Handbrake settings for blu-ray

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Anytime you’re creating a digital library it’s a compromise of quality versus file size. I judge picture quality based on the perceptible artifacting (when an image appears blocky). Artifacting occurs when the compression of an image is set too high (or aggressive). Rather than copy the data of every pixel at every frame, lossy compression will reduce the number of pixels it has to copy by averaging the color of similar pixels. Basically. Smaller file size means higher compression which means less data and chunky images. However, if you set the bitrate too high in an attempt to get the cleanest image, you may cause the playback to stutter or become blocky because it can’t process all the data fast enough.

To come up with these settings I made many test files, comparing each one side by side. The clip was the Universal Studios opening logo. This scene has lots of movement, lots of color, and a large expanse of a gentle gradient. I’ve found that it’s easier to determine subtle quality differences not in areas of great detail and complexity but rather in areas of subtle color differences. It’s these soft, dark gradients that the compression method will throw out first because it believes the subtle color change isn’t important. However it’s these areas, often in dark scenes, where blocky compression becomes painfully obvious.

So my original goal when compressing blu-rays to digital was a file size of around 10 GBs. Yet, when testing I found that I could achieve reliable dark gradients and get the file size down to about 5 GBs. The gradients aren’t flawless. When compared to the source Blu-ray you can notice a difference. But I think this might be more a limitation of H.264. My test samples showed little improvement when increasing the bitrate and the trade off in file size simply wasn’t worth it. The difference between a 5 GB H.264 and a 10 GB one just wasn’t noticeable.

These settings are for mp4 (m4v) or mkv. I’ve had problems with VLC playing back smoothly but it seems to smooth out as I let it play. This may be due more to my embedded graphics chip. I primarily use Boxee for playback of mkvs and that has been flawless.

Picture
Size: 1920 x 1080
Anamorphic: Strict
Cropping: Automatic

Video
Codec: H.264
Framerate: Same as source
Constant Quality: RF 22

Advanced
Reference Frames: 3
Maximum B-Frames: 5
CABAC Entropy Coding: off (I found this caused chopping playback when on)
8×8 Transform: on (helps compression slightly and slightly better gradients)
Weighted P-Frames: on
Pyramidal B-Frames: Off (not sure if this matters. Due to the ME method it’s supposed to be ignored so I turn it off just to be sure)
Adaptive B-Frames: Optimal
Adaptive Direct Mode: Spatial
Motion Estimation Method: Uneven Multi-Hexagon
Subpixel ME & Mode Decision: 7
Motion Estimation Range: 16
No DCT-Decimate: off

Everything else is left at defaults.

This will take some time but the quality is worth it and results in a 2 hour movie being compressed to about 5 GBs. For me, those 5 GBs also include 2 or 3 sources of DTS or AC3 5.1 audio as well as subtitle and chapter information.

Network hacked and recovered

The collective of sites located within 030 were recently hacked altering code within pages. The malicious code has been removed from all pages and steps have been taken to prevent this from happening again. I suspect access was gained through a compromised WordPress Plugin. Possibly YAPB (Yet Another Photo Blog). Please be patient as all the sites are brought back up to speed.

Fusion: Genesis – The Lucky Charm

Holy hell, after attempting this mission for the Sunshadow Syndicate for over an hour, I finally came across the solution while browsing a forum. Like myself, another gamer was beginning to think the mission was bugged. Turns out, we were piloting the wrong ship. Unlike other missions, this one doesn’t put you in the correct ship if you happen to be flying the wrong one. The wrong one being a Specter. The description of the ship says that you’ll heal yourself when hijacking another ship… what sounds like a useful ability. However, this ability also prevents you from taking control of the ship you’re hijacking, thus preventing you from completing this particular mission. Change ships and problem solved. You’ll be able to hijack and take control of a Consortium ship. I found the easiest place to do so was the Frozen Wastes.

Note, there is also no need to put any faction points into the Hijacking ability. The mission gives you the necessary requirements. After completing the mission, you will need to invest points if you wish to hijack again, although there doesn’t appear to be any value to hijacking so you’re points are probably better spent elsewhere.

New Extelligence Services website

The new site for Extelligence Internet Services has gone live. This was my first project of what will hopefully be a successful line of many more projects to come. Pleased with how it turned out and more importantly, the owners are thrilled with the new site. Also, the first site I’ve done that’s fully responsive. Really liking not having to build different applications for different devices. @media is the best.

