iTunes LP for Apple TV

11 September 2009

Norah Jones: Come Away with Me: iTunes LP

I like the new LP format. It consists of a new file type (.itlp) that contains everything but the songs and some of the videos. I bought the Norah Jones. In iTunes, the album appears as a number of items. The first is the iTunes LP file, running at 175Mb. This contains the interface and it links to the songs and two of the videos. The rest are the songs of the album, plus, in this case, two videos. You can play the songs and videos in iTunes, independent of the LP interface. These are what are synced to your iPod or Apple TV. To view it in LP mode, you double-click the LP item.

The LP interface is much like a DVD, with clickable links. All the text is large, like it is with a DVD, intended to be read from across a room on a large display. It seems a no-brainer for Apple TV to support this in LP mode, but as of last night, there was no software update. This would also apply to movies with extras. It’s a virtual DVD. I’m hoping we see this on Apple TV soon.

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iPhone Supports Better-than-iPod Video Quality

10 September 2009

In versions of iTunes prior to 9, videos that are compatible with a device have been displayed with black text, incompatible with grey. In iTunes 9, I was looking at the TV settings for the iPhone and noticed that all of my TV shows appeared in black. I’ve ripped all my DVDs as 768 x 576 (4:3) or 1024 x 576 anamorphic (16:9), 2500Kbps H.264, 160Kbps AAC. Up to this point, I was never able to sync a file greater than iPod resolution.

To my delight and surprise, these PAL-derived monsters synced across and played. Here’s one from Arrested Development, ripped from a Region 4 PAL DVD:

iPhone Settings Panel, Showing Compatible TV Show<br>Click to enlarge

iPhone Settings Panel, Showing Compatible TV Show

This is the only 720 HD TV show I have, Dollhouse. It’s a rip from a TV broadcast. The iPhone wouldn’t accept it:

iPhone Settings Panel, Showing Incompatible HD TV Show

iPhone Settings Panel, Showing Incompatible HD TV Show

Next I tested an iPod Classic, the true standard. Despite the apparent compatibility (black text), it wouldn’t sync anything above iPod standard:

iPod Settings Panel, Showing Incompatible TV Show

iPod Settings Panel, Showing Incompatible TV Show

What does it mean? It means less work when preparing DVD content. I can now rip one version of movies, TV shows and music videos, as long as I sync to an iPhone (and presumably, an iPod Touch). This is a pretty major step forward. Perhaps next year we’ll be able to sync 720 HD.


Managing the iTunes Plus Upgrade Process

3 February 2009

If you haven’t modified any of the tags for the music you previously bought from the iTunes Store, then the tags for the Plus replacements should match. The Plus tracks will have a new Date Added but otherwise will appear the same. The average user will be unaware of the change.

Fiddlers like myself will get into trouble if they simply do an upgrade as the tags won’t match. I always make sure my purchased music has a release date, that the album name and track number is correct (free song-of-the-week titles are usually wrong). I complete the tagging of music videos (usually they have a name and little else). I may replace the album art with one of my superior scans. You get the idea. Here are my recommendations for upgrading, all of which I followed in my own recent upgrade.

Download on a Different Computer or Library

My library is on my desktop machine. I downloaded on my laptop, which I use as a workspace to tag music before I merge it with the main library. The laptop is authorised for my iTunes Store account as is the desktop. The songs to upgrade are tracked by the Store from its own records, not based on the presence of any tracks in the library you are working with, so you can download to a different computer, even if the original songs are not there.

Alternatively, if you don’t have a secondary computer to work with, you can create a new, separate library to download to. Quit iTunes, then relaunch while holding down the Option key (Mac) or Shift key (Windows). This will bring up a dialog where you can choose an existing library or create a new one. Create one on the desktop for ease of finding in a later step. Log into the iTunes Store, click the iTunes Plus link, buy what you want (you can select what you want to upgrade now–you’re not forced to upgrade everything) and download it.

Merging with the Main Library

In this step you’ll add the new files to the existing library for checking against the originals.

