Friday, December 31, 2010

Apple iPad Remote and the 1st Gen Apple TV

Apple TV MC572LL/A (2010)
I saw my brother in law over the Christmas break and he asked me about the Apple Remote iPad application and Apple TV and whether I used it or not.  He was seriously considering buying the AppleTV now because of this capability.   Wow, what a great question.  I have had the Remote app on my iPad since I purchased it because I downloaded it for my iPhone many eons ago.  I never really used it on my iPhone because it didn't seem that much better than just going through the TV menus.  But my brother in law was right that the idea of the iPad controlling the AppleTV was kind of a game changer because of it's large screen.  I had tried the Apple Remote iPad app to control iTunes on my computer and it was nice but I rarely want to control my iTunes remotely.  When I tried it I was mostly disappointed that it didn't replace the Air Video app for iPad (The Air Video app is also very cool but it's not from Apple and I think Apple's implementation would be better).  Basically, I wanted to watch and listen to my iTunes content on the iPad itself without having to store it on the iPad.  The Remote app doesn't do that.

Anyway, I was curious so last night I gave it a try.  I found the Apple Remote on the iPad and turned it on. I then switched to the AppleTV and went to settings.  I selected the General / Remotes screen and nothing happened.  Bummer.  I then did a Bing search and read something about enabling Home Sharing and using that technology.  Well my 1st Gen AppleTV doesn't support Home Sharing.  Double bummer.

Right about now I was starting to get AppleTV 2nd Gen envy when I decided to give it one more try and did a search on the Apple site and found this article.  The way to set this up on the 1st Gen AppleTV is to:
1) Add an iTunes Library to the iPad Remote App by clicking on the Gear icon and then selecting the Add Library button.  You will see a 4 digit code appear.  Leave this on.
2) Then go to the AppleTV and under Settings navigate to the General / Remotes screen.  Your iPad's name should appear.  Click on it and then type in the same 4 digit code that the iPad Remote app displayed.
3) Click Done.  You should see the 4 digit code disappear on the iPad and the AppleTV contents will then be displayed.

After this the Remote App is paired with the AppleTV and all of the music and videos appear on the iPad. You can do a search on the iPad and then start the song or video from there.  It's very cool.  There is also a mode where it acts like a regular remote.  Click on the 4 arrow icon in the bottom right corner of the remote app to get to this mode.  Swiping right or left will go right or left in the AppleTV menus.  Swiping up or down will go up or down the AppleTV menus.  This is the way to control and get to non-music and video content such as pictures.

This is definitely a game changer and might possibly be a reason to buy an Apple TV over a Roku box.   Think of a supped up Sonos system (I don't have one of those but I imagine it's kind of like that).  I think it's a definitely slam dunk if Apple starts allowing iOS apps on the new AppleTV.  I would love to have Pandora, Sirius XM, HuluPlus and other apps some of which are already supported on Roku.  I would upgrade my AppleTV for those new capabilities.

Issues Setting Up My New Onkyo TX-SR608

Onkyo TX-SR608 7.2-Channel Home Theater Receiver (Black)
My big Christmas present to myself this year was the Onkyo TX-SR608 purchased at  Amazon always has a great sale on this model type every year around Christmas where the price drops below $400.  I think it's usually around $470.  I've been eying this for awhile but it never quite made it high enough on my list of things to buy until this year especially since I already have an A/V Receiver.

You might ask yourself, why the heck did you buy it if you didn't really need it and how did you sell the wife on it?  Well a couple of things worked in my favor.  One she purchased some expensive jewelry for herself which meant I could spend a similarly extravagant amount on myself and two she was complaining about the cable clutter in the back of our TV.  Ah I have just the right solution - the Onkyo TX-SR608.