Google Music goes live

Little update to what Google’s doing. Music went live recently. I don’t believe you need an invite any longer and they increased storage from 10,000 songs to 20,000.

Honestly, I stopped trying to use it since it was taking ages to upload my library. If you have the time and patience to upload your library, congratulations, you have your entire music library anywhere you have internet. Note, that there is still no way to download music so you can’t use it as a backup to your local files. Listening through a web browser works well enough and the mobile app is decent. Actually plays music — unlike Spotify. But unlike Spotify, you actually need to own the music to have anything to listen to.

First Impressions of Google Music

After a couple hours uploading music, creating playlists and generally messing around I have some immediate thoughts on Google’s new cloud music service (still in beta).

Things I like:

  • Your personal collection of music available on any computer anywhere there’s an internet connection.
  • iTunes Genius-esque, automatic mix creation based off of one song.
  • Scrobbles to Last.fm if you install a small extension and use either Chrome or Firefox with Greasemonkey.
  • Free… so far. Google says the service is free while in beta. I don’t know any information as to what will happen afterward.
  • Streaming. Unlike iTunes Match, which actually downloads the song to the computer, Google Music becomes your music library. Regardless of the device you play the music from, the music is always stored and streamed at Google.

Things I don’t like:

  • No means of discerning which songs to upload and which not to. Not a problem unless your library exceeds the 10,000 song max – like mine does.
  • Uploading your library takes a long time. It’s based off your internet upload speed (which is usually a lot slower than the advertised download speed for your ISP). 4 hours for 1200 songs so far. This is disappointing since I assumed it would have some kind of library already in place that it could pull from according to what you already owned. If Google didn’t have it, then it would upload yours off your hard-drive, ala iTunes Match.
  • Some songs won’t upload. I’ve found that those songs that I purchased when iTunes first came online that still have DRM won’t get uploaded as well as some file formats such as m4a. Note that m4p does work. This also means that you can’t take your friend’s music library with copy protection and upload it as your own.
  • No way to export songs. From what I’ve learned, I believe this is coming. As for now, there is no way to download a song back to your hard-drive, unlike iTunes Match – which operates more as a true Cloud. This means it won’t work as a way of freeing up hard-drive space or recovering your library should your hard-drive fail or computer get stolen. You can’t upload your music then delete it off your computer and expect to get it back again later – which you could be able to do with iTunes Match. Hell, I don’t even know if deleting a song on your hard-drive deletes the song on Google. I hope not! However, this feature should be coming in the near future.
  • Instant Mixes seems shoddy at best right now. For many songs it hasn’t been able to create a mix and the ones that it has been able to create don’t always seem to go well together. Maybe it’s just me but I don’t feel like Muse goes very well with Ben Folds Five.
  • No control over meta-data once a song has been uploaded.
  • Limited song ratings. Either you like it or you don’t. Which begs the question: why would you own a song that you’d give a thumbs down to?
  • Gaps between songs. I’m assuming this is just one of the pitfalls of internet streaming.

So how does it stack up to other music players…

iTunes
I know there’s a lot of people that dislike it but to me, iTunes is still the holy grail of music players for Macs. Even against other PC options it stacks up near the top. With a plethora of meta-data options to edit, ways to sort and organize, as well as Genius mixes of variable length, iTunes does a lot right. Of course, if you’re using an iPhone or an iPod, there’s a good chance you’re using iTunes already and need a valid reason to switch. iTunes major flaw is that it’s restricted to a single computer. It’s library data can’t be easily transfered between computers so keeping a singular library on multiple computers is nigh impossible (without additional hit-or-miss 3rd-party software). iTunes Home Sharing tried to solve some of that as will iTunes Match. But both of these services require the music to be downloaded and still DRM free or authorized.

I can see Google Music being a nice supplement to how I listen to music but it won’t replace iTunes. Really it just means I don’t need to copy my library to other computers any longer or manage multiple libraries. Which is really worth it’s weight in gold. I’m mostly interested in seeing how Google handles changes I make to songs on my hard-drive. Will it pick up meta-data changes automatically? Will it automatically see the change but think that the change has created a unique song and upload it as such, thus creating a duplicate? Will is simply ignore the change completely until I delete it off of Google and re-upload manually?

