Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Getting TV Shows into Your Computer/Media Center "The Light Side"

In a previous article, I talked about watching digital video files on your Mac.
And I'm currently running a multi-part series on building a dedicated Media Center.

So now, even without an actual TV, I find myself refreshing that dent on the living room couch.
It's all just "research." Really!

Now that we have a way to easily watch video on the computer.
Let's get some files!

DVD
First, here's the crazy part: According to the MPAA and our bought-and-paid-for Congress, pretty much anything you may want to do with a movie or TV show is illegal.
Even things that unquestionably fall under the Fair Use doctrine.

The most obvious method to get a show into your computer is to "rip" your existing DVDs.
For this, I use Handbrake.

I've had the best experience with Mac 10.5 version, but it works pretty well on all platforms. If you have 10.4 Mac, check the "older versions" link.
The built-in compression profiles are pretty good nowadays. The "Film" setting will usually produce a reasonably sized file to add to your library.

In addition to creating files for viewing in the living room, I often use Handbrake for creating iPhone/iPod Touch versions of TV shows I have on DVD.
I carry the complete season of Firefly in my pocket at all times! You can't stop the signal...


PODCAST/RSS (Episodic Programming)
"Podcasts"are just like RSS news feeds you might subscribe to, except they contain links to audio or video files. Most of the episodic "internet shows" being produced are distributed in this fashion.
You can view these feeds through a web page or use special programs. The two most popular programs are iTunes and Miro. You can also subscribe to podcasts directly from within XBMC.

Most podcasts are free. Some are big network-produced shows, and some are just one person putting out a video blog. Here's what's currently on my play list:

Program Notes Feed Link
The Guild Sitcom about online gamers RSS
Geek Brief TV "Shiny Happy Tech News" RSS (HD)
Command-N Weekly tech roundup RSS
Diggnation Kevin Rose. Alex Albrecht. Beer. Couch. digg.com (Weekly) RSS (HD)
Make TV Make Magazine presents inventors, artists and geeks RSS (HD)
G4TV Daily Feed Today's top headlines and tech news RSS
TED Talks Best of the TED Conference RSS
Meet the Press The full NBC program RSS
Morning Joe The first segment of each day's show RSS
Reliable Sources The full CNN program RSS
Tiki Bar TV "Forbidden Cocktails in a Swank Pad" RSS (HD)

All the major television networks put out regular news podcasts.
I also subscribe to many audio podcasts, but today we're just talking about video.


iTunes
Anyone with an iPod already has iTunes.
iTunes, in conjunction with the iTunes Store, is one of the simplest ways to find and subscribe to Podcasts. You can subscribe to any of the shows in the above list directly from iTunes.
On the down side, iTunes doesn't support every type of video floating out in the internet. On the up side, iTunes carries shows which aren't available as a free download, like Children's Hospital and Doctor Horrible's Singalong Blog.



Miro
There's a lot of completely free content out there. Fortunately, there's a program that will allow you download almost any sort of video distribution.

Miro is available for pretty much any computer. It has a very simple method for subscribing to podcasts.
Like the iTunes Store, Miro has featured channels and top rated programs.

You can't get "paid" content using Miro because there is no accounting mechanism.
But Miro does have an advantage over iTunes in that it can download large files using BitTorrent technology if the publisher supports it. I'll talk more about BitTorrent later.

XBMC
If you're running XBMC or one of it's children (Plex, Boxee), you can subscribe to many podcasts using Scripts. Instructions for installing scripts will vary by platform. If your version of XBMC didn't come with pre-installed scripts, check it's web site for instructions on installing the standard Scripts.


Broadcast TV
Of course, it would be nice to record regular over-the-air broadcasts as well.
Here are three popular ways to record broadcast video into your computer:
  • ATI TV Wonder HD 650 This full-featured external USB-2 box contains the tuner and connectors. Records up to 1080i in MPEG-2 format.
  • Elagato EyeTV This USB-2 "stick" also supports recording up tp 1080i. Elagato also has other popular products for analog TV. (There's also a Pinnacle/Avid HDTV stick. This deviced is "Powered by Elagato," so I don't know why you'd want this instead of the original Elagato product.)
  • TiVo Transfer Use the DVR abilities of a TiVo and use their software to transfer files to your computer.
These solutions will work on all platforms, but the linux methods are a bit more involved.

On my laptop, I use iTunes to pull down a number of podcasts for viewing on my iPhone.
At home, Miro pulls downs shows for viewing on the Media Center.

Using these sources, I have hours of good (and legal!) programming every day.


In part 2, I'll explain how the more "questionable" program sources work.


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