My previous Onkyo A/V Receiver the TX-SR502 is about 5 or 6 years old and was made in a time when HDMI was something new and expensive to support so it doesn't really support it.  I purchased the new Onkyo TX-SR608 for the following main reason:

1) 5 HDMI in ports so I can eliminate all of the optical audio cables since HDMI supports both audio and video.
2) Video up-conversion so I can plug the Wii in the receiver and it will send an upconverted picture over HDMI to the TV.  This means all of my cables can go directly into the receiver and all video and audio switching can be done by the receiver.

The bottom line - less cables and higher video and audio fidelity and reliability.

My system before was a mishmash of cables going in lots of different places.  The PS3, U-Verse set top box and the XBOX 360 was plugged directly into the Samsung Plasma TV using HDMI.  One of the HDMI cables stuck out from the side of the TV.  The optical audio cables were plugged into the Onkyo.  My Wii and AppleTV were plugged into the TV too using component cables but the audio also went to the receiver.    Of course I have a PhD in Harmony Remote programming and was somehow able to get this all switching correctly most of the time.

Now its a very straight forward setup.  All video and audio go into the Onkyo via HDMI for the PS3, U-Verse, Xbox and AppleTV along with the component video from the Wii.  There is a single HDMI cable from the receiver to the TV.  That's it--nice and simple.

Now to where it gets complicated.  Theoretically this should all just work but for some reason it took me 5 hours to get it setup.   If you have this receiver and haven't set it up yet my one word of advice is to turn it off, hook everything up and then turn all of those devices on, and then turn the Onkyo on.  There must be some sort of way that the receiver knows if something is connected to a source that is working or not because I believe this is where my trouble began.

I originally hooked everything up but didn't turn them on until after I turned on the Onkyo.  I think this was a major mistake.  The second piece of advice is to check the source to make sure it works before trying to hook the receiver.  I know it's installation 101 but this caught me this time.

Basically in my rush to eliminate wiring from the back of the TV, I must have kicked out the Ethernet cable from my U-Verse set top box and it doesn't like it when you do that.  For the first 2 hours I tried everything I could to get video to show up using the U-Verse set top box.  Nothing appeared to work.  I tried changing channels.  I tried DVR.  Nothing.  All I saw was a black screen.  After the second hour I accidentally hit the menu button and low and behold the menu popped up.  Huh?  So I'm able to see the menu but no video even when trying to play back DVR content?  I looked at the back of the set top and noticed the Ethernet cable wasn't plugged in.  OK, I get why live video didn't play but not even video from the DVR?  So I plugged it in and guess what it started working.  So it was working the entire time but I couldn't see anything because the ethernet cable was unplugged.  What the heck?

OK, now on to the XBOX.  With a few changing of settings and other things some how it starts working but I don't hear anything.  I'm OK with this since I'm just focused on the video.  Now the PS3.  Nothing.  Blackness.  Apple TV.  Same thing.  Nothing.  I try other video settings - 720P, 1080i, Some crazy CrYb stuff, Wide screen, Zoom, etc but nothing works.   I try to connect it directly to the TV and it works fine so I know it's the receiver.  (You probably shouldn't do this but I'm switching the HDMI cable why everything is on -- probably another reason it's not quite working right).

It's really late like 3 or 4 in the morning and things get a little hazy from here on out.  I decide to program my Harmony Remote so my wife and kid can use the TV in the morning.  When it's done uploading the software, I get ready to use it and the TV and Receiver turn off.  I forget if I clicked on the ON/OFF button or not but for some reason it goes off.  I turn it back on and it appears to be working.  I then decide to give the PS3 one last try before calling it a night.  I read through the AVS Forums and read something about pressing the VCR button along with the Return button and that this some how turns off up-conversion and causes the receiver to just pass thru the HDMI data.  Someone noted that this worked for them so I give it a try.  I go to the PS3 source and I get video.  I go to AppleTV and it also has video.  WTF?  I'm a little skeptical that the VCR button and Return button did anything since it didn't appear to change and nothing showed up on the screen?  I think it's more likely that just turning the receiver off and on probably was the more important factor.  At this point I really didn't care since things were working.  The only issue appeared to be the audio.  On my previous receiver the audio was usually set to about 20 or so.  30 was really loud.  So I set the volume on this thing to about 30 and I didn't hear anything.  Remember it's like 3 in the morning and I didn't really want to wake up the family.  Just for chuckles I turned it higher and higher and guess what the audio starts to be audible.  It sounded great at 50 or 60.  Now I don't know if there is a stereo volume board that sets the numerical value for volume so it could be that I still have some issue in my setup which is the reason my volume values are so different between models but I'm just happy its working.

