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If you survived last week's column and have come back for more, you have my respect - mostly for your bravery! As you have probably realized, video authoring and conversion is not for the weak of heart, but I think the rewards make the effort worth the risks.
This week, we get to the PC people, as I describe tools you can download for your Wintel box that convert between video formats.
If you recall, last time I described ffmpegx, the Mac tool that enables you to convert video files into MPEG2 format suitable for burning on DVD. As I mentioned, ffmepgx is a complete conversion tool, which handles AVI, .MOV (Quicktime) and DV file input, and spits out a DVD, SVCD, or VCD (in the full version). I was so impressed with ffmpegx I even shelled out for the registered version; $15 is more than fair for this product (note that the only difference between the registered and free versions is encoding for VCD and DVDs greater than 4 GB). With its ability to perform advanced tricks like authoring DVDs with multiple soundtracks, pre-set scripts that ensure you automatically get the settings you need and the results you want, and a choice of encoders, ranging from high quality to super-fast, it's worth the money.
And now, after having used a host of tools on my laptop PC (1.6 ghz Centrino processor, 1 GB of memory), I have to say I appreciate ffmpegx (which unfortunately only has a Mac version) even more. Somehow, ffmpegx on my Mac Mini's 1.25 Ghz 512 MB system - by all sights a less powerful system than my HP laptop's - encoded the same AVI files into MPEG2 format more quickly, not to mention more easily and with far less hassle. The old consumer axiom holds true, at least when it comes to video encoding programs on PCs - you get what you pay for.
I'll not waste your time with the losers, of which there were too many, but by way of a lesson, I will describe some of my often frustrating experiences. Note that all the programs I tried had lovely things to say about themselves, as well as impressive sounding recommendations from supposed users.
As I mentioned, PC users have access to the useful free tool called AVIcodec (http://avicodec.duby.info), which tells you which codecs you need to view a file. While some codecs allow you to just decode a compressed video file so you can watch it on your computer but require you to purchase a license in order to encode and transform the file into a different format, those codecs are usually quite clear in their demand for payment. Many pay codecs actually have open source twins anyway - and anyway, the codecs used in nearly all AVI files (DivX 5, XviD 3) are either open sources or free. So if you can play an AVI file with a DivX 5 codec, for example, re-encoding it should be child's play.
Or so one would think, but several of the programs I downloaded - both shareware and freeware - had various problems with several of the files I tried feeding them, ranging from all sorts of esoteric errors that took me quite a while to track down the reasons behind, to weird looking artifacts and annoying RGB elements throughout the video. The issue was not processor speed or even memory - several of the videos were as short as two or three minutes long, a size even an old Pentium 3 or 4 should be able to handle.
And there were several programs that were able to do the job smoothly. Among the better ones was the popular TMPGenc (http://www.tmpgenc.net/e_main.html), a free program (you can't buy it!) that lets you encode into MPEG1 format (perfect for a VCD) which lets you burn more than an hour of video and audio on a standard 650 MB CD. The program also lets you burn DVDs using MPEG2, but only for 30 days; afterward you have to upgrade to the full version for $30. There is also an advanced Xpress version of TMPGenc for $60, which has lots of pre-set scripts and makes converting between PAL and NTSC a sna - something that requires several sets of encoding in many programs.
TMPGenc uses its own MPEG2 encoding engine, unlike ffmpegx, which relies on open source engines. Unfortunately, all the PC programs I tried that relied on those open-source encoders were either too much of a hassle for "newbies" to set up, gave poor results, or were too slow. Indeed, speed is an important issue in encoding, as is processor use; some of the PC programs were not only slow, but grabbed the computer's processor to an extent that it was impossible to do anything else. One highly touted freebie program actually warned of its processor-intense activities, and more or less froze my computer for several hours - only to throw out an error!
Then there were the pay programs, a few of which were unfortunately no better. One that did the job properly and relatively quickly was VSO DivX to DVD (http://www.vso-software.fr). For $30 you get a nice, easy to use interface, a preview function, and a fast encoder that will get the job done as quickly as is feasible in encoding of this type. In fact, VSO will even burn a DVD for you - making it a one-stop shop for conversion and DVD burning.
VSO even does some basic authoring, like background pictures and chapters - but not heavy-duty authoring, which we will begin to explore next time.
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