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September, 2010

  1. Action and Adventure: Trying to play a movie on the COBY MP600-4G

    September 27, 2010 by Ryan

    I’ve enjoyed the COBY MP600-4G MP3 player (that I received as a reward for collecting bottle caps from My Coke Rewards). It has been a very good little MP3 player for me, but the time had come to figure out how to transfer a movie onto it.

    The Project

    My specific goal was to convert Disney’s The Princess and the Frog from DVD to the COBY player. To quote Lewis from the movie, “Oh, I tried once. It didn’t end well.” Also, whether or not this is legal per copyright laws, I’ll save for a discussion on another day. For now, I’ll just say that I did purchase the DVD, I intend only to use the copy for my own personal use, and my conscience doesn’t bother me.

    The Equipment

    My computer is running Windows XP Service Pack 3, with 2 Gig RAM, and an Intel 2.66 Ghz Core 2 Duo processor. I’m also using the Sony DRU-500A DVD rewriteable drive. All “older” equipment, but still very functional.

    For playback of videos on the computer, I have installed K-Lite Mega Codec Pack (current version is 6.40). You may or may not need this, but I thought I’d mention it because I do have it installed and it is possible that the codecs it provides (software that decodes and plays back various audio and video formats) may have unknowingly helped the process behind-the-scenes. If you do not have this free program already, I highly recommend it anyway.

    My COBY player is the model COBY MP600-4G. My instructions and testing will probably be the same for the MP600-2G model (which is identical except for the amount of memory). Your mileage with other models may vary.

    Get Ripped-Off

    My first task was to “rip” the movie from the disc and into a file on the hard drive. Music CDs are very easy to rip, but DVDs can be a lot trickier due to copy protection mechanisms that the studios place on the discs.

    The Anatomy of a DVD: If you place a DVD into a computer drive and browse the contents, you will find that there are two folders (AUDIO_TS and VIDEO_TS). Typically, the AUDIO_TS is empty and unneeded (at least, I have never found a use for it). The VIDEO_TS then is the main folder to deal with. In this folder you will find files that end in .INO, .BUP, and (most importantly) .VOB. The files are encoded in a way that, if you attempt to simply copy the files from this folder onto your drive, the copied movie will usually not play correctly.

    In order to make a copy, you must use a decoder program. The decoder will essentially simulate the playback the movie, interpret the video and audio data, create a new version of the files. This idea is not really much different than actually playing a DVD. When you play a movie, your DVD drive reads the information, decodes it, and sends the picture and audio signal to the television. In this case, that picture and audio data are instead being saved in another file on the hard drive, along the way removing any special commands that the DVD disc has established.

    Another problem with commercial DVDs is that they may contain up to 9 GB (gigabytes) of data, while DVDs burned at home are typically 4.3 GB. Often, the structure of the DVD has the movie as the largest portion, then the individual scenes are duplicated again; plus menus, bonus features, previews, FBI warning, etc. that I don’t need. In the process of ripping the movie, I’m interested in only ripping the movie and stripping the rest out.

    My long-time program of choice for DVD ripping / copying has been DVD Shrink (version 3.4). Although it has not been updated for many years, it is still a very good program – so long as your DVD does not come with newer copy-protection methods. In the case of The Princess and the Frog, I received the error “Cyclic Redundancy Check” which brought a halt to the process. As far as I can tell, copy protection on this DVD is designed to create an intentional mathematical calculation overflow problem when you attempt to straight copy, or also when DVD Shrink tried to read the file structure.

    To get around this problem, my online searching lead to a program called DVDFab. I loaded it on with its 30-day trial, and found it was able to rip my DVD effortlessly. In fact, I found it much easier to use than DVD Shrink, and more versatile. I’m still trying to decide if it is worth $50 to me, but I do still have a few more days left to make that decision. Supposedly the “HD Decrypter” feature of the program can be used for free without expiration, but I have not yet figured out how to work that in conjunction with DVD Shrink.

    40 minutes later and DVDFab ripped the main movie to my hard drive (sans menus, bonus features, language tracks, subtitles, etc.). I now moved to my next challenge – converting it to the right format for the COBY player.

    Resolution: Can You Picture That?

