Adventures in Video Formats

I spent lots of time this weekend trying to setup my home network to stream video media to various devices:
  • The devices I was trying to network included an XBox 360, a Samsung Bluray DVD player that has some networking capabilities, and various PCs around the house. 
  • Most of the original content I have is video podcasts, movie trailers or home movies.  Most of the original content is in MOV(MPEG-4) or MP4(H.264) formats.  None of it is DRM controlled.
  • I experimented with putting files at the devices using USB keys (XBox 360 and DVD player) or local disk (PCs). 
  • For servers, I also tried using a Linksys Buffalo Network Storage device which publishes files in Windows file system, Apple filesystem, iTunes server or Windows media server formats.  I also tried streaming from a PC using either the Windows media player or Zune media player as servers.
  • I also tried out various re-encode formats.  These included various MP4 and WMV profiles.
What I found was:
  • The XBox and DVD devices both read more formats from local USB storage than they did over any network technique. The PCs could read more formats when using a file system than from using a media server device. Rarely, a device could accept a file as a stream that it couldn't read directly. Using USB keys or local storage means less time doing re-encodes but using a server would be more convenient way to publish files (and do backups).
  • The DVD player could see files that it couldn't play.  That is not good.  I considered putting all my files on a server, doing as few re-encodes as possible, and letting each device sort out what it could read (and play). But, on the DVD player, the user sees lots of choices in the menu that don't work... very frustrating.
  • One thing I didn't anticipate (but should have) is that regardless of file format using the network was a problem for my high-def content (1080p, 25-30fps, very high bit rate).  Images and sound would stutter.  This wasn't a problem when using local storage - USB keys in the XBox or DVD, local disk on the PCs.  
  • No one format, or set of formats, emerged as a good solution. Every device had its 'quirks' of what it could, or could, not use.  For example, I took an original and encoded it twice using both the iPod profile in QuickTime and the iPod profiel in Roxio encoder... but some scenarios of my test could only use one of those files and other scenarios could only use the other file.
  • WMV file format worked in most of my scenarios (admittedly Microsoft centric) but that is a problem since most of my original content is in MOV or MP4.  The prospect of all that time re-encoding was discouraging.  Also, if I convert everything to WMV then I'm almost never getting to see and hear the video at the original quality.
  • Another aspect I didn't anticipate is device noise.  The XBox almost always has a fair amount of fan noise - even when not playing a game.  One of the PCs had lots of fan noise when playing long videos or several videos - especially high-def.  The functionality of the DVD player isn't anything special... but it is quiet.  In many situations, for me, this really made a difference.
So, what did I decide?  For me, I decided to 'push' videos to my XBox and DVD player using USB storage devices on those players.  Since some of my original content already works with those devices, that minimizes the amount of re-encoding time I have to do.  Also, by using local storage and minimizing how often I re-encode, that keeps me watching content in the original quality.  Finally, when using a USB key (vice a DVD) in the DVD player, there is no background noise and that is nice to take advantage of.

Not the most 'high tech' solution. But there it is.  If you want to see some charts on my experirments see my charts at http://goo.gl/0cmZO

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