File Formats and the XBox 360
March 1, 2009
By Scott Lewis
The XBox 360 continues to be the center of attention. This month I spend a lot of time on file formats and what I use for the XBox 360 as a Media Extender. I get a brief look at Windows 7 as well.
Forza 2 on the XBox 360 is still the game that eats up the most of my
time. I have started playing Halo 3 on the XBox as well. Halo is MUCH
better with a mouse and keyboard than it is with a game controller. I
hate using two thumbs to walk and look in a combined effort. Aiming for
shooting is far from precise. Also, I find too much of the scenery is
too dark. I got stuck at one point because all the soldiers I was with
left the area and I could not see the terrain well enough to know where
to go. There was a target on screen but that led me to a rock wall. I
tried going around this wall in both direction and could not find where
to go. And I was less than 20 meters from my target location.
I have played NBA Live 2009 with my youngest son. I didn't think I would like this kind of game. First, don't play basketball. I just played with a group from work a couple of weeks ago. They assured me that they suck so bad that I could not embarrass myself. Well, I got a lot of compliments for playing very strong defense. They called me "Tenacious D." I could not shoot for crap, and didn't know what to do with the ball when I had it. I could not make a good pass, but I did get a few good steals in.
NBA Live 09 is easy enough that I could play it without knowing much about basketball. My son will beat me more than I beat him, but I do beat him about 1/3 the time. This amount of winning is enough for me to keep trying. We are playing on an easy level, which makes passing and shooting easy. It is still difficult to consistently steel the ball and get rebounds, but overall it is a fun game.
If you read this column regularly you know about my many attempts to
get video (ripped DVDs) onto my computers, Zune and TV. Well, this is a
grand subject, and I can not do it justice. But I can
share some more stuff I have learned.
Here is a much better, but still basic, explanation than I can come up with.
Before writing this I settled on using DVDFab Platinum to rip my DVDs to WMV format to be played on my big screen TV through the XBox 360 and Media Center. I make a second copy of DVDs I want to watch on mu Zune 80 in MP4 format. The MP4 format is NOT recognized by Media Center on my Vista PC (complete with TV tuner card to record TV shows that also get played on the XBox and synced with my Zune).
I have done some research and learned a lot. For starters, this is NOT an easy subject. Many video formats are closer than I thought. For instance, the AVI format is more of a "container" holding the video, sound, sub-titles, etc. Under some circumstances you can rename an AVI file with the MP4 or WMV file extension and an application that plays those files will play the renamed AVI file. This works if the codec used to create the video part of the "container" was done with a codec that your media player recognizes. A codec is the piece of software that actually does the encoding (and decoding for playback) of the material. I have not had success trying to rename files myself, but I have heard of it working for some people.
When I rip my movies to WMV format they are seen by Media Center and the XBox 360. Both can play them fine. The video quality is excellent. Since these WMV files work so well I thought I would try converting AVI files to WMV format. I used a program called Format Factory to convert some downloaded AVI files to WMV. The files look good on my PC. However, they will only play from the beginning on the XBox. If I attempt to fast forward through a video the screen will freeze on the frame I try to start playing. Nothing I have been able to do works. It may be something about how Format Factory is encoding the file. At this point it just doesn't seem to be convenient to convert downloaded AVI files to WMV.
Since the AVI format is a container, I tried renaming it to MP4 (also a container style file format). This did not work either. In fact, I cannot view MP4 files through Media Center/XBox.
Since some of my problems stem from the differences between Media Center and XBox, I looked into a third party media "server" application, TVersity. TVersity will run in the background on a PC and stream files to the XBox 360. Optionally TVersity can also transcode files to a format the XBox does know. With TVersity running on the PC you navigate the XBox a little differently. With Media Center you go to the Media Center screen on the XBox Dashboard and start a copy of Media Center that communicates with your PC. When looking at TVersity content you go to the Video Library screen of the XBox Dashboard and TVersity is listed. Select that and navigate TVersity's folders.
TVersity is not perfect, but it seems to be more stable than Media Center on the XBox. I can fast forward better with TVersity than the XBox, even on the same video files. TVersity handles more content than Media Center (codecs). The first time I tried to watch an AVI video file from TVersity the XBox asked me to log into XBox Live then it just offered to download the codec, and Bob's your uncle. It worked without a hitch.
At this point I need to point out that once XBox connected to XBox Live to get the AVI file working now I can watch AVI files through Media Center as well.
My biggest concern with TVersity is that it is designed to do a lot more than what I want. I am not interested in a lot of what can be done. I just want to serve up my media files. To that end I created two folders on my computer, Movies & TV Shows. I have to navigate to the "Folders" folder on the XBox, then I see my two folders and can navigate down through them. I haven't been able to find a way to remove the 6 other top level folders from TVersity.
