Beginner's Guide to Streaming Movies on WDTV Live

First Off - Warning - big post

Second Off - a caveat. I am an ex-beginner, so if I’ve made any errors, let me know and I will happily adjust.

The problem I had with WDTV was the lack of a simple guide to stream video to my TV, and despite the best help from the more experienced guys on the forum, I think I made every mistake possible getting here. So in part to document my system and in part to give something back here is my humble ‘guide’.

Introduction

WDTV Live offers huge potential as a media server, but the problem is that it is still pretty raw round the edges, I have found that in setting up a movie library on the system, and making it really usable rather than a gimmick, requires a great deal of compromise. I feel I have got my system at the right level of balance between what I really wanted and what WDTV Live can deliver (hereafter called the SMP - the Streaming Media Player).

This guide assumes you are a total beginner and takes you through the steps of creating your movie library, streaming it to the SMP, and accessing the videos.

1. My system

I think this could be fairly typical of many other users with PCs and a home cinema system…

Study

  • Main PC at home running WIndows 7 Home Premium.
  • 1TB Hard Drive devoted to Video
  • Connected to a Router (ethernet)

Sitting Room
The SMP is connected to:

  • the Router through the mains using a Powerline connection box (TP-Link rated at 200 MBS). A similar box is plugged in the sitting room, and connected to the SMP. I opted for this approach over Wifi, to ensure connectivity as I had heard about some issues regarding streaming video over wifi.
  • the TV using an HDMI cable
  • the receiver using an optical cable
  • the mains.

The SMP sitting on top of my home cinema boxes

Rear of WDTV.JPG

The rear of the SMP.  Cables from left: mains, optical cable to the receiver, ethernet cable to the Powerline, HDMI cable to the TV.

TP Link.jpg

The TP Link Powerline in the sitting room.  Sorry about the image quality.

2. Creating your movie library folder structure on your PC

Before you do anything, you need to think about how your movies will be structured. This is very important and one which is littered with compromises. So it is important to understand the limitations of the SMP User Interface.

These are:

2.1. Each shared folder is limited to 9 categories or subfolders.

So, if you choose (and I recommend you do) to divide your movie library into genres, you can have no more than 9 top level genres. If you have a massive collection, you may wish to create sub genres to help categorise your library further. For example, I have a folder/genre called ‘Sci Fi, Fantasy and Horror’, and some day I may wish to split those three genres into three subfolders.

After a lot of trial and error, I decided to create my own genres/folders. There is a filter option in the UI which does this automatically, but it takes the info from the metadata in an online movie database, and selects the first genre listed for each movie. This sometimes can be the wrong one from your point of view. For example, Sci Fi is very rarely listed first, so all your Sci Fi movies will be scattered across the other genres. It doesn’t work for me.

2.2. Folders 

You then have the option of keeping all your movies in one folder or creating a folder for each.  The latter approach is tidier, BUT, you will find that for many of your videos, this will mean an extra click as you drill down the folder structure to get to your movie. Also, it means you won’t see those pretty backdrops for your films untill you drill right down to the folder in question.

This all means that the best way to structure your library is to place all the films of each genre in the same folder. And this will only work if you encode the films into a single file container such a MKV or MP4. More on that later. If you do this, and name your films sensibly, this is not such a terrible design for the system.

folder structure.jpg

My folder structure

2.3. Folder Thumbnails

Most people will create or download pre-prepared folder thumbnails for each folder to illustrate their genre. As I had 9 unique main genres, I decided to do it myself. Simply:

  • find an appropriate image on the web. Life will be easier if you can find one with the dimensions of 400 pixels (height) by 300 pixels (width), as this fits the folder graphic perfectly. However, any image 4*3 will work (remember the smaller the file, the quicker the graphic will load.
  • fire up an image editing tool such as Irfanview and resize the image to 4*3 if necessary, cropping appropriately.
  • add descriptive text with a nice font
  • save as “folder.jpg”, to the genre folder - no other name will do!

2.4. Main Menu

You may have some other top level categories that you will want to view as well as movies. For example, home videos and TV series. I have the latter, and so have shared a separate folder called TV. When we get to setting up the Shares on the SMP, all the shares will be seen in this top level menu, so it is a good idea to do a category thumbnail for each share using the steps above, and placing the resulting folder.jpg in the root folder of each share.

Yeah, I realise that will take a couple of readings, so here is pic of my movies folder with the movie folder.jpg in it.

3. Ripping your collection

I am just going to talk about transfering DVDs to the Hard Drive and not Video tape.

Ripping means copying. However with DVDs and Blu Rays (BDs), you just can’t stick the DVD in your drive and copy using Windows Explorer. The DVD’s have lots of regional and copyright restrictions on them and while we are at it, you will want the opportunity to lose the junk at the start of films: FBI warnings, adverts etc. Now, my understanding is that ripping is not illegal if it is the copying of your own purchased DVD to be used for private consumption.

