Apple TV – Second try

When Apple announced their AppleTV a couple of months (or was it years?) ago, I was very skeptical of the general idea behind the device. Think of it: What was the big success behind the iPod? That it could run proprietary AAC files people buy from the music store?

No. That thing didn’t even exist back then. The reason for the success was the total easy (and FAST – remember: Back in the days, we had 1.1 MB/s USB which every MP3 player used vs. 40MB/s Firewire of the iPod) handling and the fact that it was an MP3 player – playing the files everyone already had.

It was a device for playing the content that was available at the time.

The AppleTV in its first incarnation was a device capable of playing content that wasn’t exactly available. Sure it could play the two video podcasts that existed back then (maybe more, but you get the point). And you could buy TV shows and movies in subpar quality on your PC (Windows or Mac) and then transfer them to the device. But the content that was available back then was in a different format: XVID dominated the scene. x264 was a newcomer and MP4 (and mov) wasn’t exactly used.

So what you got was a device, but no content (and the compatible content you had was in subpar quality compared to the incompatible content that was available). And you needed a PC, so it wasn’t exactly a device I could hook to my parents PC for example.

All these things were fixed by Apple today:

  • There is a huge library of content available right here, right now (at least in the US): The new movie rental service. Granted. I think it’s not quite there yet price vs. usability-wise (I think $5 is a totally acceptable price for a movie with unlimited replayability), but at least we have the content.
  • It works without a PC. I can hook this thing up to my parents TV and they can immediately use it.
  • The quality is OK. Actually, it’s more than OK. There is HD content available (though maybe only 720p one, but frankly, on my expensive 1080p projector, I don’t see that much of a difference between 720p and 1080p)
  • It can still access the scarce content that was available before.

The fact that this provides very easy to use video-on-demand to a huge amount of people is what makes me think that this little device is even more of a disruptive technology than the iPod or the iPhone. Think of it: Countless of companies are trying to make people pay for content these days. It’s the telcos, it’s cable companies and it’s device manufacturers. But what do we get? Crappy, constantly crashing devices, which are way too complicated for a non-geek and way too limited in functionality for a geek.

Now we got something that’s perfect for the non-geek. It has the content. It has the ease-of-use. Plug it in, watch your movie. Done. This is what a whole industry tried to do and failed so miserably.

I for my part will still prefer the flexibility given by my custom Windows Media Center solution. I will still prefer the openness provided by illegal copies of movies. I totally refuse to pay multiple times for something just because someone says that I have to. But that’s me.

And even I may sooner or later prefer the comfort of select-now-watch-now to the current procedure (log into private tracker, download torrent, wait for download to finish, watch – torrents are not streamable, even if the bandwith would easily suffice in my case – the packets arrive out of order), so even for me, the AppleTV could be interesting.

This was yet another perfect move by Apple. Ignore the analysts out there who expected more out of this latest keynote. Ignore the bad reception of the keynote by the marked (I hear that Apple stock just dropped a little bit). Ignore all that and listen to yourself: This wonderful device will certainly revolutionize the way we consume video content.

I’m writing this as a constant sceptic – as a person always trying to see a flaw in a certain device. But I’m sure that this time around, they really got it. Nice work!

Upscaling video

I have an awesome Full-HD projector and I have a lot of non-HD video material, ranging from DVD-rips to speedruns of older consoles and I’m using a Mac Mini running Windows (first Vista RC2, then XP and now Vista again) connected to said projector to access the material.

The question was: How do I get the best picture quality out of this setup.

The answer boils down to the question of what device should do the scaling of the picture:

Without any configuration work, the video is scaled by your graphics card which usually does quite a bad job at it unless it provides some special upscaling support which the intel chip in my Mac Mini seems not to.

Then you could let the projector do the scaling which would require the MCE application to change the screen resolution to the resolution of the file played. It would also mean that the projector has to support the different resolutions the files are stored in which is hardly the case as there are some very strange resolutions here and then (think game boy’s native 140×102 resolution).

The last option is to let your CPU do the scaling – at least to some degree.

This is a very interesting option, especially as my Mac Mini comes with one of these nice dual core CPUs we can try and leverage for this task. Then, there are a lot of algorithms out there that are made exactly for the purpose of scaling video, some of which are very expensive to implement in specialized hardware like GPUs or the firmware of a projector.

So I went around and finally found this post outlining the steps needed to configure ffdshow to do its thing.

I used the basic setting and modified it just a bit to keep the original aspect ratio of the source material and to only do the resizing up to the resolution of 1280×720. If the source is larger than this, there’s no need to shrink the video just to use the graphics chip to upscale it again to the projectors native 1920×1280 resolution (*sigh*).

Also, I didn’t want ffdshow to upscale 1280×720 to the full 1920×1280. At first I tried that, but I failed to see a difference in picture quality, but I had the odd frame drop here and then, so I’m running at the limits of my current setup.

Finally, I compared the picture quality of a Columbo (non-referal link to Amazon – the package arrived last week) DVD rip with and without the resizing enabled.

The difference in quality is immense. The software-enhanced picture looks nearly like a real 720p movie – sure: Some details are washed-up, but the overall quality is worlds better than what I got with plain ffdshow and no scaling.

Sure. The CPU usage is quite a bit higher than before, but that’s what the CPUs are for – to be used.

I highly recommend you taking the 10 minutes needed to set up the ffdshow video decoder to do the scaling. Sure: The UI is awful and I didn’t completely understand many of the settings, but the increased quality more than made up the work it took to configure the thing.

Heck! Even the 240×160 pixel sized Pok√©mon Sapphire run looked much better after going through ffdshow with software scaling enabled.

Highly recommended!

By the way: This only works in MCE for video files as MCE refuses to use ffdshow for MPEG2 decoding which is needed for DVD or TV playback. But 100% of the video I watch are video files anyways, so this doesn’t bother me at all.