I am writing this post the day before the October 2013 Apple Event where new iPads, MacBooks, Mac Pros, and a new OS X version known as Mavericks will all be announced. Rumor has it that a new Apple TV (ATV) will be coming soon too, but may not show up until a bit after the event. There’s even some question as to what it will be. The important thing, at least to me, is that Apple keeps adding capabilities that hint at getting serious with their set-top box. For me, it is the most complete device based on my home theater ecosystem.
Until recently, there were a few things that were missing from the box. One was a good built-in radio service, ala Spotify or Pandora. Apple has “fixed” that with their iTunes Radio app which is now prominently displayed in the top row of icons on the ATV screen. Also, more and more TV network apps have been added to watch programming like ESPN (Watch ESPN), the Smithsonian Channel, Disney Channel, and Sky News. The ESPN and Disney apps require that you have a cable subscription and that you authenticate with your cable provider account. The question going forward is whether there will be more independent apps that WON’T require cable. There are other services that would be nice on the device, but you can always use an iPod/iPhone/iPad to Airplay the missing apps to your TV. I do prefer them built-in though. The other issue is that the home screen is getting crowded since Apple has been adding more apps. This may be addressed with an updated device and new interface.
The final piece to this puzzle for me (and the purpose of this post) is the ability to play my HiDef movies (Blu-ray in most cases) through the ATV. That is, I have Blu-ray discs that I’d like to “rip” and then play on the device, and since it doesn’t have a hard drive built in, it means serving them up via my Mac Mini and iTunes. Blu-ray copy protection was cracked almost from day one of the format’s release. I have been using a program called Make MKV (a free program in what seems like a perpetual beta) which will create a single HD video file from Blu-ray movies using the h.264 codec. The problem was (is) that the ATV won’t recognize the .mkv format (actually mkv “container”), even when the h.264 codec is used (most of the apple video out there – QuickTime movies – uses the h.264 codec). So the next step was to use something like Handbrake to re-encode it into an Apple TV friendly file. The problem with that workflow is time. To re-encode a file of this size takes, depending on the processor speed, many hours (like 4-8 hours or more). There’s two problems with that. The first is, who wants to wait 4 to 8 hours? The second is when you re-encode, you’re losing quality. Even though the x.264 codec that Handbrake uses is extremely good quality.
So the solution is a program that I discovered recently called Subler (free from Google’s code repository). What it does is “re-wrap” the file in an Apple compatible wrapper (like an .m4v file that iTunes recognizes). If you’re not familiar with re-wrapping, it essentially takes the files inside one “container” (like .mkv) and puts it in a new container (again – .m4v). The advantage of Subler is that it takes considerably less time to re-wrap than it does to re-encode. So even though the file is several gigabytes in size, it will take about 30 minutes to complete. Note – that is on top of the 30-60 minutes that Make MKV takes to rip your Blu-ray disc. So an hour and a half versus 4+ hours. You decide.
Once you have your .m4v file, just add it to your iTunes library and then if you are sharing iTunes, your ATV will see it. Subler also adds metadata so you can indicate that the file is a movie, in 1080p HD, and even include the artwork for the movie (a google image search for the movie will give you what you need). It will then appear in your list of movies with the artwork and an “HD” indicator. I can report that the video looks fantastic – and I have one of the 2nd generation ATVs that only does 720p (I also have a TV that is 720p). Obviously the 1080p files get scaled down, in case you were wondering whether a 1080p file works on a 720p Apple TV. On a new 3rd gen. Apple TV with a new-ish flat panel it will look, well, like a Blu-ray disc should.
Two final notes. First, 1080p, Blu-ray quality video is only half the equation. When creating the MKV file and then using Subler, you need to make sure to use the multiple channel information (i.e. 5.1 surround) to get the full glory of the movie on your home theater.
Second. You should know that Subler will only be able to re-wrap to an Apple format if the MKV file is using the h.264 codec. I have HD-DVDs that I have used codecs like MPEG 2, and VC1, so they will need to be “transcoded” to h.264 (or x.264 in the case of Handbrake). That means get ready to wait.
I’ll be working on some screencasts to show you some of this as soon as possible. Those of you who know your way around this stuff already can get started with moving your Blu-rays to your Apple TV right away. Enjoy the Apple Event tomorrow and here’s hoping that they have something truly new to show off.