My prefered method of ripping is to download and install DVDFab: http://www.dvdfab.com/download.htm. Current version is 9. The good news is that the Copy function (confusingly not the Ripping function) on the left of the main menu, is free to use. You get nagged about buying it, but currently nothing else stops you from using it.

  • Place your DVD in your PC Drive. Once you have done this once, you can set up the PC to start DVDFab whenever you place a DVD in your drive. DVDFab then spends a long time sorting out the content. Once ready:
  • Click Copy
  • Click DVD or BluRay Copy
  • Click Main movie if that is all you want, otherwise you can choose to rip the whole disk or certain parts.
  • If Main Movie, click on the longest item (almost certainly the main movie if it’s a couple of hours).
  • Click on Setting/Preferences and set your output directory on your PC
  • Set your output preferences for DVD and BD, by clicking on the relevant tab and then the Copy side tab. Make sure DVD output is to DVD9, as this is the most faithful representation; or if it is a BD don’t go below BD25 720p. I use BD25 1080/i.
  • Click Next
  • Click Start

I have an Intel 4 core i5 CPU, and it rips a DVD in about 10-15 mins; a BD in maybe 45 mins to an hour.

Just ripped Flight of the Intruder - just over 13 mins.

4. Encoding your Collection

After a few trials, I would recommend ripping large chunks of your collection first and encoding second, as once you have your DVDs on your hard drive, you can encode them in a big batch, and not have to keep tied to the PC.

You can stream the ripped files to your SMP without encoding, and it will detect the movie and play it. However, I 

recommend encoding the contents into a single file for 3 reasons:

Firstly, as already discussed in section 2.2, you will want to create a single file for your folder library. Not
just for ease of locating movies, but also, because all these rips will have similar file names, which will cause
havoc if they are all placed into one folder.

Secondly, these ripped files in vanilla format seem to stream really badly, particularly the larger Blu Ray files,
and lead to stutters on the system.

Thirdly, encoding saves bags of space. A typical DVD film rip will result in multiple files adding up to maybe 4
or 5 Gb. That’s 200 to 250 films on a 1 Tb Hard Drive. A BD will come in at 20 to 25 Gb - that’s 40 to 50 films.
Not good. Encoding to MKV or MP4 will reduce the size of these files by about a 5th for DVDs and a 3rd for BDs - it’s a
no-brainer, but at the loss of some quality. This is a compromise that I have reluctantly accepted - I sometimes
watch an encoded Blu-ray and know the quality could have been better… :frowning:

The tool of choice on these forums (and for good reason) is Handbrake. http://handbrake.fr/downloads.php.

  • Fire it up, and click on Tools at the top, then Options
  • Click Output Files and choose your output directory
  • Make any other changes you require and then click Close
  • Click Source at the top and pick the Folder where your rip is. It will be the Video_TS Folder of your rip.
  • Under output settings - click the dropdown next to Container. You have the choice of MKV or MP4. They are both containers and there is no difference. I understand that MKV may work better with subtitles and chapters, so that is why I use it. 
  • If you are doing a batch of these, click Add to Queue at the top, and then add other folders.
  • When ready, click the green Encode or Start button.
  • If you have any adjustable fans on your PC - set them high! The reason for this is that Handbrake will max out every core on your PC, and your system will get hot. It may even get unstable (as did mine). If you get BSODs (Blue Screens of Death), go to your BIOS and edge up your CPU Core voltage by 0.05 or 0.10 tops (sorry an overclocking guide is not part of my remit!  It is pretty simple to do after a bit of googling). That should do the trick.

On my system, a DVD takes about 7 mins to encode.

When you go to your output folder - you will now have nicely packaged files - one per movie. If you want to check it, you will find that Windows Media Player does not recognise MKV, but it does run MP4. No issue there, recommend you download VLC http://www.videolan.org/vlc/download-windows.html, which is a useful lightwight player for the more obscure formats.

Move the files to your appropriate genre folders, and name them the proper film name (ie not with dashes or whatever the DVD chose to call it), as this will help the SMP identify it when pulling down the metadata.

Word of warning. There is an alternative free encoder called Freemake Video Converter. It has a much nicer user interface than Handbrake, but the resulting MKV files all stuttered when streamed.

About to encode Flight of the Intruder

5. Setting up the Movie Libraries on your SMP.

The WDTV Live Manual  http://www.wdc.com/wdproducts/library/?id=282&type=25 is really very good, and gives blow by 

blow instructions for setting up your SMP. I recommend you follow them to the letter. So I won’t be reiterating how that is done here.

However, I will identify some potential pitfalls.

5.1 Make sure you share your folders correctly. This is a slightly arcane process, but section 6 of the manual describes the process well.