Spotify
As is, I feel like this is Google’s closest competition. Like Google, Spotify scans your iTunes library (or other music library) and imports everything so you can listen from other devices. Spotify will also import iTunes playlists and it doesn’t upload anything. Which makes initially using it much faster but also means that if Spotify’s servers don’t have it, you can’t listen to that song anywhere else nor can you use Spotify as a Cloud backup server. The free version of Spotify is advertising based and limits the type of devices you can play music on. Unlike Google, you can’t simply play music in a web browser. You need to download the app. When you subscribe to premium services you get the option to play music while offline and play music on mobile devices such as Android or iPhones. With Spotify there’s no way to automatically create mixes of similar music based off of one song. I really love this feature which is one reason why I still love iTunes. So Google wins there. On the flip side, Google only plays music that you’ve uploaded, thus proving you own it. Whereas Spotify will play virtually anything, which explains the subscription fees and advertising. Ad there’s the major draw for Spotify (and Grooveshark for that matter): whether or not you already own it, if it’s on their servers they’ll let you listen to it.

Grooveshark
At this point we’re starting to move away from what Google Music is intended for. Grooveshark simply plays whatever you want. It doesn’t care about music you own and it doesn’t care about exposing you to similar artists. It is web-based however which makes it more accessible than Spotify but it’s also dependent on Flash which is beginning to decline in popularity and support. Grooveshark could very well play your entire library if your library is popular enough and playlists can be created and saved if you create an account.

Last.fm and Pandora
Finally, I’m going to include these two internet radio services. At this point, radio is completely beyond the realm of Google Music. I wish it wasn’t. I would love to be able to make a mix based off of one song that incorporated music I own plus new stuff. Internet radio is great for discovery or when you don’t really care what you’re listening to but sucks when you want to be specific. So for now, Google Music offers nothing in terms of listening to music that you don’t already own.

It’s important to remember that this is still quite new and still a Beta product. There’s going to be a lot of changes while bugs are worked out and features are added.

Open source software alternatives part 1: basics

Open-source software is software that is intended to have it’s code freely exposed to the public. This means that a program can be contributed to by any number of people that wish to help to improve it. While open-source projects have existed for many years, often beginning as a mere hobby for one person, awareness and interest has exploded recently. There are now alternative open-source software programs for just about every major commercial application making the transition away from Windows or Apple is a lot easier than most people think.. While some free programs may not feature all the bells and whistles or appear quite as polished as their payed for brethren, they generally get the job done satisfactorily. In some cases, a privately developed, free or cheap application may even be “better” than the commercial version running faster and more efficiently.

Open-source software exists on every computer operating system. It’s actually rare to find a Linux only application as generally they’ll be created for Windows and Linux, Apple OS and Linux, or all three. This gives you a good opportunity to test out software on your current OS before making the leap to Linux.

The goal of this article is to build an everyday computer using completely free software. Starting with the basics that just about every computer shouldn’t go without. Follow up articles will focus on graphic and web design as well home theater.

If you plan on leaving Windows or OS X behind, you’re going to need a Linux operating system. Ubuntu is perhaps the most popular for non-commercial users. It features an extremely refined interface that is intuitive and easy to use and it comes with many applications built right in (like OpenOffice, Evolution Mail, Firefox, music and movie players, view and edit photos) so you can begin using a Linux based computer instantly, without having to spend lots of time installing other software. Best of all, Ubuntu lets you test drive the OS from a CD or USB drive without ever installing it on your hard drive. It’ll be a little slow and won’t let you save settings or preferences but it’s a great way to get your feet wet. You can also run Ubuntu (along with other Linux distros) side-by-side Windows which gives you a chance to not only experience the OS but also test for any hardware and driver problems you may encounter before making the switch.

If Ubuntu isn’t quite what your looking for, there’s a plethora of other distributions, both major and minor that are worth looking into. DistroWatch keeps tabs on all the different versions of Linux that are available along with descriptions of each and even provides copies of the OS on disc and flash drives for a small fee.

Spreadsheets and Word Processing

OpenOffice.org and Google Docs
Windows, OS X, Linux
For many people,  replacing Microsoft Office is the first hurdle to overcome when moving to open-source platforms. Luckily there’s two excellent programs available that fulfill that role and are even compatible with Office. Both applications can be used in place of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. OpenOffice also includes a simple drawing program similar to Visio. If you prefer to work in the cloud and store your documents online so that they can be accessible wherever you have an internet connection, Google Docs is a simple solution that offers powerful features not normally associated with a mere website.

