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Scott's Column
I build a computer with a DVD drive, and Cord-less vs. Ball-less mice

March 1, 2000
By Scott Lewis

This has been a fun month. Plenty of toys to play with. I built a computer for a friend, and built it with a DVD drive. I also played with Microsoft’s Intellieye mouse.

To cord, or not to cord, that is the question

Last year I built my computer using Logitech’s cordless mouse and keyboard. The last two computers I have built (one mentioned below) each received Logitech’s cordless offerings. The keyboard has been updated with multimedia and Internet buttons since I bought mine. The multimedia buttons work very well. There are volume, play/pause/stop and forward/back buttons. These seem to work just as you would expect, when you would expect them. The volume control works all the time, and the forward/back/play/pause/stop buttons all work great with WinAmp.

The DVD player software does not make use of the buttons, except the volume. This might be because I installed the software for the video card, which includes the DVD decoder, before installing the Logitech software. I may reinstall the DVD player to see if it takes control of the keyboard buttons while playing a movie. I am not too worried either way.

All in all I highly recommend the keyboard. The mouse is excellent as well. I love mine, and it has not changed at all. It has two buttons and the now mandatory scroll wheel that can double as a third button. Highly recommended.

However, I have been getting frustrated with my mouse over the months. I find it works well for a shorter and shorter time between cleanings. I have been waiting very impatiently for Logitech to make a "ball-less" version of this mouse. Microsoft’s Intellieye mice are advertised as never needing cleaning. They have no moving parts, so they never get hung up on a piece of dirt on a roller.

I contacted Logitech to see if they had any plans to release a ball-less version of their cordless mouse. After getting a very "discouraging" reply, I bit the bullet and bought the Intellimouse with Intellieye from Mattel’s Intellivision... huh, from Microsoft. This is the standard two button mouse with scroll wheel. It is the "dove" bar style that Microsoft made popular years ago. The scroll wheel doubles as a button, so it functions exactly like the Logitech mouse. I did not get the more expensive Intellimouse Explorer. It is larger and less comfortable than the "standard" mouse in my hand.

The Microsoft mouse is a little bigger than the Logitech, though Microsoft makes mice the same size as the Logitech. I prefer this size increase. The bulge at the back of the mouse fills the palm of my hand better. However, I am the first to admit that the comfort of a mouse in the hand is totally subjective and up to the individual. As far as function goes... both mice deliver the goods in spades.

I hooked it up the Intellieye mouse though a USB port. This gives me the advantage of keeping the Logitech mouse connected to the computer (through the PS2 port) at the same time. I have not had any problems running this way so far. It works really well when my wife and I are playing Monopoly together. She sits back in the recliner with the cordless mouse while I use the Microsoft mouse on the desk surface.

As much as it pains me to wax poetically about Microsoft, this mouse is the greatest thing for computing since the original mouse. Highly recommended. In fact, the combination I am using is excellent if you are torn between the freedom of a cord and the freedom of a ball. So to answer the question, "which is better ball-less or cord-less?" Get both and use the one that works best for the task at hand. I love my current arrangement.

Now I just need to find the money to upgrade to the multimedia version of my keyboard.

DVD in a Computer

O.K. The first thing that popped into your minds was whether I would mention Jon Johansen’s DeCSS program to copy DVD movies to a hard drive. Right? I thought so. That’s all right, it was the first thing that popped into my mind when a friend asked me to build him a computer with a DVD drive in it.

Now... at the risk of peril on the part of the MPAA, I will tell you first hand I downloaded the DeCSS program and it worked almost exactly as it should. It allowed me to copy a movie from a DVD disc to the hard drive of the computer. But that is hardly the end of the story.

Alas, when I tried playing the movie from the hard drive it would not play.

To explain this I will need to explain some of the files on a DVD disc. A DVD disc contains files in two directories VIDEO_TS and AUDIO_TS. The VIDEO_TS directory contains files if three types IFO, VOB, and BUF. The VOB files contain the content, i.e. the images, sound, sub-titles, etc. of the movie. The IFO files contain information about the disc. These files are used by programs (whether software programs written for a computer, or firmware programs burned onto chips in a DVD player) to provide information on navigating the movie and menus on the disc. Think of the IFO files as index files to the VOB files. I don’t know what the BUF files are for, but I imagine they are more information files.

None of the movies I have tried in the drive have any files in the AUDIO_TS directory. Some discs don’t even have an AUDIO_TS directory. I assume this will be used for DVD Audio discs at some time in the future. All the files are in the VIDEO_TS directory on all of my DVD discs.

As I said earlier, the DeCSS program copies all the files to the hard drive... except one, the file video_ts.vob. As best as I can tell this is the file that contains the images for the menu of a movie. DeCSS reports an error on this file with every disc I have tried. I did not get any errors copying Conspiracy Theory. This movie did not have a video_ts.vob file on its disc. It also does not have a menu, and is one of the few movies I have that starts playing immediately upon inserting it in my DVD Player.

At first I thought the error DeCSS gave on the video_ts.vob file was the reason I could not play the movie from the hard drive. It was not. When I tried to play any of the VOB files directly off the hard disc the ATI DVD Player (it came with the ATI video card with decoder, more later) program gave an error reporting it could not open the file. The ATI DVD Player could not play the vob files off the DVD disc either.

I downloaded WinDVD, and it had no trouble plying the individual VOB files, both on the DVD disc and the copies on the hard drive. When playing the VOB files directly WinDVD cannot navigate through the movie in standard DVD player fashion. DeCSS offers an option to merge the VOB files into one file. But when I did this the new VOB file would not play at all.

In the end I just copied the VOB files that contain the main movie content, and used WinDVD’s playlist feature to show a movie off the hard drive. It only allows play, pause, stop and visual fast forward and rewind, nothing else. Good enough for the moment.

All of this was done as an experiment for the future. I eventually see myself having a computer at the center of all my TVs. It will act as a movie server. Just select the movie you want to see on any TV in the house, and the computer will serve it up on demand. This is the direction I hope the movie and music industries take as we head into a digital age.

What about the computer itself?

I was building this computer on a strict budget. In an effort to build this DVD playing computer as inexpensively as possible I used an ATI Rage Fury 128 video card. It cost $115 with a built-in DVD decoder and TV out. Then I ordered a Sony DVD drive. The drive, which was advertised as being a bare drive for $99, would give me a cost conscious price of $214 for the DVD drive, the decoder card, and a video card that would be very good for gaming.

However, the DVD drive came with a Real Magic decoder card and software. Had I known about it, I could have gone with a cheaper video card and saved about 30 - 40 bucks. Oops. Now I have an extra decoder card in case I ever need it.

The rest of the computer is standard fair. 500MHz Celeron, 128 MB RAM, 20 GB hard drive, blah, blah, blah. My friend already had a 17" Nokia monitor he picked up at an auction. The total price (without the monitor) was $1,102 including all shipping costs.

Conclusion

Playing with DVD files was fun, but with a 20 GB drive on my friend’s system it would only hold 2 - 3 movies and still have room for all the other stuff he was installing. Obviously as new applications, games, etc. were installed there would be even less room for those huge movie files.

I don’t see pirating of true DVD quality movies being a threat given today’s technology. Unfortunately, the movie industry seems to think it should take the same road as the music industry. The music industry spends hordes of money try to fight piracy instead of channeling that effort into coming up with a reasonably secure (I don’t think it will ever be completely secure), convenient, and cheap way to download music legally. The movie industry still has time to turn its act around and make it cheap enough and convenient enough to buy a digital copy of a movie, in essence killing off piracy. I doubt it will, and we will all lose out because of it.

Until next time...

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