So the bottom line, I'm relatively happy with my Onkyo 608 even though it was kind of painful set-up but I'm guessing most of it was my fault.  I really like that it has an on-screen menu which helped a lot when I was trying to fiddle with the settings and of course the picture and audio quality are very good.  Plus less wires in the back of the TV and the simpler Harmony remote setup are also big bonuses for the system.   Since the Onkyo 608 supports 3D TV do you think I could convince my wife we need a new TV...probably not but at least our a/v system is ready when we want to upgrade.

Does Apple ID for Game Center and FaceTime Conflict with App Store?

Apple iPod touch 32 GB (4th Generation) NEWEST MODEL
As I mentioned in a previous article my son received an iPod Touch for Christmas.  One of the issues he ran into was that every time he launched a game the Game Center prompt would appear asking if he wanted to join Game Center.   When this happened the screen would display my Apple ID since my ID is the one that's tied to his iPod so we can share content.  Oh Oh, now what do I do?  My dilemma was whether he could create his own Apple ID for Game Center and FaceTime but still keep the App Store and the content on the iPod Touch tethered to my Apple ID.  Clearly making sure the content continued to work was the most important thing.   So I gave it try to see what would happen.

I'm happy to report that Apple again designed this correctly in that Game Center and FaceTime can each have their own Apple ID and that there isn't a monolithic Apple ID that governs the entire iPod.  Yeh!  On my son's iPod he now has his own Apple ID associated with Game Center and FaceTime and for his apps he uses my Apple ID.  Problem solved.  By the way FaceTime works great on the iPod Touch and he was able to FaceTime with my wife on her iPhone--very cool.  

My one little nit with Apple is that they don't let kids have an Apple ID.  At least the website said that my son's birthday was too recent (meaning he's too young) to have an Apple ID.  So I had to lie.  I'm guessing this is a legacy issue because of app purchases but it doesn't make sense in the Game Center and FaceTime world.  My suggestion to Apple is to allow parents to create Apple IDs for their kids that are tied to the master Apple ID or to allow the child to get parental approval for the creation of an Apple ID.  I appreciate the desire to protect kids (and Apple's desire to protect themselves from kid purchased apps without the financial backing of their parents) but I think there should be a way to support this especially since Game Center keeps popping up every time someone tries to launch a game.  Very annoying.  Kids play games too.

Click here to sign-up for an AppleID.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Apple has a Customer for Life

My son received an iPod Touch for Christmas.  I must admit he's an only child and is a little spoiled but that's another story.  Anyway, on our way to Fry's Electronics to get a case and a screen protector he accidentally dropped his brand new really expensive iPod Touch in the Fry's parking lot.  Quite honestly I wasn't too worried since I've dropped my old iPhone many times and never received a scratch.  Unfortunately for him...and I guess for me...he didn't have the same rosy experience.  The bottom right of the screen was cracked and totally messed up.  You could feel the shards of glass on the screen and probably wouldn't be able to use it anymore for fear of cutting your finger.  Oh my goodness (I said something a little harsher than that :-)!!!  What to do now?  I've heard how expensive it was to replace the screen from friends who cracked the screen of their iPhone and it was pretty prohibitive---pretty much the cost of a new iPhone.  My son took it pretty well.  He basically said he'll make it work.  I would have started to cry, curl up in a corner and start to mutter to myself the mantra that everyone that has done something dumb does -- "how could I be so stupid".