Email

Thunderbird and Evolution
Windows, OS X, Linux (Evolution is Linux only)
If you prefer to use an application for your email client rather than going to a website then you’ll likely need a program to replace Outlook or Mail. While Thunderbird may be more widely available, Evolution comes preinstalled on Ubuntu. Both offer junk mail filtering and integrated calendars to keep track of appointments and invites. Thunderbird also incorporates a migration assistant to help those moving over from Outlook as well as Firefox like Add-ons to further customize your experience.

Instant Messaging

Pidgin
Windows, OS X, Linux
Pidgin consolidates all your IM services into one client, allowing you to chat simultaneously with multiple people over multiple services, all from one program.

Adium
OS X
While Adium is Mac only, I’m including it here because it is the defacto standard for IM clients on the Mac. While iChat supports video it only allows you to access MobileMe (.Mac), Google Talk (Jabber) and AIM accounts.  With Adium, you lose video, but gain everything else.

File Compression

7-Zip
Windows, Linux
7-Zip is essential a free version of WinZip and WinRAR. It does all of the above, is free so you don’t get those annoying trial warnings every time you accidentally fully open the program  and it offers its own compression format which it claims is more efficient.

Stuffit Expander
Windows, OS X
There is no Linux version available here, but like WinZip for Windows, Stuffit has long been Mac’s goto file archiving program. Its basic expander version is free and now has a Windows version as well. Simply included as another free alternative.

Security

AVG Anti-Virus
Windows, Linux
This is your free alternative to spending money on Norton to protect yourself from all those porn sites and suspicious emails. While it’ll satisfy Window’s lust for reminding you about security, if you want complete protection you may want to opt for the paid version scan downloads and your hard drives.

Web Browsing

Firefox, Chrome, Opera, Safari
Windows, OS X, Linux
Since the popularity of  Firefox most people are aware that there are other browsers besides Internet Explorer. But why should you use a browser other than what came with your computer? Speed, security and proper page display. Explorer is notorious for lacking in all. Chrome and Safari especially trump Explorer when it comes to displaying web pages quickly and both start up faster when opening. Firefox offers thousands of Add-ons to customize the browser to your heart’s content while Opera is fast, simple and extremely innovative. All have much better security measures to ensure you don’t inadvertently contract a virus while surfing and all have much better support for web design standards meaning pages look how they’re supposed to.

Music & Video

Ubuntu comes with Rhythmbox (for music), Movie Player, Pitivi video editor, and F-Spot (for organizing and editing photos) but here are some additional alternatives

VLC Media Player
Windows, OS X, Linux
Pretty much any media nerd knows that VLC is the defacto standard for simple, jack-of-all-trades media players. VLC is just about as bare bones as you can get… but it supports just about everything. Nearly any video or audio format, subtitles, chapters, stereo or surround sound, multiple languages, playlists, etc. About the only thing it doesn’t do is maintain a visual library of your collection.

Boxee
Windows, OS X, Linux, Apple TV
For the home entertainment experience, Boxee makes it possible. It scours your hard drives for media, identifies it and then presents it in an organized fashion letting you enjoy everything from music to movies to TV to internet feeds like YouTube and Netflix. However, Boxee is without it’s disadvantages: it’s a full screen only application – which is fine for watching movies or TV. Maybe not so good when you want to listen to music while surfing the internet or playing games. It also won’t let you edit metadata since it identifies media itself and displays information based on what it gathered from internet sources. Because of this, improperly named files won’t be identified and will be ignored. However, this also makes it easy to intentionally ignore certain files. Properly, configured, Boxee is ideal for dedicated Home Theater PCs.

Amarok
Linux
If  Rhythmbox doesn’t quite do it for you, Amarok will. With support for a wide variety of audio formats it has powerful features for integrating devices and services and an intuitive interface.

Torrent File Sharing

transmissionTransmission
OS X, Linux
Transmission is super light-weight and easy to use. Even behind a firewall it’ll automatically search for an open port. If none can be found, you can edit the port settings yourself. There’s really nothing fancy about it. Simply download and upload torrents with ease. Although it does have a nice little ‘ding’ sound when a torrent is complete.

Emulation/Virtual Machine

Wine
Linux
Wine isn’t exactly an emulator or a VM. It simply allows you to run many Windows applications on a Linux OS. It’s not perfect and not every program is supported. However, many common programs are supported and if you’re determined to ditch Windows, Wine may help you make the jump even if some of your essential programs haven’t yet.

You can also find these applications and many others at Free Applications.