Master Your Media

I'm packing for a trip on short notice--loading my video iPod while frantically throwing jumbles of clothes into a suitcase. I already have 25GB of music loaded, but since iTunes doesn't import my DVDs, my iPod is "video" in name only unless I spend a bunch more money at Apple's online store.

Fortunately, just as Jack Bauer knows alternate routes through L.A. rush-hour traffic, I have a few tricks for get around iTunes and adding those movies to my player. I can even transfer my favorite viral videos from YouTube and copy commercial-free TV shows from my TiVo. I can improve my iPod's music playback, too, by ripping a perfect copy of a new CD or by downloading free songs from Internet radio stations.

I'll explain these and other tips for media conversion, portable playback, and related tasks--a trove of useful information, whether you use iTunes, Windows Media Player, an iPod, a Zune, or some other tool. My flight may be taling off in just 24 hours, but my iPod is going to be ready.

Rip a DVD to Your iPod

iTunes can't import movie DVDs in the same way that it captures audio CDs, but here's an easy method for converting such videos to an iPod-digestible format. These steps will work with your family's home videos, and they should transfer most of the commercial movie DVDs you own, too. (Ripping copyrighted movies raises legal and ethical issues that you and your conscience need to take into account.)

If you have more than one DVD drive, click the pull-down arrow to select the one containing your DVD disc.
Rip video from the disc: First, use AnyDVD ($49) to move the video files from the DVD where they're stored onto your hard drive. Launch AnyDVD Ripper, choose a destination, and then click the Copy DVD button. Depending on your PC and DVD drive speeds, transferring the video to your hard disk should take about 20 minutes.

Roxio's Crunch software keeps track of the total video time; the counter below the thumbnails reports their cumulative length.
Prep the video for your iPod: Roxio Crunch ($40) compresses the videos into iPod-ready movie files. Though free alternatives exist, Crunch's simplicity and intuitive interface justify its price. Open Crunch, click the Add Movies button, and navigate to the folder on your hard drive where you put your ripped video file. Crunch shows you preview frames of each video file to help you find the one you're looking for--a big help, since many DVDs include multiple video files. You can also use the length information to help identify the main video: Look for one that's more than an hour long. Control-click to select multiple files if you wish. Click OK.

Choose the correct format for your player: Available formats appear in the pop-up window; for most video-capable iPods, a good option is iPod Standard. Verify that the radio button outputs to File/Folder (instead of importing directly from iTunes) to store the resulting file anywhere on your PC. Click Save As, choose a destination, click the check box to add the file to iTunes automatically, and click OK. Depending on your PC's speed and on the length of the movie, video encoding will take an hour or two.

Pick the Best Format for Your Media Player

Different media players support different file compression formats for movies and video. (Click on image, at left, to see player capabilities) For example, some players offer video-out to a TV at a resolution that exceeds the device's screen size. So encode higher--and sacrifice space--if you plan to plug it in.

Put each video in the right iTunes library folder: Once you've converted your videos to the desired format, add them to your iTunes library by dragging the files into the iTunes window or by choosing File, Add File to Library from the Application menu. Occasionally iTunes slips TV shows, movies, and downloads into the wrong library folder. To redirect such a video into its proper folder, right-click the name of the miscategorized file, select Get Info, click the Video tab, and change the setting under Video Kind to move the program into the most appropriate group.

Take Commercial-Free TiVo on the Road

Advertising may be a necessary evil for free, over-the-air TV, but you don't have to put up with it on your personal media player. Here's how to transfer video from a TiVo, cut the commercials, and send the processed file to your iPod.

Click the Auto-Transfer button to automatically download new episodes of a selected show from your TiVo to your PC.
To get started, install TiVo Desktop on your PC. This free utility transfers recorded shows from a Series2 or Series3 TiVo to a networked PC. When the setup process asks for your TiVo Media Access Key, you can find this unique string of numbers in your TiVo's menus: Use your remote to select TiVo, Messages & Settings, Account & System Information, Media Access Key. Enter the Media Access Key into your TiVo Desktop software when prompted to do so during installation. After completing the initial TiVo Desktop setup, click Pick Recordings to Transfer. Click the check boxes for one or more shows, and then press Start Transfer.

Once the shows are on your PC, you'll use a different program--VideoReDo Plus ($50)--to remove the commercials. In addition to its editing features, this program natively reads proprietary TiVo files, saving you another step in the process. (If you use another editor, it might not work with TiVo videos.) During installation, select the option to import TiVo files from the default My TiVo Recordings folder.

If you accidentally mark good parts of the video in red, click the Trim Unselect button to keep those sections and toss the rest.
Launch VideoReDo Plus and open one of the shows. (When we posted this story, the program wouldn't work with HD files; look for a software update in February 2008.) Click Open Video, choose the My TiVo Recordings folder, and pick a file. Start the Ad-Detective scan from the Ad-Detective menu. VideoReDo will analyze and mark black sections--possible commercial breaks. Then click the red forward- and back-arrows to jump between those points. Find the moment where the show cuts to a commercial, and click the Select Start button. Fast-forward to the end of the commercial break, and click Select End. Choose Cut Selection. Repeat these steps for multiple breaks as needed. Choose Save As, and export the edited video as an MPEG Program Stream.

You now have a perfect copy of the original TiVo video, without any commercials. The free Videora iPod Converter will compress the video for playback on an iPod. Click the Convert button and the Video File tab. Pick Normal Mode, and follow the prompts to select the ad-free show. Set the quality level, and begin processing. When Videora is finished, it will have automatically added the file to your iTunes library.