The next day, I decided that we would go to the Apple Store to see how much it would cost to fix.  I was hoping it would be something like $100 and I knew my son had roughly $50 saved up from lots of christmas' and birthdays and we would chalk it up to a really expensive lesson.  We walked in and asked the first sales associate what we should do and he looked a little stunned with the "wow you're screwed look" on his face and then proceeded to tell us we needed to set-up a genius appointment which we did.   I wasn't too hopeful after this.  When our name was called we spoke to Charlie and my son told him what had happened.  Charlie asked if it was a Christmas present and my son said it was.  Charlie then said that since it was a present and that we had just got it he would simply swap it out for a new one.


He typed something into the computer and then printed out the forms.  We signed some papers and walked away with a brand new iPod Touch.  My son was so stunned he kept asking me what was I doing with that new iPod Touch.  I told him that the guy just replaced his cracked one with a brand new one and we didn't have to pay anything.  He couldn't quite grasp what had just happened.

Wow, that's customer service.  I didn't even buy it at the Apple store.  Charlie the Apple Store Genius didn't even care or ask.

We were so amazed that after we walked out of the store my son and I agreed we were Apple customers for life.  For the $50 bucks or what ever it would cost Apple to replace the screen they turned us into giddy fanboys.  That was kind of a tough reality to admit for this Microsoft employee but Apple deserved it.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Making Digital Movies from DVDs - Handbrake Tips and Tricks

The original idea for this blog came about because of all the time I spent trying to rip DVDs and to learn the ins and outs of Handbrake.   It took me months of trial and error to get to a point where I felt that I had a pretty good idea of how to do various things and to get around various issues.  This is when I thought it was a waste to leave all of that info stuck in my puny brain and that it would be somewhat useful for others if I could write it all down so they could save time and avoid the months of learning that I did.  There may be lots of blogs like this already but through my Bing and Google searches I didn't find a single place for all this kind of info.  More specifically I found lots of great newsgroups with threads of information but it was kind of time consuming to read through hundreds of comments to pick up the few tidbits of really good information.  It really did take me months.  I wish I was kidding.  Most of the stuff I picked up from other sites so I'm no expert but I thought it might be handy to have a bunch of these in a single place.

First off, some of you may be asking what is Handbrake? Handbrake is an open-source free application that will convert your DVDs to a digital format.  In my case an M4V.   If you want to convert your personal purchased DVDs to back them up or to watch them on your iPhone, iPad, AppleTV, XBOX, PS3 or other device you will also need to download the VLC Media Player application which is able to read these discs including the copy protected stuff.  The guys and gals that wrote this stuff are pretty darn smart and are truly nobel in that they've donated their time to write some incredible software and have given it away for free.  Wow!!! Hats off to you.
    Handbrake must be matched up with the right version of VLC and OS so make sure if you're using a 32 Bit OS that you're also using the 32 Bit Handbrake and 32 Bit VLC.  If my memory serves me right I think both apps have to be at the same level in the file system so that Handbrake can find VLC.  At least on my Mac I have both in the applications folder with all the other apps.  I think I originally had VLC in a folder and it didn't find it.

    Anyway, now for some tips.
    1) Universal preset - In Handbrake there are Preset Templates.  Always use the Apple > Universal template.  What this means is you can play the movie on your iPod, iPhone, AppleTV, Mac and Windows computers and pretty much everything else.  I used a different preset and the movies wouldn't play properly on my AppleTV.  I would get video stutters and the picture would turn white every now and then.  I also stopped updating these presets.  I updated once and it changed my defaults to a different present and a bunch of videos I ripped turned out bad and I didn't realize it until a few weeks later when I actually tried to watch one of the movies.  Bummer.

