Shopping experience: The end of the DVD era?


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[post:539#5369]
Devil Doll

09/22/2011 07:55 PM

Reviews: 365
Posts: 1571

Being the owner of a 37" HD-ready TV set at the foot of my bed I was watching my anime on this device by playing it on a stand-alone DVD player connected to this TV set (as my PC is in a different room of the house). This required me to

  • convert the anime to
    • an AVI container
    • with XVID video stream
    • in SD resolution (max. 720px width),
    • hard-coded subtitles and
    • MP3 audio stream
      (as this is what my stand-alone DVD player was capable of playing; for a complete description of the conversion procedure see here),
  • burn it on a (rewritable) DVD,
  • carry this disk to the other room and
  • insert it into my DVD player.
While generally working as expected, this method recently showed some issues:
  • Rewritable DVDs tend to produce errors at certain disk positions after a few times of burning, and
  • the player tends to dislike DVDs until it had a significant "warm-up time" of at least a couple of minutes.
Not to mention that burning the DVD takes some time, and noticing an error on the disk in the middle of watching a complete serie isn't exactly funny.

Now to something (seemingly) completely different: Germany is shutting down its current satellite TV system via (analog) ↗DVB-S in Spring 2012, switching to (digital) ↗DVB-S2 instead which will then allow airing TV programs in HDTV (given that the TV channels will produce material in HDTV, just a handful are already doing so, and many of these as Pay-TV only).
Now what exactly would this have to do with me using DVDs for watching fansubs on my standalone DVD player? If you want to know, read on.

For being able to watch TV after the forthcoming change, my media installation needed two changes: For the Set-Top Box, known as DVB-S2 receiver, there are many products available in the US-$80 range, and I had a hard time choosing... until I found one box (User Manual in German & English) that has an integrated media player capable of playing MKV containers with H.264 encoded HDTV videos!
So if there's the chance to get an additional media player for free and get rid of these error-prone DVDs at the same time, I was willing to give it a try. And so far this box does exactly what it promises... which is not quite what I would need for playing the latest anime fansubs but a lot better than what I had until now.

First of all, this receiver box provides a feature named ↗Time Shifting. The idea is that you start recording the TV program onto some storage media, and are then allowed to watch the recorded material while the recording still takes place, and even skip around within the video. So you may press the "pause" key at any time, leave the room, return and continue watching the TV program without having missed one second, and if you started recording early enough and began watching only much later you may even scroll forward within the video, thus skipping commercial breaks until you run up to the current position in the airing video. Or imagine watching a sports game where you may replay a critical scene any number of times to double-check the referee's decision, and then continue watching the (still recording) game without missing a second.

Such a Time-Shifting feature requires the receiver to write the video/audio stream to some storage device and read it from the same device. For this purpose the more expensive Set-Top Boxes ship with an integrated hard disk; the cheaper boxes are outsourcing the storage task to someone else by offering an ↗USB slot where some external device can be connected. This external device may be a hard disk but there's a cheaper and smaller solution as well: An ↗USB flash drive. These are tiny devices, often shaped like a stick; USB flash drives with 4 GB capacity are available for less than US-$10 these days. Recording one hour of TV material is estimated to produce about 3 GB of "transport stream" material (depending on the video format).
I decided to play it safe and purchase an USB stick with 8.002.686.976 Bytes = 7,45 GB capacity for US-$20; this thingy has the size of a thumbnail but twice the storage capacity of a DVD.
My Media Player wants this stick to be formatted in ↗FAT32 instead of ↗NTFS, meaning the maximum size for one file on this stick is 4 GB (but the recording feature automatically splits its data into files of max. 2 GB, thus the full 8 GB can be used for Time Shifting); my USB stick came pre-formatted in FAT32 already, otherwise formatting it by the Media Player would have done the trick. EDIT: See here for more details about recording data, volumes, and formats.

With such a USB stick at hand, I can easily connect it to one of the many USB slots of my PC and just copy any number of files to it; for the PC operating system the stick looks and feels just like an external hard disk.
For this process, the maximum writing speed of the USB stick can become the bottleneck when using older and/or cheap USB sticks; my PC is able to write data from hard disk to my USB stick with a speed of 7.4 MBytes per second, i. e. copying a 200 MB file for one episode takes 27 seconds, and writing 4,7 GB of data would take 11 minutes. More expensive sticks are faster, and the new ↗USB 3.0 protocol is meant to be ten times faster but not yet widely supported (both my PC and the Set-Top Box have USB 2.0 slots). Compare this to burning a rewritable DVD with "4x" speed which takes 14 minutes for 4,7 GB of data, thus for me the speed is almost identical to my previous method.
So instead of burning a DVD with anime files and putting it into the DVD player at my TV player's location I can copy the anime files to the USB stick and insert this stick into the USB slot of the satellite receiver; a menu of the receiver allows to play video, audio, and image data in various formats.

