BitTorrent, XviD, UnRarX, iDVD

Recently missed the season finale of a favorite TV show due to a Tivo screw-up. None of my friends had a copy of the show, so decided it was time to figure out what most 17-year-olds already know: Everything is on BitTorrent. Unsurprisingly, found that the BitTorrent world is somewhat biased towards Windows users, and that usage instructions don’t come with downloads. With a bit of research and experimentation, I was able to pull all the pieces together to download, decode, and burn the show to disc from the Mac. Decided to post notes here to save other 40-somethings the pain of figuring all of this stuff out.

The first part is a no-brainer: You’ll need a copy of the BitTorrent download client for the Mac. Next you’ll need to find a .torrent file for the show you want to watch. These aren’t hard to find with a bit of Googling — I found what I needed on torrentspy.com. The downloaded BitTorrent file will launch in the BitTorrent client, find peers on the network, and make you a peer as well.

Once completed, the torrent archive will decompress. The contents of the archive may or may not be usable on the Mac. I found that my TV show download decompressed into 48 separate 15MB untyped files that the Mac had no idea what to do with. There was no readme in the archive, and no clues as to what to do with them. A bit more research… ah, this is a .rar archive, something I remembered from the old pre-Web BBS days. Had no idea .rar was still in use. So the next step was to find a .rar handler for the Mac – UnRarX did the trick.

Launched UnRarX and dragged the first of the sequentially numbered files from the decompressed torrent archive onto it. UnRarX then concatenated the 48 included files into a single AVI file, which it deposited in the same folder. Back in the BBS days, this method made sense because so much was floppy-based — we used to spread a download among dozens of .rar files to get around the 1.44MB floppy limit. But in this massive-single-download environment, the logic of using .rar eludes me — lingering vestiges of the cracker mindset, probably. There’s no reason I can think of why a simple tarball or .zip wouldn’t work just as well.

Because I had been scanning the .torrent boards, I knew in advance that the final AVI was probably going to need the XviD codec in order to be playable (“XviD is an open-source ISO MPEG-4 compliant video codec”). I found an XviD “delegate” plugin for QuickTime here, which passes the job of decoding XviD streams to the DivX decoder. So in order to use it, you first need to install the DivX plugin for QuickTime, then XviD. Yeesh. The DivX codec is packaged as an installer. Installation instructions for XviD are on its website.

Amazingly, the downloaded, un-rar’d, concatenated, delegated, plugged-in AVI file came up neatly in QuickTime, played smoothly, and had surprisingly good quality. Now all that remained was to get the sucker onto DVD so I could take it to the living room for viewing (I’m not the “watch a whole movie on the computer” type). iDVD created a beautiful DVD, which played flawlessly. But iDVD’s process of re-encoding the two-hour show to MPEG-2 (which is what DVDs use) took around 4.5 hours of 75% CPU usage on a G5 iMac. You’ll probably want to do this overnight. Because the re-encoding took so long, I re-evaluated the couch potato philosophy. Next time I’ll dim the lights in the office, bring in a hassock, and just watch it from the captain’s chair, skipping the DVD step.

Don’t know if this is true of most BitTorrent streams, but was jazzed to find that whoever posted the show had already edited out the commercials, so I didn’t even have to FF through them manually. Modern luxury.

Music: Seu Jorge :: Na madrugada

20 Replies to “BitTorrent, XviD, UnRarX, iDVD”

  1. We have our own version of BitTorrent here. It’s a lot less tedious, uses no bandwidth at all, consumes zero CPU cycles, takes lesser steps, and costs about $2.5 per movie :

    1. Read about the worldwide release of Revenge of the Sith.
    2. Wait two days. Do something useful.
    3. Get on motorbike, drive 5 minutes to first CD/DVD shop.
    4. Buy a near-perfect copy of RotS DVD, including plastic casing with inserts.
    5. Insert DVD in DVD player. See Darth Vader. Enjoy.
    6. Switch on English subtitles – have a laugh.

    :-)

  2. You got myself a SCART plug for my TV, which has tulp inputs for audio-left/right and composite. Then:
    * Plug the (included) S-Video to composite convertor into my PowerBook
    * Plug jack-to-tulp cable into headphone outlet
    * get MacOS to detect the TV as a monitor
    * Change to the best looking resolution and set color to “PAL/SECAM” (Probably you need NTSC)
    * Start up a copy of the VLC movie player.
    * Set output screen to “screen 2” (I.e. the TV)
    * Go full screen and press play.

