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Scott's Column
Movies on Zune, PC Resurrection Finale, and Web Hosting

August 1, 2008
By Scott Lewis

Introductory paragraph goes here.

Current Topics:

Movies on Zune Revisited

A few months ago I reviewed a bunch of software for ripping movies to a format that can be synced with my Zune 80. I recently heard about a free program called Handbrake that would allow you to rip movies to your hard drive to watch from your computer. I decided to take a look at Handbrake and compare it to my current favorite application, DVDfab Platinum.

I just recently finished watching a movie on my Zune that had the audio out of sync. Oops! This is the first time I can remember DVDfab Platinum doing this. I am also in the process of re-ripping all my movies. I noticed a volume issues while on vacation, which got me to start over with ripping my movie collection.

Right off the bat I was concerned. Handbrake does not rip copy protected DVDs, it relies on you to get another ripper application. In my original article a few solutions used DVD Decrypter to do the ripping chore. I remember it taking about half and hour to rip a movie on my laptop. Well, on my new desktop DVD Decrypter rips a movie to my hard drive in under 10 minutes. Sweet!

Handbrake has the same cropping options I liked with Daniusoft DVD to Zune. It takes Handbrake about the same amount of time to convert the VOB file from DVD Decrypter as it does for DVDfab Platinum to rip the movie directly into MP4 format.

Even though it is not faster (which I hoped it would be) I can rip a few movies at a time with DVD Decrypter and queue up the conversion process with Handbrake so I can let it convert a few movies at night while I sleep.

Handbrake has a "Dynamic Range Compression" option. I lists Loud, Louder and Loudest. I was hoping this would be the same as DVDfabs Volume option. Unfortunately this option did not provide the volume I expected. Movies ripped with DVDfab are much louder, which is essential for movies on a portable device. Especially when you hook that portable device up to a TV.

I don't like Handbrake's video size options. You can have it fill it in if you use one of its presets, but none of the presets go up to 720 X 400, like DVDfab does. DVDfab gives you a frame resolution list. This is very important for knowing that some movies are in 640 x 400 format with the black bars part of the movie, while most movies are 720 x 400 (in DVDfab). DVDfab makes it easy to see this as it only goes up to 640 x 400 in its list for movies encoded this way. I would not be able to tell with Handbrake what the correct resolution the movie is as it was put on the DVD.

The Hunt For Red October

For this round of testing I concentrated on using The Hunt For Red October. This is one of my all time favorite films. I used the option in each application to rip (or convert) the movie without sub-titles. After all I don't want English sub-titles when the dialog is in English. Red October is a difficult movie. I don't want sub-titles when they are speaking English, but I want sub-titles when they are speaking Russian.

I set Handbrake to 720 x 400 for the conversion. DVDfab saw it as a 640 x 400 movies. Oops! Sure enough the Handbrake version was a little grainy. This could have been solved by reusing Handbrake set at 640 x 400, so I did not count it against Handbrake, though how I would know this if Handbrake was my only application.

Handbrake's output was a letterbox movie, with no black bars, while DVDfab generated a movie with the black bars as part of the movie. The winning part here is that even though I turned off subtitles, DVDfab left the sub-titles for the Russian words in the black bar area. This is as it is when watching this movie on a TV. With Handbrake I told it to remove subtitles, and it did... completely.

Conclusion

For the time being DVDfab is still the application of choice for ripping movies to be watched on a computer or a portable device.

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PC Resurrection Part IV

Last month we covered the final components and why I selected them when bringing my PC back to life (it received lightening damage last year). This month we will cover choosing the operating system and setting this computer up for multiple users and multi media, particularly getting recorded TV shows to play on my Zune 80.

As you will recall, I replaced the motherboard, CPU, memory and video card. I decided to build it primarily as a media PC with casual gaming an option. My goal was that I could reinstall my old games and get them to run just fine with the new hardware. This means I will be loading Halo, FarCry and F.E.A.R. I will try loading the demo of Tomb Raider Anniversary Demo to see if it will run with its "advanced technology." I will also try to play the Crysis demo on this PC.