As for these formats, the media player in my satellite receiver understands the following file types (and some more):
  • .dat / .vob (with MPEG-1 or MPEG-2 video), 720x576px - this is standard DVD format
  • .ts (with MPEG-2 or H.264) - these are the transport streams of HDTV
  • .mp4 (with MPEG-4 ASP, i. e. DivX/XviD, or H.264) - these are Apple Quicktime videos
  • .mkv (with MPEG-4 ASP, i. e. DivX/XviD, or H.264) - these are Matroska containers, widely used for fansubs these days in the net
  • avi / divx (with MPEG-4 ASP, i. e. DivX/XviD, or H.264) - these are the older fansub formats but capable of HDTV resolutions, and as such an improvement over my DVD player
  • but note that H.264 is supported only up to Level 4.1 whereas some of the latest fansubs are already using H.264 Level 5.0.
Supported audio formats are:
  • AC3, AAC and MP3 in MPEG-4 files
  • MP-2 and AC3 in MPEG-2 files
Supported subtitle formats are:
  • SRT, SUB, SMI
  • no SSA subtitles (which unfortunately happens to be the format of choice for most fansubs)
  • no subtitle stream within the video container, the subtitles must be a separate file in the same directory instead.
So many of the current fansubs won't play directly on this device because of the SSA soft-subs in MKV containers.

Then again,
  • MKV/MP4 containers with
  • AC3 audio and
  • hard-subbed video in
  • H.264 Level 4.1 encoding in
  • 1920x1080px resolution with
  • 4 GB max. file size
will play directly on this device, and it producing such files (instead of XviD + MP3 with 1920x1280px which I am trying today) might well be a research subject of mine in the near future.
One thing is obvious already: Encoding times will increase massively in the future because I will now encode anime in HDTV resolution instead of shrinking them to SD resolution (as my DVD player was the bottleneck, incapable of playing more than 720px screen width); my first attempt of encoding Suzumiya Haruhi no Shoushitsu to XviD in 1920x1280px has an estimated running time of 8 hours for just this one movie...

Edited on 09/24/2011 07:20 PM.

[post:539#5370]
Forbin

09/23/2011 03:38 PM

Reviews: 478
Posts: 532

What even makes it worse for DVD's is the new TV's can play MKV direct. No more conversions!

DVD's are going away as Netflix expects Qwikster to go bankrupt in a couple of years.

[post:539#5371]
Devil Doll

09/24/2011 08:52 AM

Reviews: 365
Posts: 1571

Well, that depends. As explained above, "playing MKV" for the XORO device means "playing MKV without subtitles and the video stream using H.264 Level <= 4.1". So for the latest anime fansubs, this isn't sufficient yet.

Then again it allows me to upgrade the quality level of my re-encoding format to the same level as the fansub files, instead of throwing away 70+% of the quality by shrinking down to 704x396px which I had to do until now.

And the limitations I reported here might give the reader an idea what to test for their next "TV purchase candidate" claiming to "support MKV": Take a USB stick, copy a few recent fansubs to it, and try to play these on the TV set in question.

[post:539#5372]
Stretch

09/24/2011 11:46 AM

Reviews: 1103
Posts: 1098

Technology is leapfrogging forward, and I can't help worrying that a person like me, with little technical savvy and not much money to spare, is falling farther and farther behind.

[post:539#5373]
Devil Doll

09/24/2011 12:02 PM

Reviews: 365
Posts: 1571

Stretch, you're the main target group of this thread. My goal here is to show how close technology has come to making the complex conversion procedure that we have been discussing in epic length obsolete.
We're not yet there but it might now be a question of months rather than years. Technology is getting cheaper every day while at the same time offering additional features, one of these being the media player that I got as a surprising add-on for a different device. I don't know the satellite TV situation in the U.S., thus I don't know whether you're in the same situation as I am; I just wanted to mention that devices like the one I linked above (a satellite receiver with on-board media player and USB slot) is available now for a price that's a lot cheaper than a BluRay player (which would have been my alternative for entering the era of playing videos in HD resolution on my TV set, and thus my topic in this thread eight months ago).

