The Complete Guide to iPod, iPhone and Apple TV Video Conversion (Mac)
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Standard Digital Video Content
In the context of this article, Standard Digital Video Content refers to the various types of digital content that can be stored on a computer, such as that obtained from web sites and already pre-extracted from DVDs into other non-Apple-ready formats.
Formats that are normally encountered in this category include Quicktime movies (MOV), Windows Media Video (WMV), DivX, MPEG-2, and MPEG-4 content, although there are a host of other formats that you may also encounter.
With the exception of content in these formats that may be protected by Digital Rights Management (DRM) restrictions, the conversion process is relatively straightforward, and there are a number of different tools and methods to handle this process.
The first and most obvious tool for video conversion is iTunes itself. As of iTunes 6.0.2, the option to convert videos into an iPod-ready format from directly within iTunes became available, and this was expanded in iTunes 7.1 to include a preset to convert videos into an Apple TV ready format. Any video that can be imported into iTunes itself can be converted in this manner simply by clicking on it from within the iTunes library and choosing either Convert Selection for iPod or Convert Selection for Apple TV.
Note that these options may not appear in some cases if the target video is already in the selected format, and will definitely not appear for iTunes Store purchased content, as these videos cannot be converted due to the DRM protection on them.
For the most part, iTunes itself can import and play any content that is supported by Apple’s Quicktime application, although it does not necessarily support formats that are only playable via Quicktime plugins, such as WMV or DivX.
Unfortunately, this approach also has some additional limitations: The conversion time is extremely slow compared to third-party options that are available, and if you are converting MPEG-1 or MPEG-2 files with “multiplexed” or “muxed” audio tracks, the resulting iPod and Apple TV format track will have no audio. This second issue is in fact a standard issue with Quicktime itself and affects most of Apple’s video conversion and editing applications. Further, there are no advanced conversion options available when using the iTunes method—iTunes simply converts the track into what it deems is the most appropriate format.
While this method may be fine for the occasional video clip downloaded from the Internet for casual use, users looking to convert any serious content will likely prefer to use another tool for all but the most basic conversion tasks.
|The Great Equalizer - Hardware Encoding If you’re planning to do a lot of video encoding and are using a slower Mac or planning to use Quicktime-based tools, you might want to take a look at a video encoding hardware accessory such as Elgato’s turbo.264 unit, which can accelerate video conversion on just about ANY Mac to real-time performance or better by offloading all of the conversion processing from the Mac’s own CPU to this external USB-connected device. Unfortunately, at this point the turbo.264 is only compatible with applications that use the Quicktime engine or Elgato’s own EyeTV DVR software. Elgato also provides their own pre-packaged conversion utility, but this tool is limited to only three non-customizable presets for the standard iPod and Apple TV formats (and one for the Sony PSP).|
|Quicktime Pro http://www.apple.com/quicktime Mac, $30|
Even though iTunes uses the Quicktime encoding engine, it does not provide support for importing files that can be rendered with the various Quicktime plug-ins available that provide support for other formats. Formats like WMV and DivX will be flatly refused by iTunes, even if Quicktime itself can handle them.
Since Quicktime is the official Apple solution for video encoding, it is included here for the sake of completeness and a proper comparison. However, with a $30 price tag, very slow encoding performance, and the inability to encode video formats such as MPEG-2 without purchasing additional plug-ins, we feel that Quicktime Pro should not really be somebody’s first choice for video conversion unless they have very specific requirements where it might be of benefit.
To convert videos using Quicktime Pro, simply open them in Quicktime as you normally would. You will see the standard Quicktime playback window, and from here you can preview or do basic editing on the video.
You can export a Quicktime video simply by choosing File, Export, which will prompt you for a location to save the resulting file and a format to export it to:
From the list of formats, you can choose presets such as Movie to iPod, Movie to iPhone, or Movie to Apple TV.
Note also the Movie to iPhone (Cellular) option. This produces a smaller format 3GP video file in 176 x 132 resolution at 80kbps suitable for streaming or downloading across an EDGE connection. As an added bonus, the resulting 3GP file can be played on most other phones that support video playback.