So, which Operating System should I use. This seems like an easy answer. Windows XP Professional will run all the games I have. However, DirectX 10 is something that is only in Windows Vista. All the DirectX 10 games have far more hardware requirements than my hardware, so it is unlikely I will need Vista for games. In the long run I am going to make this a more powerful gaming machine. I will replace video card and maybe the CPU someday. It would be easier to do that upgrade if Vista is already installed. I would not have to backup the machine and reinstall all the applications when I upgrade the hardware.

Even within Vista we have a choice. Vista Home Premium or Vista Ultimate. For me Vista Ultimate is a waste. The only thing in Vista Ultimate is the animated desktop, which is very cool for a "community" computer sitting in an study. I love walking by and seeing the animated desktops. However, I could get the same effect with Stardock's Objects Desktop. I have been thinking real hard about buying this. If I can buy one copy and install it on both my laptop and desktop I may do this. It supports animated desktops on Vista Home Premium.

One last thing about Vista. I love its User Access Control. I know, I am the only one that does. I have used it before and I really like its ability to have multiple users that work without being administrators. This makes using the computer as a shared PC a great experience. In fact, this is the most compelling reason for running Vista.

Vista is a resource hog, and resources are limited. Since I don't own any software that requires Vista it seems logical to go with Windows XP. But which one. Ahh! There is Windows XP Media Center Edition. Remember I bought a Hauppauge TV Tuner card for the computer. Media Center has support for this built in. I also want to sync recorded TV shows with my Zune 80. The Hauppauge works with Windows XP Professional, but I don't know about the Zune for syncing.

In the end I decided on Windows Vista Home Premium. Although I could pick either one, I am avoiding Vista Ultimate out of principal. There is no reason for it, so I am boycotting it with this computer. The multiple users was the deciding factor for me. My youngest son's laptop has been in the study for almost a year when the screen was broken. It was not his fault, but he has endured being stuck in the study when he wants to use the computer... attached to my old monitor. At the minimum I am going to be using the desktop to manager all my media files that will sync with my Zune and my son will be using this machine for web surfing, e-mail and his games. That means two very real and different users. I wanted Vista's UAC to manage this. I would be worried about have multiple user IDs on Windows XP. I would probably have to have them all be administrator accounts to make sure all software worked with them. Using Vista also allows me to restrict my son from playing my mature rated games.

Vista Home Premium includes all of the Media Center stuff. I was able to get Media Center to recognize my Hauppauge WinTV HVR-1250 TV tuner card easily. I did have a lot of trouble getting Media Center to update its TV Guide. It would not connect to the Internet. What was really weird is that it connected to the Internet to give me a list of TV providers in my Zip code. Hmm. I checked online and I was told to tell Window's Firewall to let Media Center connect without restriction, but this did not work either. In the end the only way I was able to get the guide to update was by turning off Vista's firewall. I have a hardware firewall, so I am not too concerned at this point. Besides, this computer is just a media and gaming PC. I don't keep anything important on it.

I have recorded TV shows with Media Center. It saved shows in a dvr-ms file format. The Zune software sees these files but converts them to wmv files when it syncs. It also converts the files to 320 x 240 down from the 640 x 480 they start out as. Oops! I get HBO in the 320-332 channel range. The Hauppauge does not get this range of channels. However, for some reason both see channel 14 as HBO. Hmm. This used to be the case with analog TV in my house, but it stopped working. It would only display a message to call and get a cable box if you want to watch HBO.

I set Media Center to record Night at the Museum. Alas, it would not let me watch this movie with anything other that Media Center, and I could not sync it either. I was able to use the WinTV software that came with the Hauppauge TV tuner card to record a movie off HBO. It saves its shows in mpg format. I had to run conversion software on that to get it into a format the Zune would like (I converted it to mp4). That worked and the WinTV recorded show did not have any Digital Rights Management on it.

At this point I use Media Center to record TV shows and WinTV to record HBO movies.

