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My Apple TV Take Two Review: Ripping DVDs, Creating a Media Library, and HD Downloads

Apple TV Review

I recently purchased an Apple TV ($225). I had a couple reasons for getting one. The first was to be able to create, maintain, and access a library of ripped movies and other video content on my television. I also wanted to be able to rent HD movies for my Vizio 47-inch HDTV (thus increasing my amount of HD content) and to have access to my iTunes library in my living room. Here’s a review of my experience with the Apple TV so far.

Renting HD Movies

One of the first things I did with my Apple TV was rent an HD movie, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, from iTunes. My impression of the picture quality was that it looked great–definitely a high definition experience. I have seen plenty of OTA 720p and 1080i high def content, and it’s my amateur impression that there is no visible difference between Apple TV HD and OTA broadcast HD.

I’ve read that many are questioning whether Apple HD movies can be truly called high definition because of the compression that is used on the video. An interesting read is George Ou’s article “Don’t Believe the Low Bit-rate Lie.” George Ou makes an interesting point about the bitrates of Apple HD and other download services being lower than that of even standard DVD discs (although different codecs are used for each, which create different bitrates. Apple’s HD codec is one of the best at giving the best picture at smaller bitrates). All I can say is that I cannot tell the difference between broadcast HD and Apple HD. Both look really good to me–way above the standard def experience.

Pirates of the Caribbean HD from Apple TV Rental

The detail on Captain Barbossa’s face was impressive.

Using the Apple TV to Manage a Media Library

Creating a media library for the Apple TV was pretty easy. I use Handbrake, available on Mac, Windows, and Linux, to rip DVDs. There is an Apple TV preset to make ripping easy. One tip for using Handbrake is to select the “constant quality” check box, then change the percentage to around 70%. This will give you the best picture possible. However, it also increases the file size.

Handbrake with Apple TV Preset and Constant Quality Setting Adjusted

Apple TV preset and 70% constant quality

I store the movies on a 500 gb Western Digital My Book hard disk drive (cost me $130 at Costco). The disk drive is connected as an Air Disk (wireless storage) to my Airport Extreme 802.11n WiFi station, so there’s no need to connect it to the Apple TV or my computer. It is simply connected to the WiFi router in my den, and I rip movies to it over the WiFi connection.

Once the movies are ripped, I manually drag and drop them into MetaX, a Mac-only program that adds movie art from Amazon.com, movie descriptions, actors, and other information so it looks great when I browse through the movies on my Apple TV. MetaX will automatically add the movie to my iTunes library when it’s finished processing.

When added to my iTunes library on my computer, the Apple TV in my living room automatically begin synching the movie, and I can watch the movie immediately.

I use my MacBook laptop to rip the movies; it usually takes around two hours for each movie.

My Book and Airport Extreme

WD My Book, Aiport Extreme, MacBook, iPhone

 

I’ve also enjoyed now having access to my music library on my TV. It’s much easier for me to listen to music while working on a project or entertaining friends in the living room. One gripe I have is that the Apple Remote makes it difficult to navigate through huge lists; anyone with a decent music collection knows what I’m talking about. Apple TV tries to aid your search by having the screen scroll faster the longer you hold down the button, but it’s still an ugly way to navigate through huge lists. If Apple really wanted to improve on its remote control and menu navigation, it will release a touchscreen remote that syncs with the menu portion of Apple TV. Or better yet, write a program for my iPhone that allows it to transform into a remote control. *Update* Apple ended up doing just this with the iPhone Remote App. Looks like Apple was listening!.

I also like that album art is used as a screen saver. Album covers float lazily up the screen in 3D. A very nice polished touch.

Apple TV Screen Saver Album Art

I have a few other complaints about the Apple TV. One is that it did not come with component or HDMI cables. Appleā€™s being a little cheap and inconvenient there if you ask me. Also, downloads can be slow if you don’t have fast broadband. I have AT&T DSL (really, really sucks, I get well under 1 mb/s), so downloads take a lot longer for me than most. Also, most seem to agree the industry-standard 24-hour viewing time limit on downloaded rentals sucks (but apparently there’s a simple way around it).

Conclusion

So far, I’m totally impressed by the Apple TV. HD movies look great, the interface is fine, and Handbrake makes creating a media library easy. If you are looking to get rid of cable TV but still want to watch television, this is a great way to download and manage content. The 160 gig model is still a bit pricey for most people at $330 (I used my $100 iPhone credit on mine), but if you’re using it as a replacement for cable TV, it’s still a pretty compelling price.


Suggested links for Apple TV owners:

AppleTVJunkie.com - Find out every HD movie that Apple TV offers and what has just been added.

Handbrake - Rip DVD into an h.264 format compatible with Apple TV, contains an Apple TV preset.

MetaX - Add DVD covers and other information to your mp4 (h.264 files). Having DVD covers makes browsing movies on your Apple TV so much better. Watch a video demo for an example. It pulls information and movie art from Amazon.com and other sites.

