Home > Media Center > Archiving DVDs for use on Extender

Archiving DVDs for use on Extender

Edit: Please see this newer article for information on converting to WMV

Notably missing from the Media Center Extender featureset is the ability to playback DVDs via the Media Center PC.

Media Center Extender is designed to sit in your A/V rack as a component of the home theater.  In my setup, that means that I have a DVD player, an extender, a receiver, and a standard-definition television that all work together to serve my home theater needs.

If you’re looking to be able to watch traditional DVDs, I would recommend that you pursue a similar setup to what I have mentioned above and purchase a cheap standalone DVD player.  Alternatively, you can dual-purpose an XBox as both a DVD player and a Media Center Extender (but admittedly its form factor doesn’t sit as nicely in an AV rack).

If, however, you’re looking to be able to archive your movies to the hard drive for quick and easy access to your library then you’ll be wanting to take a different approach.  For example my 18-month old daughter can’t get enough of Blue’s Clues from the Media Center, as she grows I’d like to be able to get access to her kids movies from any TV in the house with the simple click of a button.  I’ve been a dad for less than 2 years, and already I know that immediate access to cartoons is going to be a lifesaver on a daily basis.

This is not a new thing, people have been creating DVD archives for quite some time now and standard formats have begun to form (some are well entrenched and some are emerging bright spots, and there’s plenty of mini-battles going on still amongst formats).  Some of the common formats you’ll see out there include:

VCD – MPEG1 compressed version of a DVD that fits on one or more CDs.
SVCD – MPEG2 compressed version of a DVD that fits on one or more CDs or DVDs.
DIVX/XVID – MPEG4 compressed version of a DVD that fits on one or more CDs or DVDs.
WMV – Windows Media compressed version of a DVD, generally used for streaming and commercial services.

WMV is the least common of those formats, and is seen more commonly now in areas where digital rights management is important (such as legal online movie distribution).  DIVX/XVID seem to be the most common emerging format (with lots of good tools as well), but it is not supported on the Extender.

Now that we have the level set a bit, let’s delve into a bit more detail about how this impacts the Windows Media Center Extender platform.  Unlike a the Media Center PC, the extender plays back video only using a decoder chip that it has built into the hardware.  This means that the extender can only decode video that is understood by the chip built inside of it and cannot use some of the software decoders that are installed on your PC (Divx for example is a software-based decoder at this time).  This is very similar to the way most DVD players work – the majority can only play back DVDs using MPEG2 and AC3 audio, while some have specialised decoder chips inside them that can also play back JPEG, MP3, and Windows Media.  The chip inside the extenders can play back the following formats only:

  • Windows Media 9 Audio and Video (standard profiles only)
  • MPEG-1 video and audio
  • MPEG-2 video and audio

Additionally, the chip can only playback video with an aspect ratio of 4:3.  Aspect ratios seem like a pretty simple concept, but there’s alot of odd magic that happens to make them work.  I’d recommend reading this doom9 article on aspect ratios to get a good feel for the complexities.  Basically, you can still play back 16:9 video in a letterboxed format without any problems but may have some difficulty playing 16:9 anamorphic video on the extender.  Don’t worry, we can work around that. 

So what are the gaps between the information stored on a DVD and what we can play back with the extender?  The video on all DVDs is stored using MPEG2, which our extender can deal with just fine.  However, the extender’s inability to deal with AC3 (Dolby Digital) audio causes us significant heartburn. Most DVDs use AC3 as the standard audio format, which immediately means that we can’t use it on the extender.  We will need to transcode the AC3 audio into something that the extender recognises before it will play back properly.  Additionally, the DVD menu system is something that is unique to DVD players and we won’t be able to use on the extender.  Finally, most new DVDs use 16:9 anamorphic aspect ratios which we’ll need to fix as well.

I’ve been going through some trial and error over the last couple of weeks to find solutions that work.  My main criteria was to get decent-quality video archived in as few steps as possible.  The most flexible way of achieving any video conversion is by using a cascading mix of software components, but I personally find that to overly complex for the majority of us.  Wherever possible, I’d like to keep this to one or two pieces of software.  Note that any DVD conversion will take several hours of computing time, regardless of the software chosen.

I’ve also discovered that the DVD archiving space is the next big Internet scam in the making – do a google search related to any of the topics I’m discussing here and you’ll see what I mean.  No doubt you’ll be able to get a mean bundle of cheap Vi@gr@ and DVD copying software at a shady website near you any day now.  I’ve come to trust doom9.org as one of the only legitimate resources out there, with plenty of links to other legitimate sites, tutorials and tools.

Here are my findings thusfar, I’m sure this will change over time:

Best Commercial Option:  TMPGEnc Xpress 3.0 and AnyDVD
TMPGEnc Xpress is the latest commercial version of what was once the simplest MPEG encoder on the market.  It has grown from a fairly rudimentary encoding utility into a very well-done application that will allow you to perform the conversions required for viewing on the Media Center Extender (in MPEG1, MPEG2, or WMV).  Out of the box it will only work on unencrypted DVDs, which is fine for many applications.  I mention AnyDVD as an add-on utility that will allow TMPGEnc to work with encrypted DVDs as well, if your local laws allow for that.  AnyDVD is essentially middleware between your DVD player and the operating system, causing all applications to see the DVD as unencrypted and region-free.  Both AnyDVD and TMPGEnc are very polished applications that play nicely with the rest of Windows XP (setting restore points, solid install and uninstall, nice UI, etc).
I specifically like TMPGEnc because it will fill in most of the blanks for you, including detecting the proper size, aspect ratio, frame rate, etc – other applications assume that you will know how to fill these in, and wind up with oddly squished or jumpy video.  It also intelligently uses your CPU, allowing you to work on other things while encoding – other applications will take all available CPU and tie up the PC for several hours.  As an added bonus, the newest version can also take DVR-MS input and convert it to any other format.