5.2 Once your network is set up and you scan your shares. You will notice that the LED on the SMP blinks for a long time, this means that it is compiling the Media Library and downloading Content Info. This is important metadata info on each film, with descriptions, actor lists and those pretty backdrops. If you navigate to the main menu, you will see a message at the top telling you that this is happening. when that is complete, enter the Videos menu and navigate to your folders. Now 3 VERY IMPORTANT things to look at and deal with:

5.2.1 This downloading of info is being recorded on your PC. Nothing to do, but be aware that:

  • a backdrop folder for each film is created. Don’t worry about it.
  • a metathumb file for each film is created - dealt with in the next section.
  • an xml file for each film with the key metadata is created. Don’t worry about it.
  • each folder on the share gets a .wdtv subfolder. No idea what it is for. Don’t worry about it.

5.2.2 You may notice that those pretty folder thumbnails you created may not be visible, and you get thumbnails 

from random movies in each genre. It’s a right pain, and a known issue with the system. The reason is that the 
metathumb files somehow over-ride the folder.jpg file. The only solution is to rename every metathumb file as a 
jpg, which, for a large library, can be a right PITA!

My solution is to create a DOS command batch file which does everything (though it pushed by understanding of DOS 
to the extreme!):

  • Open notepad and edit this:

forfiles /p f:\users<font color="#FF0000">path to your shared drive /s /m *.metathumb /c “cmd /c ren @file *.jpg”

forfiles /p f:\users_path to your shared drive_ /s /m *.metathumb /c “cmd /c del @file *.metathumb”
pause

  • Repeat it for every share. It simply renames every metathumb file as a jpg file, including those in subdirectories. This is useful if you have a folder structure with genre’s within genres and possibly folders within genres with linked films which are part of a series . It then deletes the metathumb files. Use with care, there is no recycle bin in DOS!!
  • The pause command at the end of the batch file is useful as it helps you spot any metathumbs that were not deleted (sometimes DOS doesn’t work with certain file names). You will have to do those manually.
  • Save As a .bat file, and also change the file type from ‘txt’ to ‘all files’. Save it to your desktop, and every time you rescan for new files on the SMP, run the batch file and it will take care of everything.
  • Unfortunately, that is not the end, you now need to rescan the Movie Library on the SMP again so the genre thumbnails, reappear :(. Better still, restart the SMP either by physically pulling the power, or navigating to the Restart menu item. This will clear the cache on the SMP.

Yes, it is a chore, and frankly should be top of the list of WD’s development path to sort out.  I guess the experienced users will cry out for thumbgen, but this is a beginners guide :).

5.2.3 Now to those lovely backdrops. Well on my system, they take just a bit too long to load up when I am searching for a film. They are pretty and useful for showing off the system to envious friends, but for day to day use, I have had to compromise. My solution is to press the Yellow button on the remote and change the view from the default one with the pretty backdrops to one with the nine folders. Why that one? Because I have nine main genres. It’s not as pretty, and when you navigate to the films, you don’t see the backdrops, but they do appear pretty quickly and you get to your film in a way that does not put off your significant others. I recommend it.

main movie library with genre thumbnails

The Sci Fi, Fantasy and Horror Folder.  Note that there are subfolders where I have series of films.  The folder.jpg trick does not seem to work for subfolders in this view, and that is OK as the system just picks a thumbnail from the series.

The Star Wars collection.

You can always revert to the backdrops view if you really want to…

6. Miscellaneous Tips

So, while setting up a workable Movie Library is achieveable, you have to go through quite a bit of compromise, some workarounds, and a lot of patience to get there. However, there are still a few pitfalls. Here is my list, and how I work round them.

6.1 Fast Forwarding, Rewinding

Unfortunately this is a bit of a mess as while the system says it can go 16x, it clearly doesn’t - it crawls. And the designers know this, as they built in a + or - 10 minute function… badly. So to fast forward, you have to press FF, press ‘Next’ to skip forward 10 mins, then Play, and then you still need to crawl to the point where you want to go to. It’s number 2 on the list of required fixes in my opinion. Fortunately, I am lucky to have a workaround in the form of my Harmony 1 Remote, where I can program these commands (and a few other time savers) into one button for FF 10 and one for Rew 10. It just about makes it liveable.

6.2 Get Used to Pressing the Options Button

Scanning for content information quite often does not find the right movie. If you don’t see a thumbnail, then navigate to the movie and press Options then Rescan, and that will kick off a search for you. Typing in the right movie name on the PC when you place it in your PC library will save time, often avoiding having to the slow search function on the SMP.

6.3 If you still get stutters after encoding

The next step is to set up the Unix based streaming protocol - NFS. Before I succumbed to encoding, I spent ages trying to set up free versions such as FreeNFS and Hanewin, but found out late in the day that only Windows Professional supports NFS, so I can’t report if it helps. MKV and MP4 files stream fine on my network, so stuttering is not an issue.

I hope and trust for newbies coming to this forum, that this guide is of use. And again, to the old hands, if you want to put me right, no offense will be taken :).