The performance of Quicktime is nothing short of abysmal when compared to the other options out there, especially considering its $30 price tag. The table below provides an outline of the encoding times for the same 90-minute MPEG-2 video clip used in previous examples:
Unless you are using a hardware acceleration solution like the turbo.264, the performance in Quicktime Pro for all but the shortest video clips will probably be unacceptable.
Keep in mind that Quicktime Pro, even with the separately-purchased MPEG-2 Playback Component from Apple, will still not render multiplexed MPEG-2 audio output properly, meaning that such files will be lacking an audio track. Since this is the standard audio configuration used by most commercial DVDs, this makes Quicktime Pro completely unsuitable for converting ripped DVD content.
|iSquint http://www.isquint.org Mac, Free|
Fortunately, there are other solutions available. iSquint, a free tool designed specifically for iPod conversion, provides standard presets for iPod encoding in either the 320x240 or 640x480 formats, as well as five pre-defined quality settings, representing different bit-rates. For the average user, the main iSquint screen is nice and clean, providing just the necessary basic functions:
The “Optimize for TV” function corresponds to a 640x480 TV-quality iPod format, while the “Optimize for iPod” corresponds to a 320x240 video format suitable for viewing on the iPod screen.
The “Quality” slider selects the average bit-rate, ranging from 300kbps to 1500kbps for 640x480 “TV quality” content, and 150 kbps to 750kbps for “iPod quality” content.
The “H.264 Encoding” checkbox determines whether to create an H.264 or MPEG-4 video, and the “Add to iTunes” checkbox will automatically add the resulting converted files to your iTunes library.
iSquint is intended to be a very simple tool for basic iPod video conversion, and using it is simply a matter of starting it up, dragging in the content that you would like converted, selecting your basic options, and hitting the “Start” button.
For the more adventurous users, the “Advanced” button offers access to additional settings, allowing for cropping, specifying your own width and height, bitrate, or framerate. These settings can allow for conversion of videos into formats more optimized for the iPhone or Apple TV, which are not otherwise covered by the presets in iSquint. Any settings not filled in on the “Advanced” tab will simply use their defaults from the current preset. To reset these settings to the defaults, simply close and re-open iSquint.
If you wanted to use iSquint to convert a video for the Apple TV, for instance, you could simply specify a resolution of 854x480 and a bitrate of 3000 kbps on the “Advanced” tab, and iSquint would create the resulting video using these parameters.
The following are some typical conversion times required by iSquint to convert our sample 90-minute 720x480 16:9 MPEG-2 video file extracted from a DVD, using iSquint’s “Go Nuts” quality setting (approx 1500kbps):
The highest setting was used in the above table to provide a fair comparison with other software tools like Handbrake. However, as the presets imply, many users encoding specifically for iPod or iPhone viewing will likely find that the “Standard” setting is more than adequate for these smaller screens, and provides a more efficient file size.
|VisualHub http://www.visualhub.net Mac, $23.32, trial available|
VisualHub is essentially the commercial version of iSquint, written by the same developer and sharing the same basic code base. As a commercial product, VisualHub is naturally updated more frequently than iSquint, and now provides not only additional presets for the Apple TV, but also for the iPhone:
The main additional features that VisualHub provides over iSquint is the conversion of video to many other formats in addition to the standard Apple formats, more advanced customization features, and presets for the Apple TV and iPhone. For the more advanced users with multiple Macs, XGrid encoding is also supported to allow you to put every Mac in your home or office to work at video encoding.
VisualHub works in pretty much the same way as iSquint—drop your videos in, choose your basic setting, and hit the “Start” button.
The presets in VisualHub include iPod, Apple TV, iPhone, and All, and will basically produce videos appropriate for either a specific device, or videos that are compatible with all three devices. The “iPod” preset requires a bit of additional clarification, however, as it actually produces a 320x240 video (optimized for the iPod screen), rather than a 640x480 video optimized for TV output from the iPod. Those users wanting the higher-quality 640x480 video format should choose the “All” setting instead, which will produce a video in the maximum resolution that is capable of playing on all three types of device.
