Converting MKV files for playback on Apple TV & Thoughts on WD TV?

Discussion in 'Apple TV and Home Theater' started by mconk, May 6, 2009.

  1. mconk macrumors 6502

    mconk

    Joined:
    Mar 10, 2009
    Location:
    Virginia
    #1
    Hello,

    I am posting this question on several forums to try and get some clear and concise feedback. I know that this type of question has been asked before, but I have not come upon a clear answer yet, and I am trying to understand more about this particular topic.

    For quite some time now, I have been using Visual Hub to convert my HD MKV movie files to MP4's for viewing on the Apple TV, and on my MacBook Pro in iTunes. I normally drag the MKV into Visual Hub, select Apple TV from the drop down menu, change the slider to "Go Nuts", check the "H.264" box, and click go. 2-3 hours later, my file is done, and I have a fresh new MP4 file that I plop onto my external hard drive, sync with iTunes, and then stream to my AppleTV.

    Heres the question...

    I know that when converting the MKV files to MP4 using the AppleTV setting, the resolution of the file is changed as part of the transcoding process. With that said, I am wondering if I am losing a good amount of quality by doing this. The real question is if I should be going into the advanced options of Visual Hub, and manually inputing the resolution of the original MKV file, which for 1080i movies wold be 1920x1080, and then doing the same for the 720p movies I have. Would this make any real difference? I know that when the resolution of the file is cut in half during the transcoding process to convert to Apple TV format, I must be losing some quality...I feel like this is a stupid question, but I just want to make sure.

    I have spent a few hours testing the theory out. I connected my MacBook Pro directly to my 42" Vizio HDTV via DVI>HDMI, plugged the macbook in, shut the lid, and then used an apple remote to turn the machine on. This apparently, is the only way to get a full 1080i output from the MacBook Pro. If you simply connect the computer to the TV while the lid is open (without the power cord connected) the output is forced into 4:3, and unfortunately there is no overscan option on my tv. Please correct me if I am wrong in the above stated process, or if there is an easier method.

    Anyway, when connecting the MacBook to my Vizio, I have opened an original MKV file in VLC, and then opened the transcoded MP4 file (formatted for Apple TV) in VLC for comparison. Obviously, the MKV file fills the entire screen at the 1920x1080 resolution, whereas the MP4 only fills about half of the screen, as the resolution is almost cut in half (or more sometimes). It is hard to tell really, but I feel as if I am losing a good amount of quality by not keeping the original resolution in tact when transcoding for Apple TV with Visual Hub. And, again, I feel like this is a stupid question, so please take it easy on the responses!

    I appreciate any feedback...I have 8 new movies that I am waiting to convert for Apple TV viewing, and rather than continue with what I have been doing (with the other 42 movies I have already) I would like some feedback on this.

    Also, I would like some feedback on what people think of the WD TV media player. I JUST recently came across this little device. If you aren't familiar, it is a set top box that allows you to plug in practically any hard drive, and it will playback almost ANY media file, including MKV files, directly to your HDTV via HDMI. It seems to me that this would be a better route for most people like me....It woud save HOURS upon HOURS of transcoding time, and in addition, you would no longer have to keep iTunes open with the computer running anytime you want to watch a movie. I know alot of people using MacBooks with an External HD who stream to an Apple TV...between transcoding, and the external hd, and streaming....its just such a pain. It seems like this WD TV would be a pretty sinmple solution.

    I wish the Apple TV would support MKV playback, and I REALLY wish they would open up the freaking USB port so we could just plus our external HD's in!! Until then, I might spend the $100 for the WD TV while the Apple TV sits and collects dusts....thoughts??

    Long post, I know...but thanks in advance!! :)
     
  2. mkubal macrumors 6502a

    Joined:
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    Tampa
    #2
    I'd definitely suggest the WD TV. I have one and am able to easily play all of my files without having to worry about transcoding.

    Of note with the WD TV: It will choke on 1080p mkv files with too many ref frames. I think 6 is the limit (might be 8). Also many of the mkv files have audio tracks that are DTS. Unless you have a receiver that can accept this audio format via TOSLINK you will be unable to hear the audio as the WD TV does not downmix DTS so that it can be sent directly to your TV via HDMI. There are ways of converting the audio yourself, but the last time I looked it involved a Windows PC (although the program was free).

    To check your files for ref frames and audio formats use MediaInfo.
     
  3. mconk thread starter macrumors 6502

    mconk

    Joined:
    Mar 10, 2009
    Location:
    Virginia
    #3
    Pardon my ignorance, but what exactly is a ref frame? Never heard of this...

    My current setup does not have a receiver. I made the mistake of selling my receiver, and HSU Research surround sound speakers when I was overseas with the Marine Corps...I needed the cash at the time. But thanks for this tip, as this information is not listed on their website...and noone else has mentioned this. The only audio output on the WD TV is optical (TOSLINK) correct? My VIZIO has an optical input...so I am assuming that this shouldn't be an issue. Thanks so much for your response! It will be nice to simply plug in my external hard drive, and press play. Although, it will suck to have to re-download over 40 movies...as I didnt have room to keep the original MKV files...lol.
     
