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Scott's Column
Movie Ripping, Stuttering on Zune & Laptops

April 1, 2009
By Scott Lewis

Introductory paragraph goes here.

Current Topics:

Gaming

I finally bought The Orange Box. This includes a number of games. Mainly it includes Half Life, Half Life: Episode One & Half Life: Episode Two. Also included are Team Fortress for online multi-player action and Portal. When I installed it I was greeted with a bonus of Half Life: Lost Coast.

I am going to play them in order, so I am working my way through Half Life. The graphics are decent, but I am hoping the newer versions have better graphics. I will say that for a game that has been out for a while it worked perfectly with my widescreen monitor and 1680 x 1050 resolution.

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Movie Ripping Problems

I normally use DVDFab Platinum 5 to rip movies to both WMV format for Media Center/XBox 360, and to MP4 format for the Zune and iPods. However, sometimes it does not work. The most notorious case is Live Free Or Die Hard, the final installment in the Die Hard series. The movie starts playing fine when ripped from DVDFab, but about 10 minutes in the movie get flakey. Skipping forward or backward does unpredictable things. And the sound goes out of sync about the time the bullets start flying.

I had to switch techniques and use DVD Decryptor to rip the movie from the disc as one VOB file. Then I found a program called Next Video Converter that can convert VOB files to MP4 and MPG format. XBox/Media Center work with MPG files that are MPeg-1 or MPeg-2. I used MPeg-2 which is supposed to be the same as what is on a DVD in the first place. I was able to get two successful copies of the movie, one in each format. Everything works, but I lost DVDFab's ability to crop the movie and boost the volume for my Zune.

I will use this as a backup to DVDFab. I still like it too much to look for a different permanent solution. Well, at least until I have a Bru-Ray drive in a computer and have to figure out how I want to rip HD discs. But I am a long way from that.

As it is now I can watch all 4 Die Hard movies from my couch using the XBox controller without getting up to change a disc. This is why I did all this. I want to have all my media centrally located. Life is good.

Next will be to put a Media Extender in the master bedroom. I don't think my wife will like the idea of an XBox in the bedroom, so I will be looking into media extenders that work with Media Center or TVersity and look like regular audio/video equipment, but I am in no hurry for this.

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Video Stuttering on Zune

I am dealing with an issue of video files that stutter during playback on my Zune 80. The Zune is up to date on its software, so that is not the problem. I have had this problem in small amounts since I started watching ripped movies on my Zune. Some movies would stutter the video and audio more than others. I remember watching The Fugitive (the first movie I re-ripped into my current preferred format for my Zune) and it stuttered only during the last 10 minutes of the movie.

I tried shutting down the Zune and restarting it. Nothing seems to help. I try fast forwarding or rewinding in a movie to see if it is specific to a place in the file. It can sometimes play a few seconds without stuttering when I do this, but it does seem to be concentrated in certain areas of the movie.

I was watching Support Your Local Sheriff. This is an old movie from the 60s with James Garner as the lead. He plays a "pioneer" passing through a town overrun with gold diggers on his way to Australia. He takes the job of sheriff. This is a comedy. I just love how he keeps Bruce Dern in jail, a jail with no bars. You have to see it to get it. This is an oldie, but a goodie for me. I remember seeing it on Saturday mornings on TV when I was a kid. In fact, it was weird, this was playing one night on the TV in the hotel my wife and I stayed at in Cancun on our honeymoon. I think this was the only thing I bothered to watch that week.

This movie would stutter quite a few times during playback. This was after I had re-ripped about 30 of my movies in MP4 format at 320 x 240 resolution with a bit rate of 800 kbps. I chose these setting because they are the same settings used by the Zune Desktop application when it converts TV shows that have been recorded by Media Center. Well, except that the Zune application converts to WMV and I use MP4 so that the files can also be played on my sons' iPods.

It was time to find a way to prevent this. I decided to see if I was encoding files wrong or something. I decided to start playing around with settings and put a stop to this stuttering once and for all.

I wanted to use a movie that I would not mind watching over and over. Although I like Support Your Local Sheriff, it is NOT a movie I would pick for this exercise. I went with the latest movie I ripped and still had sitting on my desk. This was X-Men. Again, not my first pick for a movie I might have to watch a half dozen times in a row. But I can't think of any movies in recent times that stuttered.

Well, as they say, best laid plans of mice and men... X-Men did not stutter. This is very weird because I used the exact same profile and settings to rip each movie. It looks like Support Your Local Sheriff is going to get the nod for testing. I switched to DVDFab's Generic profile (instead of Zune or XBox 360). This allows me to select from all the formats DVDFab uses.