Like iSquint, an advanced settings screen is also provided, offering quite a few additional operations over iSquint, including automatic cropping of videos (to remove the black bars from hard letterboxing, for example), two-pass encoding, the ability to adjust the output volume, and the ability for more advanced users to specify additional flags for the underlying ffmpeg encoder. Settings can also be cleared, saved to a file, or read in from a previously-saved settings file.
One interesting feature about VisualHub’s new “iPhone” preset is that the behaviour of the quality settings differs somewhat from the other presets. While all other presets create standard resolutions, with the quality slider only affecting the bitrate, for the iPhone preset, the lower two settings actually produce 224x168 videos, rather than video for the iPhone’s standard 480x320 resolution. The quality slider alludes to this by specifying “EDGE” and “WiFi” in the presets:
The actual conversion times for VisualHub itself are similar to those for iSquint, since they use the same underlying technology. Some of the conversion times for the additional presets for the Apple TV and iPhone in VisualHub are shown in the following table, again using our same 90-minute MPEG-2 720x480 16:9 video as a baseline, and the highest quality setting available:
As with iSquint, the highest setting was used in the above table to provide a fair comparison with other software tools like Handbrake. The “Standard” setting will likely provide a more than satisfactory viewing experience for users who are encoding primarily for the iPod or iPhone, however.
|MPEG Streamclip http://www.squared5.com/ Mac/Windows, Free|
MPEG Streamclip is another free option that provides a comprehensive video editing and encoding solution for Mac OS X. It uses the Quicktime encoding engine, and can therefore encode anything that can be viewed by Quicktime, including MPEG-2, WMV, and DivX files if you’re using the proper Quicktime plug-ins.
The latest version, although presently in beta, provides presets for iPod, Apple TV and iPhone, as well as turbo.264 support and a number of advanced configuration settings.
Videos can be opened directly in MPEG Streamclip for previewing, and can even be edited into shorter clips.
To convert a video from MPEG Streamclip into an Apple-ready format, simply choose File, Export to Other Formats and you will be presented with a dialog box full of export options:
From this screen, you can use the “Format” drop-down to select any number of export formats, including Apple TV, iPod and iPhone:
Simply choose one of these three formats, and an “iTunes” button should appear back in the main dialog box:
Clicking the “iTunes” button will provide a very nice set of presets in different resolutions and aspect ratios for the different devices:
Choose an appropriate resolution for your video export, and click OK to return to the export settings screen, where you will see the appropriate changes filled in:
Once everything looks the way you want it, simply hit the OK button to begin the export process.
MPEG Streamclip can be a very useful tool for when you need to edit or trim source material before encoding it, and of course it sports a number of advanced features and conversion to other formats. Unfortunately, the actual encoding performance of MPEG Streamclip is extremely poor when compared to the other options available, since it basically uses the Quicktime engine to perform its encoding. The resulting conversion times are therefore almost identical to those for Quicktime Pro itself (indicated earlier in this article).
Of course, the fact that MPEG Streamclip uses the Quicktime encoding engine offers the ability to accelerate encoding performance with a hardware device like the turbo.264, and the customizability of resolutions and other settings makes this the ideal solution for those looking for more customization for their turbo.264-assisted encoding. Simply select the “iPod (Elgato Turbo.264)” preset instead of the standard “iPod” preset, and then use either the “iTunes” button or the specific options in the main export dialog to customize to your specifications. Our 90-minute video converted to “iPhone” resolution, for example (a preset not offered by the turbo.264 software itself) produced a nice 480x272 output file at 1400 kbps in just under 45 minutes.
One other advantage to MPEG Streamclip is that it does handle multiplexed audio better than Quicktime does, although you will still need to purchase the Quicktime MPEG-2 Playback Component to take advantage of MPEG-2 encoding in MPEG Streamclip in the first place.
With support for MPEG2-TS (Transport Stream) video content that can be captured from the Firewire port of many modern digital satellite and cable boxes, MPEG Streamclip also offers a useful solution for converting broadcast video content as well.
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