    2) Don't bother with changing the video quality settings.  I tried moving the slider to increase the quality but then the video wouldn't play on the Apple TV.  I'm probably just doing something wrong but I could never get this to work. 

    3) Subtitles don't automatically appear - I copied one of those cool kung-fu Chinese movies and none of the subtitles appeared.  It was a little difficult to understand.  Basically in Handbrake click on the Subtitles tab and then change the Track drop down to Foreign Audio Search.  This doesn't always work so you'll have to play with it a bit to get it to work.  The Foreign Audio Search is ideal if your movie is in English and sometimes in a foreign language where there are subtitles.  In fact I always set the Foreing Audio Search feature now because there were many times where I didn't use this setting thinking the movie didn't have any subtitles only to find that it did later but of course I didn't get them because I didn't turn on subtitles.  For example the Godfather is mostly in English but there are times when they are speaking Italian where subtitles should appear but wouldn't if you didn't set the Foreign Audio Search feature.  If the movies is always in a foreign language or you want the English subtitles to always appear then you can use the English Subtitle.

    4) Handbrake doesn't always get the movie right - When I first started ripping movies I simply put the disk in and let Handbrake pick the move and then I would click the Start button.  This doesn't always work because Handbrake always picks the longest track which it assumes is the movie.  The movie studios figured this out and created dummy movie tracks to trick Handbrake.  If you rip this movie it will actually move chapters around so you'll start watching a film and after a few minutes you'll jump to the ending of a movie and then it will jump to the middle.  What I do now is put the DVD in the computer and use the built-in DVD player.  I use the DVD navigation and click on Play Movie.  From here you can see what track it goes to.  This is the track that you want to rip.  On a Mac I use DVD Player.  If you click on the screen that shows the minutes a couple of times it will eventually show you the Track / Chapter information so you can figure out the track to use.  Then in Handbrake I switch to this track to rip.  This is the drop down labelled Title.

    5) Getting around bad tracks - Sometimes a copy protection scheme the studios use is they have a bad track that will always confuse Handbrake if you're trying to read the entire disk.  I think this is how the movie Click is done.  I kept trying to rip it and it would get stuck at track 32 or something.  I kind of gave up until I realized Handbrake allows you to read a single track and skip all of the others.  Go to the File menu and select Open Source (Title Specific).  After doing this a dialog appears.  In here just type the track number and Handbrake will read only that track.  It also saves time because it's not trying to read the entire disk.

    6) Sometimes movies and TV shows have lines in them - On the American President DVD I kept getting really poor quality in that the video always had lines in them.  It looked like I was watching a video tape recording of a move that was filmed off of an old picture tube TV set.  I think I read some place that this is because the video was prepared for old TVs that had interlaced video.  To fix this go to Picture Settings and switch to Filters.  I'm not exactly sure what picture filter to use but I've been using Detelecine = Default and Deinterlace = Fast.  After this I've noticed the picture quality isn't as sharp but it gets rid of all of those horrendous lines.   A lot of times old movies end up needing this or those extras on DVDs that were created for TV.

    7) Some DVDs can't be read...but they can be - Handbrake uses something called libdvdnav.  I'm not exactly sure what this does but for some reason on some DVDs this method prevents the movies from being encoded.  If your DVD for some reason doesn't appear to be rippable.  Try going to Preferences and click on the Advanced tab.  Look for a checkbox labeled Dvd-Video and uncheck it.   Try encoding the DVD again.  Sometimes this will work.  I think libdvdnav is generally a more reliable method of ripping the DVD but sometimes it doesn't work so unchecking this preferences tells Handbrake to use the old method which happens to be better in some cases.