    I glanced over the spec sheet (http://www.cobyusa.com/files/specsheets/MP600_SP.pdf) and learned two things that might come in handy: My Coby player has a display resolution of 128 x 128 pixels, and likes a video format called “MTV.”

    Resolved: let’s talk about resolution: Pixels are dots wide and tall on your screen. In the United States, a traditional “square” standard definition television is 720-pixels-wide by 480-pixels-tall. That is, from top-to-bottom there are 480 rows of dots, and from left-to-right are 720 dots that, when individually changed to different colors, make up the picture (HDTV is obviously bigger, but since I’m dealing with DVD and not BluRay I won’t go into that discussion today). The proportional relationship of the DVD movie (720×480) compared to the size of the portable player screen (128×128) sets up a complication. The best news here is that the size of the file for the portable movie will be considerably smaller than the DVD file size (in this case, my ripped DVD movie comprised five .vob files totaling 4.3 gig, which would be bigger than the total 4 gig memory of the portable player). On the width measurement, dropping 720 pixels down to 128 pixels is a reduction of 563%. The file size should also reduce about as much, because it can drop much of the picture information. The downside to this: because a TV is not square (slightly wider than it is taller), and the screen on the COBY player is truly square, the height will have to be reduced to less than the player is capable of displaying, or else the picture will look tall and out of proportion. In this case, to keep the ratio correct, the height will be 96 pixels and those famous letter-box black bars will appear on the top and bottom of the already small movie window.

    My next issue is that I’ve never heard of an MTV format (a cable television network, yes; a video file format, no). I installed the Coby Media Manager and looked at the User’s Guide documentation (June 2009 edition). I found it lacking any real useful information. About all I got out of it was that it supports “movies and other video files.”

    So, it was back to Google for help.

    http://mympx.org/forum led me to a download the converter software for COBY players. They had two versions available (1.12 and 2.9), so I tried the newer version (2.9) and installed it (actually, in this case, there was no install – just uncompressed the files and ran the executable program). For the video source, I browsed to my ripped files on the hard drive, and selected the first alphabetical .VOB file there. Unfortunately, I was greeted by an error message (Load Video Failed). That their program would not read .VOB files directly did not really surprise me – I’ve found that very few programs will read DVD Format .VOB files directly.

    Somewhere in all of my Interet searching, someone suggested that the MTV format was just an offshoot of an AVI format, and if I could convert my video into an AVI format, I could then sync it to the player using the Coby Media Manager. It was worth a shot, so I downloaded the latest version of Any Video Converter (AVC) Free. I clicked Add Video, and added all 5 of my VOB files from the ripped hard drive copy.

    For my first experiment, I chose the following settings in Any Video Converter:

    – In the Profile menu (top-right corner,) I chose “Customized MP4 Movie”

    – I selected all five .vob files and from the Edit menu, choose “Merge Output”

    – For the Framesize options (bottom-right), I chose 15 (as I’d seen numerous recommendations to do so in my browsing)- For the Video Framerate, I manually typed in 128×96

    – From the File menu, I selected the output folder where I’d like my final file to be saved.

    – Then I clicked Convert, crossed my fingers, and waited.

    The result of experiment number 1: It produced a nice 234 megabyte file. I played it on my computer, and it looked like a very tiny little movie – but played well and sounded good on the computer speakers.

    Next, I made my attempt to get this movie onto my player. Again, in all of my Internet research, people suggested that you cannot drag and drop movies into the “Movie” folder on the device (as you can with Music or Photo). So I opened the Coby Media Manager (version 2009b0703). I chose Video, and found my movie. I right-clicked the file, and chose Synchronize. It began counting down various percentages and progress meters until it appeared to be finished. That honestly made me a little nervous – I hoped that the Coby program would not need to convert anything. I’d already ran a conversion, and if that format was acceptable, there should have been no need to convert it again.

    Now came the test… I played it on the Coby device. The video was now upside-down and mirror imaged, and the sound was decent but had a bit of a “tinny echo” especially on the high registers – though it did play. This was far better than the results I’d seen a lot of online forum posters have, and it might be good enough for my daughter to watch on her next airplane ride. But being this close to success, I was determined to try again and see if I could find a better format.

