I have never tested one.  This may be a solution worth looking into, though it is my opinion that as soon as someone does a VLC plugin that works well, it will become very well known very quickly.

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