    Work wonderfully well. I have no idea if the iMac has a video-out, but this trick works for me. I watch tons of stuff that way.

    Even better, there are gizmos out there which allow you to beam a video signal from one part of the house to another wirelessly. It uses the same spectrum as WiFi, so some tweaking might be in order…also don’t turn on the microwave while watching :-).

  3. People use RAR still because the source of most of these torrent downloads is still USENET… I’ve actually retreated to using USENET to download shows as the torrent site crackdowns has made it really difficult for me to find the shows I want… :)

  4. Back in the BBS days, this method made sense because so much was floppy-based — we used to spread a download among dozens of .rar files to get around the 1.44MB floppy limit. But in this massive-single-download environment, the logic of using .rar eludes me — lingering vestiges of the cracker mindset, probably. There’s no reason I can think of why a simple tarball or .zip wouldn’t work just as well.

    I should clarify my previous comment… :)

    People use split RAR files because most of these files come from USENET first (alt.binaries.tv or alt.binaries.multimedia). People are often in too much of a rush to get the torrent “out there” to reassemble the archive and provide it as one file…

    RAR is a bit more efficient of a compression algorithm, which is why people use it over ZIP or tarballs… I also gather that RAR’s file-splitting is a bit more robust..

    I use VLC or MPlayerX to watch the files on my powerbook, which removes the need to muck about with any Codecs… And yes, I’ve never downloaded a show that still had the commercials in it.. What’s even better is that the downloaded show will almost always be sourced from HDTV, when available, so it looks great…

  5. Tao – tulp/scart? These are unfamiliar to me. A bit of Googling… these seem to be European-only connectors. So Euro TVs have scart connectors on the back? Of course, I don’t have a PowerBook, so I’d have to hassle with taking the iMac into the living room (shutdown, disconnect all cables, find a place to put it, connect cables…) each time I wanted to watch a missed show, which hardly seems worth the trouble. No S-Video output on the iMac either, so it’s kind of moot. Although if I was going to go the trouble of moving it to the LR for viewing, may as well just play it on the 21″ iMac screen and just do audio out to the hi-fi.

    Sean, thanks for pointing out the usenet aspect, I hadn’t thought of that. Actually, I think cnet had an article recently on the resurgence of usenet binary traffic since the recent BitTorrent crackdown.

    Interesting that Xine and VLC already include obscure codecs like XviD. Handy.

  6. Thanks Scot. Having last week received my first iMac ever (new 20″ G5), I discovered bittorrent for mac pretty quickly cos I missed the new Dr Who show.

    I’ll be following your tips though to get the quicktime player working. Don’t really like mplayer and vlc locks up sometimes.

    My screen is far bigger than my TV (only 13″). So it’s a no brainer making the choice of where to watch the show.

    BUT, thanks to Apple’s strong region locking, I can’t watch ANY of my region 1 DVDs anymore (I bought them way back when Australia didn’t sell DVDs – or at least, hardly any were available which I wanted to watch!)

  7. Kristan –

    You should be able to use one of the open source players, like VLC (www.videolan.org/vlc) to play your region 1 DVDs.

  8. Scot –

    Another recommendation: I have a Phillips DVP-642 DVD player.. I picked it up a Target awhile ago for like 50 bucks, and it can play Divx files natively… I feel guilty about that purchase, though, because I *should* be able to make my Tivo play those files, but I can’t.. :)

    I have been thinking more and more about replacing my Tivo with an open-source alternative, like MythTV…

  9. mnep – Azureus is *nice*! Thanks for that.

    Sean – This happens so rarely (missed TV show that I actually care about) that I’m in no rush to replace the DVD player, although the idea of a player that can play DivX natively is pretty attractive. To clarify – I generally watch 2-4 hours of TV per week. Don’t mean to give the impression that we’re TV junkies. This was a fairly rare situation.

    Is there no subscription fee for MythTV?

    I’m kind of amazed at how much expertise came out of the woodworks from Birdhouse readers on this topic. Makes me think the whole practice of downloading TV to the computer is far more widespread than I thought. Or are you just a bunch of raving geeks? :)

    I’m curious now – do you guys download TV shows only in situations like mine, where you missed something crucial? Or do you do it on a regular basis, as a way of getting around paying a cable bill? What I mean is, is TV downloading a lifestyle? Seems like a lot of work to watch a TV show – not something I’d want to do on a regular basis.