The main issue that I see is the inflation of formats and parameters, the lack of widely supported standards. Then again, if we were to wait until H.264 became "stable" and won't produce any more new versions and "levels", and only then begin to expect the box makers to support H.264, MKV, SSA subtitles etc., then we would have to wait another ten years or so until the perfect media box will become available in the two-digit US dollar range. So if the price for finding a "bridge technology" beyond these ten years is meant to be reading current standards, adapting my conversion procedure accordingly and reporting the current situation in threads like this one then I'm more than willing to do this.

Edited on 09/24/2011 12:16 PM.

[post:539#5374]
Ggultra2764

09/24/2011 01:30 PM

Reviews: 1190
Posts: 385

I've had to switch my Netflix plan to streaming-only recently due to needing to tighten up on money thanks to the economy. The Qwikster division that Netflix announced seems to be the provider's way of distancing themselves from video rental so they can focus on being a streaming-only provider. It also looks like some parts of the anime industry are slowly transitioning over to the Blu-Ray format as Funimation has started having some of their titles being Blu-Ray/ DVD dual-release and some titles from Aniplex of America being only in Blu-Ray format. I've yet to hop into Blu-Ray considering the lack of interest I have in the format (only difference being boost in resolution and picture quality compared to the jump between VHS and DVD) and how it is still rather pricey to get a player, especially with the economy as bad as it is right now. Very likely, I won't be hopping onto the Blu-Ray bandwagon until retailers seemingly rid themselves completely of the DVD format.

[post:539#5375]
Devil Doll

09/24/2011 07:09 PM

Reviews: 365
Posts: 1571

We're merging two discussions here:

  • SD vs. HD as formats, and
  • DVD vs. BluRay as storage media.
As of now, I am not interested in BluRay as medium because there's not yet enough material there (just movies and some OVA but no TV series) and the BluRay players are both too expensive and incapable of playing recent fansubs (see this thread).

In HD I am interested, most notably for anime (because many recent fansubs are based on Japanese HDTV airings with 1280x720px which is 330% of the old SD resolution with 704x396px, and my HD-ready TV set can display 1366x768px, i. e. 114% of the HDTV resolution). So for me, BluRay would have been a means to bypass the traditional limitation of DivX/XviD-based standalone DVD players to SD as format, nothing else.

The message of this thread was meant to be: There is a way to play anime (on a TV set without computer connection, that's both Stretch's and my scenario) in HD resolution (of course I can already play 1280x720px anime fansubs on my 19" PC screen with a mere 25% of the surface of my TV screen) without using a BluRay player, and even a much cheaper way with fewer problems related to the handling of disk-like media. This way is to
  • replace the DVD player by a media player box (instead of a BluRay player) and
  • replace the DVD by a USB stick (instead of a BluRay disk).
None of the above is actually a new idea; there have been some media player boxes capable of playing MKV and H.264 out there for quite a while, one of these being the Playstation PS3.

What's new about my shopping experience is the combination of HDTV satellite receiver and HDTV media player within one box for a price around 80 US dollars, and as I was forced to purchase a new satellite receiver anyway (because the old one would soon have run out of programs due to the format change in Germany 2012) and thus got the media player practically for free I had the opportunity to replace my old (and slightly worrisome) DVD player as well in the process. (This DVD player ended up replacing a 30-year-old and broken CD player in another room where it will be used for playing MP3 music CDs, thus allowing a complete opera to be stored on one CD.)

- - - - -

A footnote to my first posting: Recording HDTV video material (a sports magazine) as transport stream actually uses up a lot more space than I expected. The 8 GB USB stick can hold a mere 79 minutes of video data in 1280x720px with 50 frames per second and an insane quality of 11900 kBit per second compressed in H.264/AVC Level 4.0 (this being the format in which German HDTV is airing these days), so time-shifting a whole movie in HDTV quality would require a 16 GB stick instead. As this is no urgent issue for me I intend to wait for the USB stick prices to go down significantly before purchasing a larger USB stick; for the time being the 8 GB stick will do.
I should perhaps mention that the media box can use not only USB sticks but also external USB hard disks (2.5", even without their own power supply as they can get their energy from the media box via the USB cable) for recording and playing videos, so instead of purchasing a pretty expensive USB stick with 16 GB or even 32 GB capacity the alternative might be to purchase a relatively small external hard disk with 320-500 GB capacity for the same price.

