A Happy Customer
When Apple TV became capable of showing 1080p movies in all their 2,000,000-pixel glory, I decided to re-rip my favorite Blu-Rays in all their 2,000,000-pixel glory. I mean, 720p is more than good enough for watching Bored French People Talking About Smoking, but you really want to see every single detail of Laser Cowboy and His Buxom Leggy Princess of Death.
But there was a little problem. What rips as a 4- or 5-gigabyte video file at 720p, can be considerably bigger at 1080p. And I do mean considerably.
Here's the quick version of the math. 720p displays a little less than 800,000 pixels. 1080p displays a little more than the aforementioned 2,000,000. Theoretically then, a 1080p rip of Bruce Willis Kills Everything should be almost exactly 2.5 times bigger than the 720p rip.
Sometimes yes, sometimes no. And the no is really, truly no.
I ripped Aliens and the resulting file was 30 gigabytes. I ripped Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade with similar results. So I tried some different settings on Handbrake, but the results weren't much smaller. But I did learn a few things about compression.
• When you down-sample a 1080p Blu-Ray to 720p, a lot of detail is lost. That gives your ripping software a lot of leeway in making a smaller file. So it's pretty easy (and fast) to take a 40-gig Blu-Ray movie and make a 5-gig M4V file which still looks great. When you're ripping a BD disc one-to-one, the software seems to lose a lot of that discretion.
• That loss of discretion gets ugly in two types of movies. In the first kind, if there's a lot of camera movement,or a lot of action, or a lot of both, the movie becomes very difficult to compress one-to-one. That much is pretty obvious to anyone who knows anything about compression.
• The second kind of movie took me by surprise. One-to-one, compression software reads high-grain film as high-detail imagery. The same goes for fog or mist or moving water. If you set Handbrake to preserve detail in faces or laser blasts or whatever, it will also try to preserve the "detail" of a rolling fog or an ocean spray.
So, crap... I could jack down the fineness settings and totally lose the point of ripping at full 1080p, or deal with some movie files that were barely any smaller than the high-density physical media I was trying to compact them from.
In the Age of Drobo, big files aren't a big problem. But big-ass files are a big problem when you're trying to stream them wirelessly from the basement to the living room. Nothing quite ruins the mood of Hot People Shooting Bad People While Dangling from Skyscrapers than having the movie pause... and pause... and pause... in the middle of a big action scene while the WiFi tries to keep up with the big-ass file.
But for years now, Glenn Reynolds has been raving about powerline network bridges, so I figured I'd give it a try. You plug one dongle into your WiFi router, then into a wall outlet. You plug its mate into another wall outlet, and then into your Apple TV or Roku or whatever. They have gigabit speed, theoretically, and relieve your WiFi of a massive bandwidth problem when you're trying to stream 26 gigabytes of Sigourney Weaver being all sweaty and wielding a grenade launcher.
So I ordered the ZyXEL PLA4205kit HomePlug from Amazon over the weekend, and it arrived Tuesday afternoon. I plugged in one unit downstairs next to the router, then hooked them together with the included ethernet cable. One of the three lights turned green to indicate it was plugged into the wall, then another one turned green to tell me it was making nice with the router. Then I plugged its mate in behind the living room TV, and hooked it into the Apple TV with the other included cable. It lit up the same two green lights as before, plus the third one to let me know it had found its mate.
And that was it. That was the whole setup. It just worked. The setup software is Windows only, but who cares -- you'll probably never need it.
Apple TV noticed it had an ethernet connection to iTunes, and automatically set itself up to use that instead of WiFi. I tried loading up Aliens, and after the briefest of pauses it began to play without a hitch.
So does ZyXEL deliver the promised 500 Mbps? Hell if I know. But it sure can stream a big-ass video file without choking, and that's all I need it to do -- and there aren't many people with streaming demands like mine.
Not sure I can remember the last time I was this happy about a consumer electronics item right out of the box, but I do wish I'd taken Glenn's advice to heart ages ago.