Well, as luck would have it I don't remember which setting I used, as I expected this problem to go on for a while. I was just warming up to this and wanted to make sure I could create a MP4 file under the Generic profile. Well, Support Your Local Sheriff played perfectly on the Zune. Since I don't remember the exact settings I used I just deleted the bad file and put the good one in place.

Now I am waiting for another movie to stutter and I will use it. The problem is I am doing all this ripping more to build my library than to watch each movie right now. I may have to watch each movie on my Zune as I rip it so I can find a movie to start with.

I cannot be sure it is even the files themselves. They play perfectly in the Zune application with no stuttering. I even did a registry trick (this is from the XenonKVM) to get Media Player to play MP4 files and it does so without stuttering.

I never get stuttering when watching TV shows that have been recorded in Media Center and converted by the Zune application. I also have not experienced any problems with AVI files I download from the internet and convert to MP4 in Format Factory.

I am beginning to wonder if it can be the process itself. What if I am doing too much on my PC while ripping movies. DVDFab is a bit of a resource hog, but not that much. However, if I am running BitComet to download a couple of torrents then the PC becomes unresponsive from time to time. Maybe the file DVDFab is creating is getting some of this, or maybe there is some kind of lag reading from the DVD disc during times when BitComet or some other program is running. It may be as simple as ripping movies when nothing else is happening on the PC.

Time will tell. I will have to report on any possible fix later when I have more movies converted and watched on the Zune.

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Laptops

My current laptop is close to 3 years old. This is about the length of time most laptops last in my house. My wife is on her 3rd purchase. We started her on laptops in 2001. The laptop I bought in the Summer 2006 was the first laptop I bought for myself. Up to that point I used hand-me-down laptops and mostly used a desktop.

Well, I have been using my desktop a lot more lately. It is pretty good for gaming, and especially for managing all my digital media. At this point I do three things on my laptop. 1) E-mail, 2) Edit this web site with Microsoft Expression, and 3) Surf the web. That's it. Occasionally I will burn a CD from the laptop because of convenience. I do everything else on the desktop.

Long time readers will recall I started preparing for getting another laptop a few months ago. I reformatted the hard drive on the laptop and loaded just what I need for software. My goal was to see what software I could not live without. As it turns out... not much. I did this because I would like to get a Mac for my next laptop. I am seriously thinking of getting the current MacBook with its all aluminum construction. However, I have been tempted by laptop reviews of many Windows based laptops.

That means it is time to make a list. I created a spreadsheet to compare the models I found interesting. Keep in mind that I have a large 17" laptop now. I will not get one that large again. I was concerned the 13.3" screen on the MacBook, or even MacBook Air, might not be big enough. I am trying to get used to the idea of a small screen. I am more concerned with the resolution of the Mac screens at 1280 x 800. Lenovo has a couple laptops (T400 & SL400) that come with 14.1" screens and have 1440 x 900 resolution. This is the same resolution as my 17" monitor. Which means I would not give up any screen real estate. Everything would just be smaller.

I have also been tempted by some multi-media laptops with true HD screens and maybe even Blu-Ray and HDMI output. Most of these fall into the 16" size category.

O.K. I created a spreadsheet to keep track of all this. I have three pages on the spreadsheet. One for 13.3" laptops, another for 14.1" machines and finally a page for 15.4" - 16" laptops.

Download Laptop Comparison Spreadsheet Here

My biggest concerns this time out is battery life, weight and graphics. I really want discrete graphics. I just may play some games on the laptop. Without a doubt I will use the laptop to play movies when travelling. Granted, I don't travel much, but I want the option of playing two movies on battery power.

My goal is a reasonably portable laptop OR a multi-media laptop with HD screen resolution and HDMI output. I would like to run a laptop all evening on battery power. I would also like to watch two full length movies on a single charge. Watching a movie does not have to be from disc, I have no problem copying movies I rip from DVD to the laptop. If I go with an HD screen I like the idea of a Blu-Ray player that can be hooked to an HDTV through an HDMI cable.

Please feel free to download the spreadsheet. Let me know if I am missing a model that is noticeably better than any I have listed. Over the next few months I will try to narrow down the choices. Then it is a matter of saving for the new machine. I am on a strict budget, and I may have to hold onto my current laptop for another year.

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Conclusion

That's it for this month. And... I don't know what's coming next month... yet.

See you then.

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