Review: Techspansion VisualHub (v. 1.23)
The first generation of "ready for video iPod" conversion tools -- optimized for 320x240 resolution, generally faster than Apple's official QuickTime Pro and iTunes conversion utilities, and occasionally buggy -- has officially become outdated. Arguably, the second generation -- made for 640x480 "iTunes" videos -- has, too. So today, we're looking at two new third-generation tools, the open-source project HandBrake 0.8.5b1 (free, PC/Mac) and Techspansion's VisualHub 1.23 ($23, Mac), both designed to create 320x240, 640x480, and even Apple TV-ready video files.
We’ve opted not to assign either piece of software a rating right now, but we’re featuring them on the site regardless to broaden their exposure to interested readers. As we note in all articles dealing with the creation of iPod-formatted videos, the copyright laws of your country may limit your right to transcode DVDs or other copyright-protected content into other formats; consult your local laws before using any program capable of removing copyright encryption.
With that disclaimer out of the way, it’s worth noting that HandBrake and VisualHub are both designed to transform movies into Apple-compliant video formats, but they take different approaches to copyright protection: VisualHub converts only unprotected files, transforming content you’ve created with a digital camera or downloaded from the Internet into iPod-, iTunes-, or Apple TV-ready formats. HandBrake, by comparison, is an end-to-end solution for converting even protected DVDs into one of these formats. We’ve covered both products in prior articles—VisualHub’s free predecessor, iSquint, and an earlier version of HandBrake for PCs—but they’ve taken serious steps forward since then.
When we last looked at iSquint, Techspansion’s program was very simple: you could tell it to optimize for iPod or TV, use MPEG-4 or H.264 encoding, and pick from 5 quality settings resulting in various degrees of fuzziness or sharpness. An advanced mode warned you against creating files that wouldn’t be iPod-compatible, but allowed you to tweak everything from the resolution to the video and audio bitrates, to framerate, sample rate, and interlacing. You dropped a video into a queue list, picked a folder to save converted videos to, and hit Start.
VisualHub takes a few steps up in complexity for the sake of adding features. In addition to a tab called “iTunes,” it now exports to Sony PlayStation Portable, Digital Video (DV), DVD, AVI, MPEG-4, WMV, MPEG, and Flash formats, each with simplified output settings designed to appeal to people needing to create videos in those formats. But iPod, Apple TV and iTunes users will only need the first tab, which has added only four mainstream options and a few advanced ones. As with iSquint, VisualHub supports the importation and conversion of many video formats, thanks to third-party format readers that are downloaded automatically when you start the program and authorize a one-click download. Techspansion has made this super-simple, and deserves a lot of credit for doing so.
The new mainstream options are an export to Apple TV button, which transforms video files into Apple TV-formatted MPEG-4 or H.264 videos, and check boxes for “Xgrid encoding,” “Stitch videos together,” and “When done.” Xgrid lets you link multiple Macs on a network—or multiple processors - to encode multiple videos at once, though the developer cautions against using this feature with DVDs or their Video_TS folders. Stitching joins together the videos in your queue, so the fractured contents of a DVD can be reunited automatically by the software. And “When done” tells the software to either show you the completed file, quit the program, shut down the computer, or put the computer to sleep when it’s finished working. A check box called Add to iTunes remains from the prior version of the software.
Advanced settings are now more intimidating than before. You can now tweak the volume of your encoding, dropping it below the original settings or amplifying it by up to 300%. You can also improve video quality through two-pass encoding, set a target size for the file, and specify automatic cropping of the video, as well as previewing the video file prior to cranking it out. Settings can be loaded or saved if you prefer.
Because it lacks a DVD decrypter, costs $23, and is available only for the Mac, VisualHub isn’t the first program most people would try to convert their movies, given the availability of HandBrake, but its results speak for themselves. Unlike HandBrake, which had problems with two of our unusual test DVDs, yielding files with halting audio, VisualHub handled the same discs with aplomb—once it was presented their contents, ready to convert. The resulting files were only a hint bigger than HandBrake’s—say, 2.76GB versus 2.75GB—but their audio tracks played properly throughout.
Individual videos compressed into H.264 files in realtime, or as long as it took to normally play the movie, on our 2.33GHz MacBook Pro. It’s worth pointing out that though this seems similar by comparison with HandBrake, and could be made better by using the Xgrid feature if two non-DVD videos were ready to be converted at once, it doesn’t take into account HandBrake’s ability to fully rip and encode the disc within a similar period of time. By contrast, Mac The Ripper or similar decrypter programs remain necessary partners for VisualHub, adding 30 minutes and additional steps to this program’s raw encoding time.
HandBrake’s and VisualHub’s converted videos looked similar, but not identical to each other. When VisualHub was kept on its default settings save for a switch to “high” quality, it produced video that was virtually indistinguishable on our computer and HDTV LCDs from HandBrake’s, and the original source, save for one thing: letterboxing. You’ll need to use the Advanced settings to crop off the letterboxes, and there’s no anamorphic option like the one now found in HandBrake. But within the actual content, even on our high-def Cinema Displays and TV sets, the stills and motion looked fantastic. Lower VisualHub “quality” settings will save you file space, as will switching to iPod/TV (640-pixel) or iPod (320-pixel) modes, though both will also lose more detail from DVDs.
As with HandBrake, we didn’t find that VisualHub’s conversions were perfect. When playing back our videos on Apple TV, we noticed a thin strip of flashing dots at the top of the movie that wasn’t evident in HandBrake’s video playback - a tiny but annoying little blemish on otherwise great-looking and great-sounding transcodings. Though barely noticeable, little marks like this take away from what could otherwise be archival-quality (though stereo-only) transfers of DVDs, which along with copyright restrictions is all that’s keeping people from tossing piles of video discs into storage, in favor of massive media server hard disks.
If there’s anything else we’d like to see from VisualHub, it would be a more visual, comprehensive approach to video compression options. Terms such as “Quality” don’t mean much in the abstract, so Techspansion could really help users by showing the types of differences they can expect by selecting different video options, and generating quick estimates of how much hard disk space will be consumed as a consequence. Letting “advanced” users access a collection of iPod, iTunes, and Apple TV options with easy-to-see, “won’t break compatibility” boundaries would be much appreciated. It wouldn’t hurt the program to include the same sort of auto-tagging database features we wanted to see in HandBrake, either.
Overall, version 1.23 of VisualHub is an impressive, easy to use video conversion tool with only a couple of small issues. If you have problems getting HandBrake or other free tools to convert a video into iPod, iTunes, or Apple TV format, it’s likely that this one will do the trick without requiring considerably more time or space. We look forward to seeing how it evolves as Apple updates its devices and formats in the future.