Rip a Music CD With Pristine Fidelity

If the thought of losing any music quality makes you squirm, use a lossless format to copy CDs to your PC and music player.

During compression, MP3s and other condensed files lose some clarity. But a lossless codec saves a perfect copy. The tradeoff is that a lossless codec produces a file about half the size of the original CD version, whereas an MP3 file is usually about a tenth the size of the original CD. Still, if you insist on retaining the highest-quality audio you can--and you have gigs of disk space to spare--pick a lossless codec.

When you use the Apple Lossless codec, there's no bit-rate setting to adjust: The codec handles everything.
In iTunes, you'll want to use the Apple Lossless codec: First choose Edit, Preferences, click the Advanced tab, and click the Importing tab. Then choose Apple Lossless Encoder from the pop-up menu, and click OK. Henceforth, all of your CD imports will be copied in Apple Lossless format, and they'll sound as crisp as they did the moment they were mastered.

In Windows Media Player, the appropriate codec to use is Windows Media Audio Lossless. To specify this format, right-click the Rip tab and choose More Options. Then change the selected entry in the Format pop-up menu to Windows Media Audio Lossless. The playback quality of any audio file copied in this format should be indistinguishable from that of the original CD.

Record Music From Internet Radio

Internet radio stations easily trump terrestrial radio broadcasts, with virtually limitless listening choices and (depending on your broadband connection) perfect, antenna-free quality. With the right tools, you can record those broadcasts, too, slurping songs into a folder on your hard drive as easily as people used to record FM signals to tape in the 1980s.

There's method in Radiotracker Premium's maddening interface. Use the left side to capture live stations, and the right side for editing, organizing, and playing the files.
Though it has a complicated interface, Radiotracker Premium ($25) gives you an impressive number of ways to record and cut songs from multiple stations automatically and simultaneously. (The $37 Platinum version even searches for specific artists and song titles.)

Launch Radiotracker, and click the Stations button. Browse the vast list of genres, or start typing the name of a favorite broadcaster. (To quickly find SOMA FM stations, for example, enter SOMA in the text box.) Click a station you like, and then click the Favor star. Repeat this, favoring a few stations you like; then close the window by clicking the red X in the upper-right corner of the window.

In the main interface, uncheck the Genre button, and click the Favorites box, leaving only that option selected. Your stations should be listed in the window below. Click Start Autorip to begin recording from all of them at once, assuming that your bandwidth can handle the load. Radiotracker will tally the captured songs in the right side of the program, complete with tags for artist and title.

Radiotracker divides songs based on tags from the stations, which may differ from the actual beginnings and endings of songs by several seconds. This discrepancy can cause Radiotracker to pick up part of the neighboring tune by accident. If necessary, trim the beginning and ending manually by clicking a song and using the Cut button.

Radiotracker doesn't add music to the iTunes library, but you can automate that process by using a free utility called iTunes Folder Watch. Install and open this program, and select the Radiotracker audio folder. As you record Radiotracker songs, iTunes Folder Watch will import them into iTunes. If you're using Windows Media Player, obviously, you should skip this download. Within Windows Media Player, right-click the Library button and use the Monitor Folders button to perform the same tasks.

Convert DRM-Free Files to a Friendlier Format

Most portable media players handle formats beyond MP3. But a car CD player, home DVD player, or other straggling device may play MP3 files exclusively and be unable to handle other compressed audio files. As long as your songs aren't locked into a proprietary DRM format, use this tip to convert them into MP3 files.

The right-click menu in iTunes can show the original song in Windows Explorer, identify which playlists include it, and more.
In iTunes, choose Edit, Preferences. Click the Advanced tab, and then click the Importing tab within it. Confirm that MP3 Encoder is selected--and while you're there, raise the bit rate to a customized setting of 256 kbps to improve sound fidelity slightly  in comparison to what you get at the default setting. Click OK, and right-click the song that you want to reformat. Choose Convert Selection to MP3.

Use the output folder option to organize the converted files in a new directory for easy recognition.
In Windows Media Player, the procedure is different in its details but produces a similar result. Right-click a song, and pick Send to, Windows Audio Converter. Change the file format from the format listed (probably WMP) to MP3, and boost the quality (that is, the audio bit rate) to 256 kbps. Click Next, and complete your instructions by pressing Start Conversion.

Take YouTube Off the Intertubes

The iPod and other portable media players can play movies, but why not YouTube clips, too? Well, the reason is that YouTube normally doesn't play traditional video files for QuickTime and Windows Media. Instead, the site relies on Flash videos that aren't inclined to play outside your browser. Fortunately, two free tools permit you to download and convert such files for playback on an iPod.

Use FLV Downloader's scroll bars to help you see the entire Web page. If you're playing back multiple videos, click 'Check All' to download each one.
Unlike pictures and most types of movies, Flash files require a special utility to perform the downloading. First, use FLV Downloader to save the Flash movie file to your PC. (FLV Downloader is included in the trial version of the FLV to Video Converter tool, but it's free by itself; install FLV to Video Converter to get FLV Downloader.) Click Show Browser, and enter the URL for the YouTube video you want to download, just as if you were simply surfing in your browser. Play the Flash file in the window--again, as you would in any browser--and the source URL should appear below the window. Click the checkbox next to the URL, click Download, and then choose Add.

Now that you have a copy of the Flash file, use Videora iPod Converter to make the file iPod-ready. Click the Convert button, choose the Video File tab, and click Normal Mode. Click the Select File button, and choose the clip; the Flash file will likely be in My Documents, Downloaded FLV. Click Next three times, and then click Start Converting. Add the finished file to iTunes, and sync it over to your iPod.

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