    Experiment Number 2

    Back to Any Video Converter, I tried these settings:

    – In the Profile menu I chose “Customized AVI file”

    – From the Edit menu, I kept the “Merge Output” setting

    – For the Framesize options (bottom-right), I chose 15

    – For the Video Framerate, I manually typed in 128×96

    This file was smaller (193 MB) and again played back very nicely on the computer.

    As Colby Media Manager performed its sync, those bad-omen progress meters appeared again (transforming percent and copying percent) appeared, and I discovered that when it was done, the file on my player had a different file ending (.AMV) and a different file size (171 MB). Most importantly, again the video was upside down and mirrored, and the sound tinny and popping.

    Experiment Number 3

    Just for fun, using Windows Explorer I dragged-and-dropped (copied) the AVI file directly into the movie folder. I pressed play on the player and read “Format Error” centered nicely on my screen. End of Experiment 3; the online people were right.

    Experiment Number 4

    I took that AVI file, and opened the MTV Video Converter 1.12. I selected the settings, and clicked convert. It ran through its percentage meter, and produced a file that ended in .MTV. I opened the COBY Media Manager, but that program could not see (or did not recognize) an .MTV file. I attempted a direct copy of the file to the COBY device, but it also could not see any valid files.

    At this point, I’m running out of ideas and my confidence is beginning to tank.

    Experiment Number 5

    I took a step back and went to DVDFab again. In the DVD Ripper section, it has an option to convert directly from DVD to AVI. I selected the source as the already-ripped movie on the hard disc. Then I got lost in output settings.

    I started off with the “Generic.AVI.dvix.audiocopy” setting, and edited the options. I chose a framerate of 15 fps (frames per second) and a frame resolution of 128×72. Then I noticed the Video Effect Settings button and clicked inside. I created a customized size of 128×128, and was impressed with the instant preview showing me how this would look in letterbox format. Further, I clicked the Crop tab and saw that I could change the selection from letter-box to pan-and-scan, which would eliminate the black bars but would chop off the extreme left and right sides of the picture. I decided to go with this option and see what I could do.

    After this conversion, Coby Media Manager also wanted to transform it and then sync it. And the result… same audio issues, and this time the video switched the black bars to the left and right sides, elongating the picture tall.

    So far then, my first experiment was still the best one, and still left lacking.

    Experiment 6

    I went back to DVDFab, and switched up the settings this way: I chose avi.h264.mp3, again at 15 fps and a custom size of 128×128, but no cropping this time. This conversion took about 10 minutes, and created 3 files (.avi, .idx, and .sub) totaling 66 mb. I especially like the small file size, if this works. Playback on the computer looked great. I synced it with Coby Media Manager, which took about 2 minutes of “transforming” and another 2 minutes for copying. Playback on the COBY was again mirror imaged and decent but tinny sound.

    I Surrender

    I started to wonder if my diy project was worth the trouble?

    No matter if I do eventually find the right format, I know this: I will still end up with a very tiny picture on a 1 inch screen, and imperfect sound quality. I would certainly not try to watch a movie I’ve never seen before – this screen is just too small to enjoy it. I’d have to be in it for a listening experience rather than a visual one.

    At this point, I’ve invested several hours of time. 40 minutes to rip the movie. A couple hours worth of time trying to convert file formats here and there. And still not the results I’d hoped for.

    I’m very disappointed with the COBY company for not providing clear instructions. In fact, the only instructions they provided lead me to a file format that the player didn’t recognize. A good rule of business is that consumer products should not frustrate the consumer. In my situation, I didn’t actually pay any money for my device, and I don’t have any serious need to play video on it. This device still works great for Music and FM radio, but I can’t justify much more of my time trying to get the video work.

    If you have stumbled on this article hoping to do the same thing, I hope this helps to put you closer to your goal. If any of my research can help you, I’d be curious to hear it. And if anyone can figure out the magic formula to making the videos work, I’d especially be grateful to know the missing piece to the puzzle. My email address is:
    Email me with questions, thoughts, comments, or suggestions


  2. To Increase Mightily

    September 22, 2010 by Ryan

    There have been some sorrowful things in the news recently. One story particularly struck me. A man who once held great trust in his church and community misused that position of authority, and the results are nothing short of tragic. To satisfy his lust, he left a trail of victims – one whom he had directly hurt and misused, and many whom he indirectly wounded (his wife, children, parents, and family, and members of his congregations and classrooms throughout the years who had trusted his council and judgment).