If you’re using the double-library approach, quit iTunes and relaunch while holding down Option or Shift. Choose the main library. Once iTunes has launched, create a new static playlist called iTunes Upgrade. Open the iTunes library folder on the desktop. Burrow down to the iTunes Music folder and drag that folder into the new iTunes Upgrade playlist. If you downloaded on another machine, get the files across by any convenient method and drag into the playlist. As soon as one track has finished copying, hold down the Command key (Mac) or Control key (Windows) and click the checkbox next to the name. This will uncheck all the tracks and prevent them from being synced to your iPod or Apple TV before you’ve finished editing them.

Editing the Tags

Now you’ve got two sets of files: the original 128kbps protected files and the new 256kbps Plus files. Sort the playlist by Album and find the first album in the main body of the library. Change the tags of the Plus song to match that of the Protected song if necessary.

Empty the trash. Click the Plus song and delete it. Don’t empty the trash. Right-click the remaining original protected song and select Show in Finder (Mac) or Show in Windows Explorer (Windows). This will open a window with the actual file location of the song. Drag the Plus file out of the trash and put it in the song folder. Throw the protected file in the trash and empty it.

Now you’ve broken the link to the song in iTunes because you’ve deleted the file but not the database record. We do this to preserve the Date Added value, because this cannot be changed unlike other values such as Date Last Played.

Click on the song and Get Info. iTunes will tell you it can’t find it and ask if you want to locate it. You do. Navigate to the Plus version in the original location and click the Open button. Now you’ll see the Get Info dialog for that song. iTunes will also update the record to reflect that the song is now 256kbps but other metadata such as Last Played, Play Count, Rating and of course, Date Added are unchanged.

Special Considerations

This is the main procedure. You may find that the original tracks are no longer available and you may be offered an alternative, or (theoretically) they will be ignored in the upgrade process. For more on this, refer to my earlier post.

Be careful with the Finder/Explorer hack, especially the step where you choose the “lost” file. If you choose the wrong one you’ll change the record in iTunes and you’ll have a duplicate on your hands. Fixing it is messy. You would have to select the two duplicate records and delete them, which will put the file in the trash. Drag it back into iTunes and you’ll recover it to the original album, but you’ll lose all that lovely metadata for both the original song and the one you were trying to map. You’ll have to also drag the song you were trying to map to into iTunes.

Summary

I’ll admit that it’s a bit of work and if you have bought an awful lot of songs it probably isn’t worth it, but for perfectionists like myself who haven’t bought much, I think it’s a good idea from the perspective of maintaining valuable metadata.


Ripping Video Tape

27 May 2008

Great Southern Land
(Click to enlarge)

This is a video tape. Great Southern Land by Icehouse, never released on DVD. What’s a collector to do? It wasn’t that hard to rip, as long as you’ve got the tools.

Firstly, a friend of mine (because his VHS deck was stereo, and mine is mono), ripped it for me by connecting the deck to his EyeTV. He then recorded in real time, producing an EyeTV file that was 720 x 576 (PAL). I then used EyeTV to rip to iPod (640 x 480, 1500kbps H.264/128kbps AAC). This gave me one long iPod file. I used QuickTime Player Pro to cut out the separate videos, tagged each with Lostify and dragged them into iTunes.

The result? Pretty crappy video on Apple TV and the computer. Looks okay on iPod. I’m not overly concerned about the quality because there’s nothing you can do about it. The good thing is that I can now enjoy this content again without endangering my tape through wear and tear.

This process took me back to the ’80s and the positively archaic video technology of the time. DVD truly is a quantum leap forward in quality and usability. Luckily, that’s the only tape I needed to rip. The only other VHS I own is the original Star Wars Special Edition widescreen set from 1997, and there’s no way I’ll ever play it again. It’s purely a collector’s item now.


Music Video: Why Can’t Artists Get it Right?

20 February 2008

Time for one of my infrequent rants.