11 Comments

  1. smitty wrote:

    Have you found anything that works on DVDs that handbrake is unable to RIP, such as most Pixar films and several others? I’ve done the same thing as you, and have a bookshelf in my storage area with all the old DVDs if I need to retrieve them or watch special features (which I have not ripped).

    Saturday, March 1, 2008 at 5:11 pm | Permalink
  2. Gerald wrote:

    I’m considering doing the same DVD-to-AppleTV switch, but have yet to figure out how to handle the audio.

    First, 5.1 sound. I know that a ripped h264 file supports 2, 4, and 6-channel AAC, DTS, and AC3 (aka “Dolby Digital”). How does Handbrake compare to VisualHub in preserving then multi-channel audio?

    Secondly, multiple audio tracks. H.264 files can hold multiple audio tracks, saving you from having two copies of the movie (one for regular viewing, one for the “commentary” track) but currently Quicktime only plays Track 1. (VLC allows you to choose between all available tracks.) Can the AppleTV play a secondary audio track?

    As soon as I figure out the “perfect” ripping method, my DVDs are going into long-term storage next to my CDs and iTunes will control it all.

    Saturday, March 1, 2008 at 7:09 pm | Permalink
  3. alan wrote:

    Smitty, as I don’t rip copyrighted DVDs…excuse me, I had to turn my head away from the keyboard and cough a second…I have not experienced this. But here is an answer for you on another site:

    http://forum.handbrake.fr/viewtopic.php?f=5&t=266

    Saturday, March 1, 2008 at 11:08 pm | Permalink
  4. alan wrote:

    Gerald, the answer to your audio question is here:

    http://forum.handbrake.fr/viewtopic.php?f=7&t=4305

    Saturday, March 1, 2008 at 11:12 pm | Permalink
  5. Mike wrote:

    You mention that Handbrake is Mac only. As much as I would love for this to be true as I use a Mac, it’s actually available for Windows and Linux as well: http://handbrake.fr/?article=download

    Sunday, March 2, 2008 at 8:00 pm | Permalink
  6. alan wrote:

    Mike, thank you for the correction. I’ve updated the article.

    Sunday, March 2, 2008 at 10:10 pm | Permalink
  7. Albert Mescallado wrote:

    Hi Alan,
    I’ve got the Godfather Trilogy and am planning to get an AppleTV. What settings do I need to use in Handbrake? It took me over 9 hours to rip it and store the first disc (approximately 120 minutes) onto a 1TB MyBook external drive, using a 1.66GHz Intel core duo Mac Mini. Also, what is the advantage of getting a 160GB AppleTV over a 40 GB one when I use the MyBook to store the ripped movies?Is it possible to store Blu-ray or HD-DVD stuff on an AppleTV using an HP s3330f with Blu-ray/HD-DVD dual drive?
    Regards,
    Albert

    Monday, March 31, 2008 at 9:32 pm | Permalink
  8. Albert Mescallado wrote:

    This is my second email (I’m not sure what happened to the first). What setting do you use to rip your movies? It took me about 9 hours(!) on my Mac mini 1.66GHz Intel Core Duo using a 1TB My Book external hard drive to rip the first disc (approximately two hours) of my Godfather Trilogy. I’m upgrading my computer to a MacBook 2.2GHz. Is it possible to rip an HD-DVD or Blu-ray disc using HandBrake and an HP s3330f with a dual HD disc reader, store it on a My Book external drive and watch it on the AppleTV? What’s the advantage of getting an AppleTV with a 160 GB drive over one with a 40 GB drive if I use a MyBook eternal hard drive that has a 1TB capacity?

    Tuesday, April 1, 2008 at 9:32 pm | Permalink
  9. alan wrote:

    Handbrake can’t rip Blu-ray yet. Blu-ray encryption has been cracked, but as far as I know there is no ripping program for it yet. It could be a while before we’re there, because Blu-ray equipment isn’t quite mainstream.

    I like the 160 GB Apple TV because it keeps more data locally in case your wifi network goes down or just breaks connection with the Apple TV (happens every once in while for me). You can also download more podcasts and videos locally to the Apple TV instead of doing it on your computer.

    Handbrake has an Apple TV preset setting, you simply click on it (it’s on the right-hand side). Another tip is to use the two-pass setting (without a turbo first pass) because it supposedly gives you a better picture through better compression. However, it also results in a bigger file.

    Wednesday, April 2, 2008 at 1:36 am | Permalink
  10. JOHN wrote:

    Apple has taken out a few patents on remote control technology. You can guess that a future iphone will work as a control device also. They want you to basically carry an iphone around all the time.

    Friday, June 13, 2008 at 10:54 pm | Permalink
  11. Pedro wrote:

    Hey I was wondering if this configuration with an external hard drive with the airport extreme, would also work with an airport express instead.

    Thursday, January 8, 2009 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

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