    I stared for a moment at the photograph of him. He looked like the shell of a man who had self-destructed.

    Even more sorrowful – this story I’ve described could be about more than one individual, in more than one locale. I wonder, “Why is there so much moral decay around us, and why are so many individuals and families, including some in the church, falling victim to it, being tragically scarred by it?” Most days we all find ourselves assaulted by immoral messages of some kind flooding in on us from every angle.

    When Moses had the people assembled, he commanded them, “Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe to do it; that it may be well with thee, and that ye may increase mightily. . . . Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.” I especially like the phrase, “increase mightily.” I wonder just what that promise truly entails.

    Then, emphasizing the command, he told them what to do. “And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes. And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates” (Deuteronomy 6:3-9, emphasis added).

    Even today Jews wear phylacteries, where passages of the law are written on scrolls of parchment and enclosed in tiny boxes. They are bound on the left arm and on the forehead, as an ordinance of remembrance of the Mosaic law, and worn during the morning prayers. What a great physical reminder of keeping that commandment close to their minds.

    Thousands of years later, one of the scribes asked Jesus, “Which is the first commandment of all?” In response, Jesus didn’t issue any new commandment or profound truth. He repeated the same thing, almost word for word, as Moses had said. “Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment” (see Mark 12:28-30).

    In the agony of their private realizations and recognitions of their transgression, most people in trouble end up crying, “What was I thinking?” Well, whatever they were thinking, they weren’t thinking of Christ.

    I think of the disastrous example of King David, and the man from the newspaper, and a close friend from my youth – and the lesson that I take from them all is that it CAN happen to anyone. What am I doing to prevent it from happening to me?

    The only real control in life is self control.

    As members of His church, we pledge every Sunday of our lives to take upon ourselves His name and promise to “always remember him.” So let us work a little harder at remembering Him—especially that He has “borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows . . . , [that] he was bruised for our iniquities . . . ; and with his stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:4-5). Surely it would guide our actions in a dramatic way.

    I quote from Nephi, as recorded in the Book of Mormon, who was weighed down with sorrow. He answered his own cry by saying, “Awake, my soul! No longer droop in sin. Rejoice, O my heart, and give place no more for the enemy of my soul.” (2 Nephi 4:28)

    May the joy of our fidelity to the highest and best within us be ours as we keep our love and our marriages, our society and our souls, as pure as they were meant to be.

    (Some thoughts and lines of text in this posting were heavily borrowed from Elder Jeffrey R. Holland’s April 2010 General Conference “Place No More for the Enemy of My Soul”)


  3. The Koran, Taco Bell, and Right and Wrong

    September 11, 2010 by Ryan

    I’ve been observing the news with interest the past few days, as several stories are intersecting.

    The largest event is the 9th anniversary of the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center. I still remember September 11, 2001 very well. I lived in the Mountain Time Zone, and was preparing to leave for work at about 9:00 am. In the 8:00 am hour, I received a phone call from a computer customer, who asked the computer question, and then incidentally asked me if I’d seen the news yet? I turned on the TV and learned what was happening. I drove to work with the radio playing, and became more and more involved with each moment. I remember that day at work being a very slow day. The few customers that came that day were somber. Confusion were abounding with every individual, as all of the comforts and conveniences each enjoyed and expected to indefinitely into the future were now in doubt. That day, and the days following, was a time when each individual turned to self-introspection. They questioned and clung their core religious beliefs, values, and guiding principles. Many who had none sought them out. For a time, we set aside our differences and stood firmly together as Americans.

    Nine years later, there is still a hole in the ground where the buildings in New York City once stood. In November 2006 I stood by and witnessed it. I remember the taxi driver being reluctant to take us there, when we answered where we wanted to go. To us, as tourists, it was one more attraction to check off on our list. To him, a native, it was a horrible and traumatizing memory. He almost tried to talk us out of it, saying “You don’t want to see ‘da hole.’” – yet he knew he would not talk us out of it. He had driven too many tourists to that place which he never wanted to see again. I especially sensed that when he offered that he would drop us off one block away, and we could walk over. He even agreed to wait for us there and, when we were done looking at ‘da hole,’ he would take us to our next destination.