What about games. I played the Crysis demo on my laptop (2.0 GHz Core (1) Duo, 2 GB RAM, nVidia GeForce Go 7900GS w/ 256 MB). I had to play it on the lowest settings and set it to 800x600 to play it. Even then it would stall every two minutes or so. I find it amazing that the game played so poorly at low resolutions with all the eye candy turned off. Why? FarCry looks amazing on my laptop, so why can't Crysis look the same and play the same?

I was curious to see what this new system will do (2.53 GHz Core 2 Duo, 2GB RAM, GeForce 8500GT w/ 512 MB) when playing Crysis. I know I said I was not building a computer to play Crysis, but that doesn't stop me from trying.

Crysis is playable on this modest computer. If you are willing to play with all graphics set to low. I tried three resolutions (1280 x 800, 1440 x 900, 1680 x 1050). I was able to play all three resolutions on low. But all of them noticed distinctive lag when graphics was set to medium. On high or very high the game turned into a slideshow and impossible to play. I could probably live with a little lag playing at 1280 x 80 with graphics set to medium, but that is the most I would do. 1440 x 900 on low is the best compromise between looks and speed.

Hey, I just read that nVidia released a new GeForce 9800 GTX+ video card that should sell for $200-225. That should make Crysis a better looking and playing game. Maybe for Christmas.

I installed F.E.A.R. I bought this came to play on my laptop. Playing a first person shooter on a laptop meant carrying my laptop to the study or kitchen table and hooking up a mouse. This worked, but was a little less convenient than I preferred. I played about half way through F.E.A.R. this way. I turned up FEAR's graphics to there maximum to play on the desktop. It played extremely well. In fact I just finished the game a few days before this column "went to press." I am now looking for the next game to play. I am playing FarCry on the second hardest level, so it is more challenging than the last time I played it, but it is a bit boring, and the graphics are not that great compared to FEAR and other newer games. So I am looking for a new game to play. I saw Halo 2 at Fry's for $30. When it gets to $20 I will probably buy it.

Finally, my wife's laptop is running Vista and Office 2007. It would be a lot easier for me to support her if I was using them myself. So I installed Office 2007 on this desktop computer. My work recently made us upgrade to Office 2007. Yuck! Personally I still think Office 2003 is as far as anyone needs to go. I used Office 2000 right up to late 2007 and then finally upgraded to Office 2003 on my laptop. I would still run Office 2000 if it worked nicely with Vista.

Windows Vista Home Premium and Office 2007. The choice is made. I held off activating either product until I had plenty of time (meaning right before the "trial" times ran out. If I get too frustrated with Vista or Office I will "downgrade" to Windows XP Media Center and Office 2003.

So far all is well. I don't like a few things about Vista and I may cover those in the near future. For now I have a really nice media and casual gaming PC that runs very well.

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Web Hosting Part III

Last month I mentioned my three options for hosting my web site. They were:

Option 1: FreeDNS (with domain name from GoDaddy)
Option 2: easyDNS
Option 3: Full Hosting

In the end I took the cheapskate approach and went with Option 1. It cost me $10.19 for the domain name www.ScottLewisOnline.com from GoDaddy. I registered my home IP address and the domain name with FreeDNS. Finally I downloaded a utility from FreeDNS that automatically checks my current IP address and if it changes it will update FreeDNS's registry service with the current IP addres. This allow me to host my web site at home even though I have a dynamic IP address.

I went this route for a couple of reasons. The two most important ones were price and experimentation. I wanted to host it myself so I could experiment with building a web based application (maybe a site, I have not worked out the details yet). I went with FreeDNS because it was free. This minimized my cash outlay. I have the domain name for 1 year at the 10 bucks I have paid. I have until then to determine if I need to switch to true hosting.

Next month I will discuss my idea for a web enable application and/or web site. 

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Conclusion

That's it for this month. I am running out of topics. Next month I may get back to doing a regular gaming piece, and I will tell you about my web enabled application/web site. I don't have anything else in mind at the moment.

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