See the tutorial (coming soon) for step-by-step instructions, but at a high level here is how you would archive a DVD video using TMPGEnc Xpress:

  1. Set the DVD drive as the input source
  2. Select the titles from the DVD that you want to encode (usually the largest one)
  3. Select the audio track from the DVD that you want to encode (English AC3 is the default)
  4. Set the output to MPEG-2, ensure that this auto-selects MPEG audio as well OR set the output to WMV and ensure that WMA9 audio is selected (not WMA pro).
  5. Instruct TMPGEnc to add a letterbox frame (ie output is 4:3 not 16:9)
  6. On the conversion screen, preview a few sample frames to ensure it all looks right
  7. Convert

Shopping ListTMPEGEnc Xpress + TMPEnc AC3 Plugin ($79), AnyDVD ($39)

Best Freeware Option – MPEG2:  DVDtoSVCD and QuEnc
The SVCD format is the closest existing format to the specifications for Media Center Extender video.  The only real difference between the two is video size – SVCD is 480×480 whereas MCX wants video to be 720×480 (for NTSC systems).  Otherwise, the two formats are both MPEG-2, and both use MPEG Audio at their core.  Therefore, I tested a few of the more common freeware SVCD tools to see if they would allow me to also produce video that worked on MCX.  Alas, they work!
The freeware tools are understandably less polished than their commercial counterparts, but do get the job done.  My first choice was to use an all-in-one tool called DVDx, which is a nice little package that does everything.  While I was able to achieve video that was compliant with MCX, for the life of me I couldn’t produce an MPEG-2 file where the audio and video was properly synchronised.  DVDtoSVCD however does do a great job of producing DVD archives that work every time.  While DVDtoSVCD isn’t an all-in-one application, it does provide a unified interface for all of the little apps you will need to get the job done.  One of my personal “must haves” is that it should analyze the DVD and try to automatically set options such as frame rate, which DVDtoSVCD definitely can handle.  It is also fairly simple to add the letterbox frame that we need to ensure that we have a 4:3 aspect ratio.  The downside to this application is that it produces about 15 different files as it hands off to its different included apps, which leaves a bit of a mess behind on your hard drive (easily cleaned up though).

Detailed overview of the app can be found here, but you’ll need to do things a little differently for MCX output.  See the tutorial (coming soon) for step-by-step instructions, but at a high level here is how you would archive a DVD video using DVDtoSVCD:

  1. Install and configure add-on apps QuEnc and ASPI
  2. Point the program at the DVD drive as the source
  3. Set the frameserver to output 720×480
  4. Bump up the max avg bitrate to 4000 (we don’t care about fitting it on a CD)
  5. Start the conversion
  6. Once everything is complete, rename the large .mpg file and move it into “My Videos”
  7. Delete all the other files in your rip directory

Shopping listDVDtoSVCD (requires ASPI) ($0) and QuEnc ($0)

Best Freeware Option – WMV: Smartripper and Windows Media Encoder
The WMV format is emerging as one of the major commercial standards, due no doubt to efforts by Microsoft in promotion and DRM evangelism.  Unfortunately this has meant that it has been largely ignored by the open source community and there are very few freeware tools available to assist with DVD archiving.  That said, Microsoft has made a very high-quality encoder available for free to the public.  Let me state this for the record – I am sure that it is possible to create a good WMV that is usable on MCX by using the Windows Media Encoder.  I, however, have been unable to get it to work.  A few days with the Windows Media Encoder is what caused me to gush about the built-in DVD analysis tools in the other applications – I assume that not knowing the framerates, video size, aspect ratio, etc is what made my life so difficult working with WME.  Add to that what seemed like a 5-minute delay every time I changed something in the properties and I just gave up (maybe it re-analyses the entire VOB file?).

At this point, I’ll admit defeat and not attempt to guide you through creation of a WMV from a DVD source.  Instead, I’ll point you to a very well-done tutorial at Zarax Online.  Just be sure not to get tempted by the latter half of the WME tutorial that discusses 5.1 audio – it won’t work with Media Center Extenders.

Shopping list:  Smartripper ($0) and Windows Media Encoder ($0)

TMPGEnc Xpress is my preferred option by a long shot, but a little pricey at this point.  For now I’ll probably stick with DVDtoSVCD and the MPEG2 format, even though WMV is the better choice (smaller files with better video quality than MPEG2).  Video quality on my TV is great with the extender, and that holds true for archived DVDs.  Audio quality is obviously better through the original DVD, since the media center extender can only do 2-channel audio versus my DVD player’s 5.1 digital audio – another reason not to bother converting the blockbuster titles (big sound effects) that are in my DVD collection.

I started this experiment with the intent of casually archiving DVDs to the Media Center, but now that I understand the sheer encoding time that is required for each DVD I will probably only archive those movies that get played over and over again and leave the rest of the DVDs in the DVD cabinet.  I’ll keep the DVD player connected to the home theater system and use that as the main device for watching movies.  All things considered, I don’t see myself archiving many DVDs…  the effort is high, the computing time is high and cost is greater than zero when you factor in electricity, equipment wear, etc.  However, I do think that my daughter will really benefit from this and will love getting her movies on demand from anywhere in the house.

I am not an expert in this area, and I welcome the opinions of those who are.  What I’ve written above is based on two weeks of casual research, trial and error, and testing on actual equipment.  All conversions were done using trial versions of commercial software or latest released versions of open source software on an HP 873n Media Center.  The DVD codec installed on that machine is WinDVD5.  Playback testing occurred on a Gateway 901x running XP-MCE 2005, as well as an HP x5400 Media Center Extender.

Categories: Media Center
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