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My recent trials and travails with Windows Media-based Home Video scenarios

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While catching up on some time off this month, I decided to sit down the other day and digitize several hours of old and recent home video, but despite having what I thought were likely to be all the right tools for the job, this turned out to be much more painful than I had anticipated!

The tools:

The Content:

  • A half-dozen VHS-C tapes
  • A half-dozen VHS tapes
  • A dozen or so Kodak-produced MOV files

The Journey:

I began with the MOV files - The first thing I noticed was that neither of the Microsoft tools I had for producing WMV files supported the Apple MOV file format, so I needed to transform them into AVI or MPEG.  I'd used The "RAD tools" "Bink and Smacker" freeware for this in the past but had noted some issues with AVI export, so I decided to spring for the $30 bucks or so to upgrade my Apple Quicktime Player to Quicktime Pro to enable the export features.  This process was simple, except for the fact that it was unclear whether they were shipping me shrink-wrap, or enabling me to download the package - In the end, I found a PID in my inbox in an email that cleared up the confusion.  Pro functionality enabled, I could now edit and export MOV files.  In exploring this functionality however, it soon became clear that this was not going to be the silver bullet, however...  The Quicktime Player could play MPEG-2, but only exports MPEG-4, and my WMV encoding tools don't yet support MPEG-4.  Furthermore, when trying to export to AVI or MP4, the Quicktime app invariably hung while continuing to spool what I can only presume to be gibberish to the output file indefinitely!  In surfing Apple's support info, I found the same complaint from other Kodak digital camera owners which pointed to some issues with the Kodak-produced MOV files themselves in addition to the Quicktime error-handling bug...  After trying out some workarounds, I noticed that if you export the Kodak-produced MOV files to another Quicktime MOV file format, the resulting MOV files could then be successfully exported to AVI, which could then be successfully encoded to nice quality and reasonably sized WMV files.  I shared what I found with Apple and Kodak support and haven't yet received any response.  Problem solved, sort of.

On to the VHS-C content!  I first tried hooking my Panasonic VHS-C camera up through the RCA inputs in the back of my Media Center, but soon saw this was a big no-go:

  1. None of the video capture tools I tried (Movie Maker, NeroVision Express, or WinCap) can handle the output from a Media Center-compatible tuner cards (MPEG-2) correctly - They work great with normal XP Pro drivers and capture hardware, but complain about invalid streams from Media Center hardware...
  2. The Media Center application itself cannot record content directly from the RCA jacks on my card without messing up the current TV setup (program guide info gets reset)

Ok, so I pulled out an old VHS recorder, wire up it's coax output into my Hauppauges coax-input, and can now view and record the VHS-C content through this setup using the VHS-C adapter and the Media Center application.  Recording turns out to be somewhat counter-intuitive however as the first time I hit record and walked away, it switched off 14 minutes later because it had assumed I only wanted to record the last half of whatever the guide thought was playing on CH3...  Now I rewind and try again, this time using the "Add Manual Recording" UI path which works fine, even though it did add a few steps.  Success!  My first VHS-C tape has been encoded as a DVR-MS file.  Problem is that neither of the current WMV encoding tools I had (Movie Maker and Media Encoder 9.0) support Microsoft's very own DVR-MS file format!  Fortunately, NeroVision Express does, so I used this rather slick tool to edit the files and export them to MPEG-2.  Since, as I've heard it, DVR-MS files are simply re-packaged MPEG-2 files, I would have expected this to go rather quickly, but it turns out that it takes nearly an hour to handle half-an hour's worth of video on my machine.  It appears that Nero has to decode the DVR-MS files and transcode them all using Nero's own software implementation of MPEG-2 encoding...  Transformation to MPEG-2 complete, I tried using both Movie Maker and Media Encoder 9.0 to encode the files to WMV, but found that they both choked on the MPEG-2 files created by NeroVision Express!  I checked on Nero's Website and found an updated version that had corrected the problem, but found I had to recreate the DVR-MS files I had deleted earlier in the process to make space because the new NeroVision Express couldn't fix the messed up MPEG-2 files produced with it's earlier version.  Incidentally, while NeroVision fixed their MPEG-2 export issue, they appear to have introduced a new bug not present in the previous version in which AVI exports only work in raw uncompressed format as the video compression codec drop-down control is now inexplicably disabled (Ahead notifed as well, no reponse received to date)...

I haven't yet gotten to the VHS tapes, but all of this futzing about, working around workarounds, and recording-playing-recording-transcoding-decoding-transcoding-decoding gigabytes worth of video has eaten up nearly a day and half worth of man and machine hours!  Kodak, Apple, and Ahead all make great products that were worth the price I paid for them despite their glitches, but what disappointed me were the holes in Microsoft's own media scenarios that caused much of the trouble in the first place!  Like many people, rightly or wrongly, I hold Microsoft products to a higher standard and was really humbled to see the inconvenience caused by these gaps in the scenarios and feature-sets of the Microsoft Windows Media products and shudder to imagine what my Dad would have had to say about it had he been the one to fight his way through all of this!  "Integrated Innovation" only delivers on its' promise when we do a great job of collaborating on the scenarios accross our teams to nail our targeted user scenarios.

I'm sure the next generation of Microsoft Windows Media tools and applications will have the uniform and consistent Media Center, DVR-MS, and WMV support throughout that will make all of this work much smoother (Apple MOV support wouldn't be a bad thing either, IMHO) and that Media Center is only going to get stronger at the capture scenarios in future iterations, but I sure wish we were already there.  Now that the files are in a nice WMV format with reasonably high-fidelity intact, Media Center and the suite of Windows Media tools and applications will unlock a huge range of cool scenarios from viewing these movies anywhere from my XBox to streaming them from my website which I'm expecting will make all of the trouble worthwhile in the end.

-Bryce

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