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’.
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…
- Main PC at home running WIndows 7 Home Premium.
- 1TB Hard Drive devoted to Video
- Connected to a Router (ethernet)
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
The rear of the SMP. Cables from left: mains, optical cable to the receiver, ethernet cable to the Powerline, HDMI cable to the TV.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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