Thursday, 17 February 2011

Scrapping physical media

Those of us of a certain age will probably get a bit misty-eyed when the subject of vinyl LPs comes up. I'd include myself in that luddite group. The convenience of downloading an album can't be argued with, but the experience of buying an album has been lost in the process. Buying a physical object, usually complete with gorgeous artwork and band photos and lyric sheets is something that a lot of us have grown up with - and it's difficult to value a digital download in the same way. This is at the root of the argument that digital downloads should be cheaper than their physical counterparts - in comparison, and ignoring the fact that an entire distribution and retailing channel has been removed, downloads just seem to be less substantial. So they should cost less, yes?

Of course there are advantages. Digital retailers will argue that they are making the investment to host all purchased content, to be made available to you at any time in the future (i.e. when you suffer a terminal hard drive crash). It's nice to know that it's possible to re-download content in the future, although the question of what happens in the case of the company going out of business must then be considered - something that is no doubt buried in the T&Cs that none of us ever read.

Then there's the additional convenience of portability. Digital downloads don't take up masses of shelf-space. It's easier to access with the click of a mouse or remote control and is harder to damage. You can move it to other devices (if there's no DRM to prevent this). Many of us have replaced large, cumbersome vinyl and CD collections with digital equivalents over the last decade - either buying downloads or ripping our physical media to hard disks. Where there was boxes of vinyl LPs or walls full of CDs there is now a single computer which can stream any track in our collection on demand - sometimes to any room in the home.

Until recently, it's been harder to do this with our movie collections. In fact, it's only been four years since I finished transferring an already-extensive VHS collection to DVD. Now I'm considering moving these titles and the ones I have on purchased DVD to a format which is easier to manage. Okay, I should probably add that I'm not typical - my collection is larger than most sane people would allow. Here it is:

The folders along the bottom shelves each contain 120 DVDs - containing my old VHS titles and things that have been DVRd from cable over the years. The bulk of this collection is in the guest room upstairs, which through laziness, often means that I'll watch something closer to hand online or on TV. I need to bring these films closer to the lounge.

I have made a start - a large collection of those 50-film public doman box sets has been transferred to a Western Digital 1Tb drive connected to our desktop PC, where any of them can be accessed by the PS3. I'd advise anyone using a PS3 to stream to use an alternative to Windows Media Server, as format support can be quite limited. I personally use PS3 Media Server - a light, Java-based server app, which seems to handle most formats, including DVD rips in VOB and ISO formats.

Unfortunately, this solution doesn't allow for the nicer things you can get when using a HTPC running a proper media centre application such as Windows Media Centre, Boxee or XBMC. The PS3 will just display the feature and extras as individual video titles in a named folder. The full PC-based media centre applications will display any networked movie content and obtain a film's poster, cast and synopsis information from services such as IMDB, making browsing your collection all the easier (especially when that collection is stupidly huge and contains titles you forgot you even had). Some media centre apps (and devices such as the O!Play STB) will allow you to access your ripped DVD in full, using the standard disc menus.

Of course, you have to actually get the content on to a NAS drive or PC hard drive in the first place. This is a long, boring, time-consuming process (dependent on how large your collection is). A fast DVD drive and PC will speed this process up but there no getting away from the fact that you will have to actually sit there and feed your collection, one-at-a-time into the drive. At least this should only be a one-off activity and adding discs as-and-when purchased in future should be less painful. Until someone introduces a cloud-based video service which allows you to sync your home video library (some way off - if ever!), manually building your own digital video library is the only solution.

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