  4. MacStew macrumors member

    Joined:
    Dec 17, 2008
    #4
    The best the :apple:TV can display is 720p. It sounds like Visual Hub is transcoding the mkv file from 1080p to 720p (check the settings, you may need to enter this manually). On the Go Nuts setting, you won't be losing much quality, as the bit rate is high. However, the original mkv 1080p bitrate may not be that good, so your source material could have compression artefacts that the transcode cannot rectify. It's the old saying, garbage in, garbage out.

    Visual Hub is a bit dated now. Try Handbrake 0.9.3. The constant quality option is really good, it varies the bit rate depending on the scene.

    You can hack the :apple:TV to play mkv files and also open up the USB port! I use ATVFlash, it costs but it's all in one nice package. It can be done for free but it's a bit fiddly and time consuming. Check out http://www.atvflash.com/. Bear in mind it won't make the :apple:TV play 1080p mkv files, just up to 720p.
     
  5. mconk thread starter macrumors 6502

    mconk

    Joined:
    Mar 10, 2009
    Location:
    Virginia
    #5
    Thanks for your reply,

    I do have Handbrake installed, but never really toyed around with it. I will give it a spin tonight and see how it goes.

    My original question though, is whether or not I should be maintaining the original resolution of the MKV file when converting. As VisualHub, ffmpegx, Handbrake, etc will all change the resolution when transcoding. By going into the advanced settings, and forcing a 1080i MKV file to remain at 1920x1080 when converting...or a 720p MKV file to remain at its full resolution while converting, is this making any difference in terms of quality? Its hard for me to tell...but I am still curious.

    As far as hacking the Apple TV, Ive read about opening up the USB port, but I dont even know where to begin with the whole SSH thing, and I am not willing to pay the $50 for a hack when Apple should be allowing this from the get-go. I have, however, installed a patchstick, for Boxee, and XBMC. I rarely use the feature and am considering wiping the ATV back to original settings. Most of the videos on Boxee are choppy as the resolution is super low...even when toying with the settings, still choppy.

    I am curious though, in your experience with the program you paid for - was it fairly simple to setup the usb port for hard drive access? This is really what I am looking for, and it seems like the WD TV and/or this program to hack the ATV, are the only options unless Apple releases a firmware update.
     
  6. MacStew macrumors member

    Joined:
    Dec 17, 2008
    #6
    I see what you mean. In theory, if you maintain an equivalent bitrate (based on the video formats you are transcoding from and to) then you shouldn't see much of a reduction in quality, as you aren't introducing any additional compression. However any transcoding step is likely to introduce small changes which may be noticeable.

    But if you have a 1080p MKV, and want to keep it at 1080p, surely the best option is to find a device that can play it? AFAIK, the devices that can play 1080p can play most formats of 1080p (e.g. Popcorn Hour can play MKV and M2TS and MP4) so you shouldn't need to transcode.

    Very simple, and each new version gets simpler. You just install the app onto a USB stick, boot the :apple:TV with the stick, and run an installer from the menu to enable the USB port. But you still won't be able to play your 1080p MKVs!
     
  7. mconk thread starter macrumors 6502

    mconk

    Joined:
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    Virginia
    #7
    As far as playback of the 1080i files, I am assuming that by connecting the MacBook Pro directly to my Vizio via DVI>HDMI from the comp to the tv - I am truly seeing high def.

    I understand the ATV is only capable of 720p. I guess there is such a fine line between 1080 and 720 that its tough to see a real difference unless you're trained on what to look for.

    I just finished transcoding a 1080i MKV using Visual Hub, for Apple TV viewing. I went into the advanced options and forced the resolution to remain at 1920x1080. I then streamed the movie via iTunes to my ATV, and it looked great. I dont know that it looked any better than if I had let VisualHub change the resolution, so I guess that answers my question.

    However, since the ATV can only output @ 720p, I am not really looking at 1080i? I think this is confusing me, in part, because the resolution of the movie on screen is the full 1920X1080...and I am not zooming, overscanning...etc. I am not understanding parts of this, as I am still fairly new to the HD world.
     
  8. TuckBodi macrumors 6502

    Joined:
    Jan 10, 2007
    #8
    Just to clarify some things:

    - ATV can display 1080 ii just isn't too good at playing it (CPU-wise). Supposedly the GPU is capable of playing 1080 but Apple hasn't enabled it yet (like they did w/720).
    - You've already hacked your ATV but depending on which method you used, all you need is NitoTV to turn on USB. And NEVER pay for a Patchstick! The best one out there is free and from the guy who developed the bootloader all the other Patchsticks use anyways AND has the blessing from all the plugin dev's (unlike ATVFlash), and is fast and easy to use:
    http://code.google.com/p/atvusb-creator/
    - Handbrake encoding only works with some MKV's, albeit, it's been a few months since I used it. VisualHub at the time worked better. Either/or, just use the AppleTV setting as you want a .m4v @ 720p, which the GPU can play. VH worked fine with all the stuff I threw at it but maybe I need to get the latest Handbrake SVN and try it again.
    - a hacked ATV can play MKV's (which is only a container BTW) but only the low profile 720 ones adequately (and how many of those are out there?) (there's a lot of discussion of this up on the xbmc.org forums)
    - WDTV (I have both an ATV and WDTV) is a piece of junk, not worth the $100 I paid for it, although I keep waiting for the potential to be realized (still feels like a beta product) as they do periodically come out with firmware updates. While it has it's pro's being small and great h/w ports for the price, the con's out-weigh them:
    -- GUI/navigation sucks, reminds me of DOS versus OS X
    -- has problems with my iTunes .m4v content (can't play audio) and they have to be changed to .mp4 (and then I have to change back to play on my ATV)
    -- coverart (for their library mode) is a joke, as they have to be some ridiculous low resolution or it won't display (what's the use if you have a hidef TV?) and most of mine are set high for my ATV
    -- zero metadata display
    -- while it does play most formats it doesn't do everything quite yet (i.e. not all MKV's will play) and my .m4v's, etc.
    -- no distinction between movies, TV shows, home videos, music videos, etc...all one big glump
    -- fast forward & reverse is horrendously implemented
    -- I hate the remote as you're constantly trying to find the right button to hit

    - it does have both digital (toslink) and analog audio (RCA) audio capability
     
  9. dynaflash macrumors 68020

    Joined:
    Mar 27, 2003
    #9
    Therein lies the rub. an atv hacked to use xbmc or plex to allow playing 1080p movies has the downside of not playing them well. Afaik they have not found out how to enable the gpu hardware decoding of the atv (and on a recent episode of the FLOSS podcast lamented that very issue) which means the main cpu of the atv is used for 100% of the decoding work.

    The native atv software will not let you play a 1080p movies but frankly due to using the gpu hardware acceleration of the atv for decoding, would stand a much better chance of doing so successfully.

    Just because a hack or software "lets" you do something does not mean its a good idea. Just my .02
     
  10. mkubal macrumors 6502a

    Joined:
    Jul 22, 2002
    Location:
    Tampa
    #10
    I'm not quite sure myself, all I know is how to find out how many ref frames a given file has and to not exceed the limit. It would also probably be easier for you to download the sample file that usually accompanies such rips and get the info from that before downloading the entire file.

    Careful with that. Be sure it's an input and not an output and also be sure it supports DTS. Just because it has TOSLINK doesn't mean it will support all formats sent via TOSLINK. It apparently fairly rare for a TV to support DTS.

    Also, TOSLINK isn't the only way to get sound. It also passes sound through HDMI and RCA.
     
  11. mkubal macrumors 6502a

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    #11
    To each his own I guess. I find the ATV to be limited compared to the WDTV considering what I want to do with it. Sure it doesn't have the greatest interface in the world, but all I want is a dumb box that plays pretty much any file I throw at it. No bells and whistles, it just plays stuff. I don't need synced libraries and movie rentals. The mkv files that don't play are the result of people ripping them with an unnecessary number of ref frames.

    Not sure about your problem with m4v files. I'm sure they've worked for me before. Perhaps the problem is that they need to be renamed. I thought m4v could be renamed as mp4 without a problem.

    And I have no problem with the remote. Not sure where you got confused. Pause, play, power, ff, rw, back, etc.; all perfectly sensible to me.

    I'm not knocking your preference for ATV, it's slick, but to many people it's too limited. I'll get rid of the WD TV when there's an option that gives me the best of what both devices have to offer. Until then I opt for compatibility at a fairly cheap price.
     
  12. TuckBodi macrumors 6502

    Joined:
    Jan 10, 2007
    #12
    I guess I can dream/hope that either the XBMC Mac dev's can port over some of the work the Linux guys have done with enabling Nvidia GPU decoding and getting it to work with the ATV. AND/or I can dream/hope Apple enables it but they'll also have to improve their Backrow interface a wee little bit (don't bury My Movies and show 'em like their rentals) before I'd jump to use them again. Until then I'm diggin' XBMC....
     
  13. TuckBodi macrumors 6502

    Joined:
    Jan 10, 2007
    #13
    Yup, agree.

    I play them on an analog system to stereo powered speakers. I'm thinking the issue may be my movies contain both an AAC stereo & AC3 audio track and as an .m4v the WDTV can't play the audio (the original firmware couldn't even play the movie). Oddly, changing the extension to .mp4 plays the audio.

    Has to do with like sitting in bed with the lights out and say I want to quickly pause the movie or rewind it. I'm constantly fumbling for the right button or hitting the wrong one. Funny how people rip on the Apple remote and its simplicity, but that's what I like about it.

    Like you said, to each their own!
     
  14. mkubal macrumors 6502a

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    #14
    You got me there. I wish all my remotes were simple enough to be used without even thinking where buttons are.
     

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