Why is it that artists (or their technical people) constantly make a hash of music videos? Case in point: the independent, Karmacoda. They’ve just released a new video on their website. I downloaded the iPod-ready version and it looked funny. The native aspect ratio of the video, 16:9, had been squashed horizontally into 4:3 and was between QVGA (320 x 240) and the iPod standard VGA (640 x 480). The slightly larger version (“for computer”) looked correct (heads not squashed) but even it was 3:2. Here’s the real kicker in this case: it was shot in HD. That means the trouble and expense of 720 or 1080, which should look amazing, has been squandered on a lousy postage stamp. A prior music video, also shot in HD, was made available on DVD, which I bought. I knew it was going to be NTSC (480 pixels vertical), but was unpleasantly surprised to find that it was 4:3 letterboxed. This just should not be. It’s not hard to make anamorphic video these days. Again, the quality of HD was wasted on this 720 x 400 video (after cropping).

My frustration with Karmacoda stems from the poor responses to emails I sent. The first, after I received the DVD, was extensive and contained a breakdown of the technical issues with the DVD and the free version and offered solutions. I also said that I would like to buy a HD version from their site. The response was a mere acknowledgement that I had sent something. I tried again after getting this new video. Same thing. I’m giving valuable feedback and advice. As they are an independent band, I expected a meaningful two-way conversation with the artists themselves but seemed to have been screened by a manager.

It’s not just independents at fault. Prior to the release of Daft Punk’s Alive 2007, I downloaded a teaser trailer in VGA resolution, H.264 video, AAC audio. Looked quite good. When the album arrived, the enhanced CD included a music video. The specs? QVGA, MPEG 1 muxed. What is EMI thinking? When will record companies wake up and start providing iPod-ready video on enhanced CDs? Nobody is going to want to put the CD in a computer to watch the video.

So why aren’t they done right in the first place? A possible solution is to make the video available on iTunes–after all, they’re giving it away for free on their site, and we know that free often doesn’t mean quality. If they package it for sale, the consumer can be assured of a certain level of quality.

Music video is being denigrated by ignorance or unwillingness to produce a good product. In the past, it’s been used solely as promotional material, where marginal quality would be a non-issue. It’s only been since the iTunes Store started selling them as a product in their own right that quality should be something that artists are aware of.

Am I alone in thinking this?


My Take on Apple TV, Take Two

17 February 2008

What a huge upgrade this is! A completely free, brand-new piece of hardware! This is a round-up of little things I’ve noticed that aren’t particularly highlighted elsewhere.

Show Everything or Only Synced Content

Remember how you could connect to another iTunes library and see all that content instead of just what was synced to the Apple TV? You can still do that, but if you uncheck this option, you will see the entire contents of the syncing iTunes library:

iTunes Apple TV Sync All Checkbox

It’s like you’ve suddenly expanded the storage of your Apple TV way beyond the confines of the built-in hard drive. You see everything, but some of it is synced and some is not. This is seamless to the user. If you specify automatic syncing, iTunes will sync as much of the content as it can, then stream the rest.

This is a fantastic feature for 40Gb users and it is really cool to see everything, but personally, I still like the concept of Apple TV only storing a subset, specifically, the next few episodes of TV shows in sequence or unplayed podcasts.

TV Show Display Tweaks

Seasons of a particular show are now separated by a small line of text and episode names are prefixed by their number in sequence:

Apple TV TV Shows Menu with Season Dividers

AirTunes

I think this is a killer feature despite its low-key appearance. It instantly solves the problem of not being able to sync Audible audiobooks to the Apple TV. What’s cooler than Airport Express is the ability to start and stop the content. It’s like getting an Airport Express for free, with more functionality. This feature is so cool it alone warrants a stampede to upgrade.

