One of the reasons I bought a WD TV was to play the AVCHD video files produced by my Canon HF100 HD camcorder. But I also wanted to play the DV files that I’d captured from my previous camcorder, a MiniDV unit. The WD TV cannot decode the DV format, so it has to be converted (transcoded) to another format.
Anyone with a MiniDV camcorder who has captured video to a computer will know that the resultant files can be pretty big – approx. 12GB for one hour. Like most consumer camcorders (regardless of format), my old MiniDV camcorder was capable of producing perfectly acceptable video in good light, but struggled when the light was poor. Seeing as I wanted to keep the original DV files, I didn’t want the newly created files to take up too much disk space. But as a great deal of the footage was of the early years of my children, I wanted the picture quality to be almost as good as the original, particularly in low light scenes.
I’ve seen many posts in forums along the lines of “what’s the best program/codec to use for converting DV?” – the answer is that there is no “best”. It depends on what your priorities are: picture quality, audio quality, file size, easy of use, speed of conversion, control over settings, special features etc. The only way to find out what works best for you is to try several different programs and several different codecs.
I experimented with several freeware conversion tools and a few different video and audio formats. First I tried the software that came with the WD TV – Arcsoft MediaConverter 2.5. It seems to convert everything to H.264 (not a problem) but I didn’t like the way it forced me to use an AVI container and MP3 audio. It was also horribly slow. In theory MPEG2 should be the ideal codec to use for converting DV to. I found that SUPER was very fast at transcoding to MPEG2, was fairly easy to use with very helpful pop-up tooltips and produced reasonable picture quality. Shame about the cramped, non-Windows-like GUI. I also tried WinFF. Both SUPER and WinFF are front-end GUIs for the ffmpeg command line tool, so it was not surprising that the picture quality from both was indistinguishable. WinFF has a much simpler GUI and is great if you just want to leave all settings to the default, but I preferred SUPER because I felt it gave me more control. SUPER was, I think, the only tool I tried that allowed me to retain the audio in PCM format, but for this purpose the video quality is more important than the audio quality.
In the end I settled on using Handbrake, using the H.264 codec and AAC for audio. The video produced had less grain (noise) than the MPEG2, though perhaps at the expense of a little sharpness. I chose to use MP4 as the container format as a) with MKV the video would pause on the first frame for about a second wheres the MP4 would start playing straight away and b) MP4 allows cover art to be embedded and displayed on the WD TV. I experimented with three different bitrates: 1500kbps (Handbrake’s default), 3000 and 5600. The difference in video quality between the three was minimal, which just goes to show the efficiency of the H.264 codec. I chose 3000kbps as it was a good compromise between file size (1.32GB per hour) and picture quality. A 1500kbps bitrate meant that there was some pixelation (ie. “blockiness”) especially on facial shots and in poorly lit scenes. A bitrate of 5600 gave only a slight improvement over 3000 – not enough to make the sacrifice of disk space. After reading the website, I used the Decomb filter to deinterlace as opposed to the Deinterlace filter. I discovered that I had to turn off ”CABAC Entropy Encoding” otherwise the WD TV would not play back the video. For anyone else attempting such a conversion project, let me know if you want to see screenshots of my settings. UPDATE 25Aug09: screenshots added as requested.
UPDATE 27Aug09: I produced thumbnails for the MP4 files by using Windows Movie Maker to select an appropriate frame to use as the thumbnail, then using the “Tools -> Take Picture from Preview…” feature to produce a JPEG. I then used Irfanview to batch resize the JPEGs down to 268 x 200 (preserving the aspect ratio). Finally I used Mp3tag to add the “cover art” to the MP4 file.