Edited on 09/24/2011 07:39 PM.

[post:539#5383]
Devil Doll

10/06/2011 10:23 PM

Reviews: 365
Posts: 1571

Two weeks after this purchase I can report some big success that I wasn't expecting in my wildest dreams: Today I'm watching a MKV container with H.264 Level 4.1 video stream in 1280x720px resolution, AC3 audio with 5.1 channels and SSA subtitles on this XORO media player - without any conversion! (The anime being Evangelion Shin Gekijouban: Ha, and I could hardly have selected anything better than this.)

Unlike most technical devices, the logic of this digital receiver & media player is not hard-coded into the device; instead its producer continues to improve the software and offer a free download of the latest version on their website. (One may say this means that early customers are guinea pigs but given the price for this device I'm more than fine with this.) The procedure is as follows:

  • download the archive file from their website
  • extract the software patch file
  • copy it onto the USB stick
  • connect the USB stick to the XORO box
  • select "install new software" from the box's configuration menu
  • switch the XORO box off (by disconnecting the power cable), and then switch it on again
  • reset all configuration settings (by selecting the corresponding XORO menu entry; this is required for the patch to work according to the producer, thus eliminating old configuration data that might not work any more with the new software)
And then you have a better device than before... for free!

In the current case, the latest patch fixed several issues:
  • It now enables the XORO box to understand USB devices formatted with a ↗NTFS file system (getting rid of the previous file size limitation to 4 GB, something that would not have been sufficient for HDTV versions of long movies), and
  • they improved the handling of subtitles. Even the previous version was already able to read SSA/ASS subtitles (which are the norm for today's fansubs in MKV containers), extract the mere text and display it in the operating mode for SRT subtitles (which can't contain any formatting information); the new patch fixed a layout issue of the largest (and best readable) predefined font size for subtitles and slightly improved the readability of subtitles by putting a small black border around the (preferably) white subtitles.
With this, I was able to watch a movie in the aforementioned format.

A few minor issues remain:
  • The display of longer subtitle lines is often delayed by a few seconds. You are able to follow the dialog but the timing feels odd compared to hard-subbed releases. This can also lead to the subsequent subtitle being displayed only for a very short time (sometimes even shorter than one second; rewinding and rewatching the scene will often fix the issue).
  • When watching a longer movie in stop & go mode and even rewinding a few times (due to the first issue), subtitles and other streams get a bit out of sync after half an hour. I bypassed this by aborting the movie, restarting it and selecting "continue at the previous position" (which the XORO box still remembered) which re-synched the streams and merely took a few seconds for pressing four buttons ("abort", "start", "cursor up" in a menu that was displayed automatically after the re-start, and "okay").
  • The line wrapping of text is primitive, often inserting a line break in the middle of a word instead of searching for the most appropriate position. In this case the very first letter of the first text line (which then has maximum width on the screen) may be only partially visible, or even be cut off completely in the case of an "I" (which is not an unlikely first word of a sentence in the English language...).
  • The readability of white subtitles on bright background still leaves room for improvement; a thicker border (2-3px instead of 1px?) around the text font would be very helpful. There are other colors selectable from the configuration menu (black, blue, green, red) but white is the best readable one by far on a background of mixed and varying colors.
  • SSA/ASS subtitles may contain formatting information within the dialog text, such as {\i1}italics{\i0} for individual words, varying character width, fading effects etc. The XORO box does not remove these cryptic commands from the text and simply displays them as part of the dialog. This will appear awkward to those who don't know the SSA/ASS command language; me who has written such scripts myself can understand these commands and imagine the intended visual effect so I don't care.
I played about a dozen MKV containers on this player during the last days (including several videos in 1920x1080px full HD resolution!), and only one of these was rejected (there's a MKV feature named "header compression" which I suspect being the culprit as other players have been reported to have problems with this as well) with a message "wrong file" (format). So we're not at 100% yet but much closer now. The XORO box even plays ↗H.264 Level 5.1 compressed video streams despite the user manual officially supporting no more than H.264 Level 4.1 and lower.

I guess I'll report these remaining issues about the subtitles to the producer, and if they continue to fix known issues the same way as before it may well be possible to get the very latest anime fansubs being playable on the XORO box.

Edited on 10/06/2011 10:31 PM.

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