  10. Scot – MythTV currently has some deal with Zap2It that lets it’s users get free listings if they agree to fill out some surveys… I guess MythTV has recently partnered with some commercial venture to provide listing services for a fee…

    I download shows in three cases:

    When a show I want to see conflicts with something that I’m already recording (Corinna watched American Idol which conflicted with Lost, which I got hooked on, so I downloaded Lost)
    Tivo gets wonky for some reason and misses something. This is pretty rare
    Show I want to watch is on some premium channel I’m to cheap to get (I pay for HBO, but Penn & Teller: Bullshit is on Showtime… I can justify HBO for Sopranos, Deadwood, Six Feet Under, etc, but Showtime only has the one show I’m interested in)

    I have been considering forgoing more pay tv and downloading shows instead… I was moving towards this using the RSS Importer plugin for Azureus:

    http://www.livejournal.com/users/grahams/549906.html

    I had that plugin set up to monitor the btefnet.com rss feed for the shows I wanted (specified with regexes) and they would automatically be downloaded when new episodes appeared on the feed. Now that btefnet has been shut down, I haven’t found a suitable RSS replacement (most of the sites have rss feeds, but they update the feeds with links to their own pages, not links directly to the torrents that the plugin can use).

    The shows I’ve been regularly downloading lately are: Penn & Teller, Lost, Doctor Who (2005), and this weekend I downloaded the first two seasons of 24.

  11. Any concern about the legality of downloading copyrighted TV shows and movies using Bit Torrent? According to news reports, the MPAA has shut down a number of Torrent sites and may soon begin cataloging IP addresses and suing individual users a la the RIAA.

  12. DJD – I don’t see how it would be illegal to download a copy of something that’s distributed for free over the airwaves. However, the situation would be different with cable TV shows. In that case, the issue isn’t copyright on the material itself, but the fact that you’re bypassing a subscription model.

    There is another interesting issue specific to BitTorrent and other P2P networks though. While it may be OK to download something that’s distributed free, it’s NOT OK to re-publish that content — to make it available to others. With most P2P software, you have the option of “leeching” — that is, downloading without offering content for upload. Leeching may not make you a good citizen on the P2P network, but it does get you around the copyright problem, since when you’re leeching you’re not re-publishing. But with BitTorrent, there is no way disable your participation in the network. As soon as you start downloading, you are simultaneously offering that same content to others – that is, you’re re-publishing copyrighted works.

    So, yes, I think that the MPAA/RIAA would have good legal ground to go after participants in the BitTorrent network.

  13. Sean, that RSS plugin for Azureus is pretty cool. With that kind of automation, you almost can imagine bypassing the cable bill (we don’t currently have cable, so it could be a good way to just download certain shows.

  14. Scot,

    I download shows that I’ve missed and that I can’t see here in Canada. Mostly British sitcoms like “Spaced,” “Blacks Books,” and “The League of Gentlemen.” The last one is particularly twisted: their Xmas special was inspired by their three favourite horror film sub-genres.

    Some shows, like the Sopranos, don’t air here in western Canada the same time they do in the US. The Sopranos is two seasons behind here. I could get the Sopranos if I shelled out for several more tiers of cable access (another $50-$75/month, I think). If it’s available on DVD, I usually rent it instead of downloading it.

  15. Scot,

    I’ve only downloaded shows when I’ve missed them. Don’t watch TV much anyway these days – there’s always a better option (talk with people or read a book or walk on the beach, etc).

    Sean,

    I tried vlc… it didn’t work… didn’t even like reading my DVDs… just gave odd errors. Could be due to the new iMac – is there some extra h/w thing going on blocking my reading of them? I even tried MacTheRipper to decode to all regions and it still wouldn’t play…

  16. While home for Memorial Day weekend, I picked up an AlchemyTV DVR (PCI) for $100 (in the package and new) on the Apple Deals table at the HugeDale Apple Store (I also got some brand new Etymotic i6 headphones for my ipod for a cool $99 on the table too). This seems like a really good solution. You can use either iCal or Titan TV to schedule the thing and you can output to any quicktime supported format which for me will be H.264, later to be burned to DVD or video CD if necessary. There is an s-video jack in the back but it may be in, not out. I would have to check. That of course is the only prob with DVRs like this one: you need to burn the output to disc to view it on your TV.

  17. Wow, thanks a lot for your tutorial. You are absolutely correct in that the whole system is set up by Windows users unless you know where to look.

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