    8) MetaX to get Movie Info and Ratings - I had been using Handbrake for roughly 6 months when I was talking to a friend complaining that there was no way to add movie ratings to iTunes which meant parental controls wouldn't work.  He told me I should be using MetaX.  I couldn't believe that I had been ripping my DVDs for so long without ever hearing about this application.  MetaX is an awesome free application that will read the M4V file and will automatically find the DVD cover, actor and description information, movie rating, and chapter information.  With a click of a button all of this information gets added as meta data into the movie which then in turn gets picked up by iTunes.  It will make your Movie library look really good because it will use the actual DVD covers as the representation of the movie.  I had been doing that by hand.  Wow what a time saver.

    Well that's a brain dump of what I know.  I hope you find this useful.

  • Click here to download Handbrake.

  • Click here to download VLC.

  • Click here to download MetaX

  • Is SlingPlayer Mobile for iPad Worth $30?

    Sling Media Slingbox SOLO (SB260-100)
    I love my SlingBox.   If you aren't already familiar with the SlingBox it's a device that sits between your cable box and TV.  It basically takes the video signals from your video provider such as Comcast, DirecTV or in my case U-Verse and broadcasts them over WiFi and the Internet.  It also has some IR blasters that sit over your cable box and allows you to control the box over the Internet.  The iPad is pretty cool but I would argue this is even more magical.  You hook it up and it just works.

    However, it's a little hard to explain to the wife why you really need this thing but here are some ideas:  1) You'll be able to watch your TV and your recorded shows while on vacation so you won't miss the Dancing with the Stars finale  2) You're originally from Ohio but are currently living in California.  You miss your favorite sports teams and want to be able to watch them regularly and your parents are OK with letting you setup one of these things in their house. 3) You like to watch TV at home on your iPad in bed with head phones (so you don't disturb the wife) and this is a way to get the video to your iPad, or 4) You just got a bonus at work and are into cool gadgets and have nothing better to do with your money. I kind of fall into category 3 and 4.

    The cool thing about the SlingBox is that you can watch your TV from any web browser on Windows or Mac or mobile device if you purchase the mobile application.  There are currently applications for the Apple mobile products, Android, Blackberry and even Windows Phone.  I've been using the SlingPlayer for iPhone for the past month or so and it does a decent job but the video quality is pretty poor on the iPad since you have to 2X everything.  It's pretty unwatchable and makes for a poor demo to friends and family.  At least my friends and family were not too impressed - The majesty that is Dancing with the Stars (sarcasm intended) just gets lost when shown on a tiny blurry screen.

    The good news for iPad owners is that SlingMedia has finally shipped their SlingPlayer for iPad.  I immediately plunked down my $29.99 and downloaded it from the iTunes store.  When I tried to launch it the first thing it said was that I needed a firmware update.  Ugh.  My first question was, how the heck do I upgrade the firmware on my SlingBox.

    It's turns out to be pretty easy.
    1) Use any web browser when you're at home and go to the SlingMedia site and click on the Watch tab at the top of the web page.
    2) Since I typically don't use my web browser to watch TV it asked me to upgrade my browser plug in.
    3) After I did this, I clicked on the Slingbox Setup button.  There's a link at the top but you can also find one under the big Options button.
    4) It asks you to stop the video stream and I agreed to stop it.
    5) My memory is kind of fuzzy now since I did this last week but I think it told me the firmware needed upgrading and I said go ahead.
    6) It upgraded itself and then I was ready to go.

    The bottom line is wether or not the player is worth $29.99.  Well I wish it was free but I can't argue that it provides a lot of value.  I think it's worth it.

    My only complaint is the UX.  I find the choices for buttons kind of strange and the placement to be pretty odd.  Clicking DVR brings up buttons on the left bottom and right of the screen.  But it has buttons that I don't find that useful like Live, Record, Pg Up, Pg Down, Red, Green, Yellow, and Blue.  I find it odd that they don't have Jump Forward and Jump Back which I use all the time to skip commercials.  I wish they let me pick the functions of the buttons.

    Anyway, overall it's still magical that this all works.  If you have a SlingBox and an iPad it's definitely worth another $29.99 to get it all working together.