Select the Apple TV as a speaker output in iTunes, begin playing and after a few seconds, the audio file appears in the Now Playing screen with accompanying artwork, just like local content.

iPhoto Event Support

Apple TV joins the iPod and iPhone in adding support for iPhoto events. You can select a number of events to sync, in addition to all the older options:

iTunes Apple TV Photos iPhoto Events Menu

Here is how it looks on screen:

Apple TV My Photos Menu

Parental Controls

This now matches iTunes. I like seeing international support for country-specific ratings:

Apple TV Parental Controls

Bugs

My Apple TV remembered my Australian iTunes Store setting, but when I go into the TV Shows submenu, the first option is Favorites, which only applies to the iTunes Store and we don’t have TV shows in our store. Bug or unwitting reveal of upcoming launch of TV shows on the Australian store? Also, in Parental Controls, I can’t select a TV rating. The only option is “No”, even though Australia does use TV ratings.

The interface hung a number of times but this could be due to iTunes constantly trying to sync while I was exploring. Now that this process is complete I’m hoping it works better. I’m also starting to suspect that my modem is not providing the speed it should be, so if Apple TV is choking on a slow connection, it could also be a reason why it locks up.

I was unable to buy any music item from the store since I installed on Wednesday, 13 Feb. I’ll be ringing Apple on this one.

Enhancement Requests

The continued lack of support for movies in albums makes the movies menu unwieldy, as you get all of them in alphabetical sequence. Apple still seems to maintain the idea that movies are discrete files that would never appear with related material such as trailers, out-takes, etc. Here I’ve got two movies both named Accident. One is a US Get a Mac ad, the other is the UK version:

Apple TV Movies Menu

I have compiled each region’s ads into albums. These should appear in the Movies menu as albums do in Music.

Summary

Go and get your update. It’s not often that you get a brand-new piece of hardware for free via a software update.


New Music Video Standard

26 November 2007

Yes, I’ve changed again. I follow Apple’s lead. They believe in H.264, so I do too.

The main reason I was using MPEG4 instead of H.264 was an incorrect assumption that 720 x 400 (16:9) was only iPod compatible if the file was MPEG4. I believe I would have tested this resolution with H.264 in the past–I always test–and would have found it incompatible, so I went with MPEG4 instead. Well, I’ve just done another test with four videos and lo and behold, it worked. This means that they upgraded the standard or that my earlier testing was poor. Either possibility is reasonable.

So what does this boil down to? Music videos are now specified as follows:

  • H.264 @ 1500kbps, 640 x 480 (4:3), 720 x 400 (16:9)
  • AAC @ 128kbps

If the source is a video file from an enhanced CD or the web, I don’t get fancy: I open in QuickTime Player and export to iPod. If it’s letterboxed (bane of the video collector’s life), I use MPEG Streamclip to achieve the same result, only I also crop the margins off (QuickTime Player can’t easily do this).

If the source is DVD, Handbrake is of course employed. I start with the iPod High Rez setting, then add 2-pass and greyscale (if appropriate). For audio, you can actually convert 5.1 to Dolby ProLogic II and the iPod will support it. Of course, you’ll only hear the stereo on an iPod, but this is good for using on both iPod and Apple TV, which might be connected to equipment that can support it. It does make a difference and is quite nice to listen to.

Handbrake 0.9.1’s new enhanced chaptering facility, where you can now name the chapters, is a great excuse to rerip video, and I especially like to rip long-form video such as concerts, Enigma’s A Posteriori DVD, Lemon Jelly’s ’64-’95 DVD, Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars: The Motion Picture, etc. with the proper chapter markers. Strangely, the Touch, where I play music video the most, does not display the chapter names. If you tap the screen while a video is playing, it will say Chapter X of X, but doesn’t display the name. Apple has been notified.

Don’t muck with the advanced settings. They’re very good for tweaking video intended for the Apple TV or computer, as these devices are tolerant, but I’ve found that changing the slightest setting will prevent the video from transferring to an iPod (see my earlier post on this matter). You have to stick with stock-standard iPod settings to guarantee compatibility.

So I’m going to start ripping my music video again. The amount of work this entails is made palatable by remembering that I’ve got a number that don’t work with the new iPods and of course, my favourite, the chaptering excuse!