net.wars: Video daze

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 02 July 2004

About once a year I discover that I know nothing about digital video and that it hates me.

Wendy M Grossman

The story goes like this: Wimbledon arrives. The day before, I suddenly remember that there are all these digital channels I might want to look at - a few years ago, the BBC announced it would broadcast live coverage of your choice of six courts on its interactive service. I haul out the Freeview box that Hauppauge loaned me a year or two back.
The Freeview box receives digital terrestrial television, which I think doesn't give quite as much fanciness as some of the other digital options (cable, Sky), but at least gives me a couple of extra courts to choose from. In widescreen. (It turns out that tennis fits 16:9 a lot better than 4:3, especially doubles.)

American readers may be confused by all this, and I wouldn't blame them. Acquiring anything to do with television in the UK is such an arcane process that to a foreign eye like mine it seems clear that the idea is to punish anyone who commits the sin of wanting to watch. Suffice it to say that the traditional broadcast channels are broadcasting in both analogue and digital, and if you have the right set-top box you can receive the digital channels on an ordinary TV set. Or, in my case, via a TV capture card (again a Hauppauge) in my PC. This includes a crash-prone piece of software that lets you watch TV on the PC and record the stream if you want to, which presumably will lift Hauppauge to the top of the list to be sued if the INDUCE Act becomes law. Because, really, how many channels can you watch at once?

Which is where the trouble starts. I always think digital video is going to be like digital music. If I download or create an MP3 or WAV it is an utterly trivial matter to find a bit software that will chop it in two, join a couple of segments, or let me chop out a few unwanted blank seconds. Even Nero, the CD and DVD burning software that came with my various recordable drives, has enough of an editor to do that. But not for video. And a day or two into the tournament what I have is a 5.2Gb video file I'd like to chop up and cut some bits out of so I can stick it on a DVD to review later.

The Hauppauge tuner card includes something it claims is some kind of editor ("Nanopeg" – what's "nano" about it?) for video files, but I can no more understand its user interface than I can volley like Martina Navratilova. A piece of Sonic software came with the DVD writer, and that also purports to edit video. I'm sure it does. I'm sure if I were more adequately witted I could even figure out how it does it. But every time I try to do anything it asks me if I want to save my "project". What project? I have a piece of video, and I'd like it to be two pieces of video. When I want to knock a chunk off the end of an MP3 no one talks to me about "projects". They say, "Click here" and next thing I know I have two MP3s.

The place to go is of course the Video Help pages. This is a wonderful site, full of advice guides, links to tools, and all kinds of stuff. And I do know all this is getting easier because two years ago when I wanted to extract an MP3 of a song I really liked on a DVD (that had never been commercially recorded) so I could listen to it without having to watch the entire movie, it was impossible; but last year when I attempted the same thing it had turned into a two-step process. In this case, however, I think I must have downloaded six different bits of software, all impenetrable. One problem - which is why I hope you won't all start sending me email listing the software I should have used and by the way why don't I run Linux? - is that the Hauppauge tuner card saves things in a version of MPEG-2 that apparently only its own software can read. TMGPEnc, which I am used to thinking of as the software of first and last resort for reading any digital video format from DIVx to xVID, spits it right back out again and refuses to swallow. Eventually, I landed on MPEG Video Wizard from some people called Womble, and while this wasn't exactly straightforward to use either (although it's very pretty), it was willing to read the files and it did actually let me chop them into pieces. You need double the disk space, though, since you have to "export" the pieces, which in any other software would be known as "save as", so you wind up with two copies. But still.

The point of all this, I suppose, is that while the movie studios are busy convincing Orrin Hatch that we're going to do to them what the RIAA thinks we've done to the music biz, they really have nothing to worry about. As things are, it's all just much too hard to use.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).