Podcasts, Internet, All Folders, etc. I cannot even rearrange the order so that "Folders" is the first folder listed. If you know how to remove these folders, or at least know a way I can change the order, please send me a note.
The second problem with TVersity is that is refreshes its content on a schedule. The shortest interval for that schedule is 1 hour. This is probably fine most of the time, but I find it annoying if I just ripped a movie and want to watch it. I guess I will have to get use to having to fire up the TVersity interface on the PC and manually refreshing a folder if I want to watch something new right now.
One last issue with TVersity. It does not start up automatically. I have the option set in the application to start sharing when the PC starts. But it does not. TVersity kicks in Windows Vista's UAC when I launch it and this may be the issue. This is a minor annoyance. I just make a point to start up TVersity and start sharing when I reboot the PC.
Media Center on the XBox has its own quirks. You have to manually add folders you want the XBox to monitor, and this is separate from the folders Media Center on your PC monitors. This took me a while to figure out. Like TVersity, I cannot figure out how to remove items like the Sample Video folder. This would make navigation simpler. Media Center on the XBox finds new content right away, if the folder is being monitored by the XBox. This is a better way to go.
Overall I like the Media Center interface. I don't like that my ripped movies only show up as files under the Video Library. I should at least be able to edit the way Media Center sees these files. In the Zune desktop application you can edit a video and declare it a TV Series or Movie. TV Series can be assigned season and episode numbers, and movies can be given release dates, genre and descriptions. I do this with the movies I watch on my Zune. I wish I could do this editing in Media Center on the PC and have it carry over to the XBox.
In the end I prefer the playback control I get with TVersity. I was thinking about ripping my movies in AVI format to be more compatible with the stuff I find on the Internet, but the WMV format is working well enough and it works in both Media Center and TVersity. I hope to play around with Windows 7 Beta. I understand that Media Center in Windows 7 is much more compatible with Media Player and handles a lot more formats. If this carries over to the XBox I may switch back. As it is now I prefer TVersity.
I do not have a Blu-Ray player, so I have no way to get High
Definition content to my XBox/TVersity directly.
I have resorted to downloading high definition content in MKV format. Yes, another format. However, TVersity/XBox does not recognize MKV. I convert MKV them to MP4 with a program called XenonMKV so they can be played by the XBox 360. This does a couple of unpleasant things. First it drops the audio from 5.1 to 2 channel. This is actually not a problem for me because I currently don't have 5.1 sound on my big screen TV (http://www.scottlewisonline.com/archive/scott200705.html#dolby). The next problem is that the XBox has a file size limitation with MP4 files of 4GB. This is a real problem.
The XBox will upconvert 720p video to 1080i, and this looks excellect. So, the key for me is to download 720p MKV files that are under close to 4 GB. Simply use XenonMKV to convert it to MP4 and serve it to your XBox with TVersity. This is working perfectly for me. I say close to 4 GB because XenonMKV strips out the 5.1 sound and converts it to 2 channel. This means the final MP4 file is almost always smaller than the input MKV file. I usually look for files around 4.4 GB in MKV format.
I have found a program called TMPGenc 4.0 Xpress that will convert MKV to WMV which eliminated the 4 GB limit. However it is slow as dirt. My preferred method is to use XenonMKV because it is fast, easy and free.
I wrote about Windows 7 on
my blog. I will not go over everything here, so feel free to read
this post for
my initial impressions to Windows 7. But I can't just leave this
topic off my main forum of information dissemination.
I am dual booting Windows 7 Beta with Windows Vista on my desktop PC. I thought I was done with beta operating systems, but a few compelling features made me do it. The main reason I want to play with Windows 7 is to see if it improves the experience with the XBox 360 as a media extender to W7's Media Center.
Media Center does indeed support more formats right out of the box. I have tested WMV, AVI & MP4 files. These are the files in my library. I am sure more are supported, but that does not concern me. This is more that Media Center under Windows Vista could do.
I was impressed how easily Media Center setup and started working with my TV tuner card. It was necessary to disable the firewall on Windows Vista to allow Media Center to update the TV Guide. This worked perfectly the first time with Windows 7.
Media Player is also much improved, particularly for video playback. Double click a video file and Media Player launches as a small frame window with the video playing within it. The controls are superimposed over the video. Move the mouse away or leave it alone long enough and the controls disappear and you have nothing but your video in a clean application.
Next I will configure W7 with the XBox. Stay tuned.
I have more information about DVD ripping for next month. Until then...