    Our little group looked it over, and read the plaques and memorials that were setup. It was an accidental plot of sacred ground, in the middle of a bustling city of commerce and excitement. It hadn’t been intended as a sacred resting ground, but in a horrifying instant it was made such by a few who carried extreme religious beliefs.

    Which leads to the second big emotionally-charged event currently in the news… the planned Islamic center and mosque to be build about 2 blocks away from Ground Zero. In the 2001 attacks on the Trade Center, a cultural center and mosque 4 blocks away was damaged. The planners chose, rather than incur the expense of repairing that one, to use another piece of property 2 blocks away and renovate it to create a newer, better center. Plans I’ve seen describe this as a Muslim version of the YMCA – having a 900 seat theatre, athletic / recreation facilities, and room for prayer and worship.

    They meet the zoning requirements, and the facility would serve many good Muslim Americans who work or live in the area. Many Americans have taken it upon themselves to spout-off an opinion against putting a ‘Mosque’ so close to ‘Ground Zero.’ Although I admit that I may be wrong, I am for them building it.

    I belong to a religion commonly known as the Mormons. I think this allows me a unique understanding of how people, in general, are suspicious or fearful of what they don’t understand or believe.

    With every religion, including mine, there are some who take extreme positions. In my faith, there used to be a teaching that some men should marry multiple wives at the same time, under specific circumstances and by instruction from God. The mainstream church discontinued that practice about 120 years ago. But there are some who broke away from the main body, and continue to practice that teaching today. They call themselves “Fundaments Mormons,” but they represent an element that is extreme, fringe, and fanatic. Anyone trying to teach or practice that idea is excommunicated from the mainstream church. To me, on the ‘inside’ of the Mormon church, this makes perfect sense and is not an issue. Those outside the church generally group all people who profess to be Mormons into the so-called ‘Mormon Church,’ without any research or further thought. They form an opinion and move on.

    I think this same kind of thing has happened with the Muslims and the extremist Muslim believers who acted on September 11. I’ve observed that Muslims are fine people; I’ve been told that the Koran teaches good values, and I know that many people around the world have found satisfaction in following its ways. I have not read the Koran, but I’m certain that if I did, I would find many things to agree with in it, because the evidence is that people that follow it are largely good, honest, people; and many of them are fellow Americans.

    Now, I’d hate for someone to hear reports of some extremists who call themselves Mormons going on a terror rampage, and for the entire country to decide that Mormons cannot build anymore churches or temples because of it. And since I can feel that way about the Mormons, I can feel that way about the Muslims too. I am for more places that promote peace, prayer, and fellowship; and I am for them building where they want to build.

    Despite the fact that they might be fully in the right, and comply with all local laws, they won’t back down on their location choice. The only motive I see left in their continued attempt to build on this spot is to intentionally cause pain, heartache, anger, and contention in the hearts of other children of God who believe differently than they do. That, in all of my studies, is not something that Christ taught. I doubt it is something that the Koran even teaches. So perhaps in the name of peace, they ought to seriously consider relocating.

    That leads me to the Dove World Outreach Center in Florida. This little church of 50 followers identifies itself as a Christian group – yet there are many in the country doubting that they are truly founded on the teachings of Jesus Christ. Their pastor has spoken loudly and arrogantly about publicly burning copies of the Koran, the book of scripture which the Muslims hold sacred. Instead of encouraging his flock to read it, the pastor is encouraging them to torch it.

    I can think of nothing good that can possibly come from this. He will teach 50 followers that showing kindness is wrong. He is teaching 50 followers that trying to communicate and understand anyone who believes differently is incorrect. He is projecting an attitude that says ‘I am better than you.’ He also doesn’t seem to mind standing front and center for every microphone and camera that comes nearby.

    Again, I draw from my limited understanding and experience to draw some conclusions. My religion also believes in a book, which the rest of the world does not openly and whole-heartedly accept. I know that many times in the past 180 years, copies of The Book of Mormon have been destroyed in a vindictive manor – usually by those who have not read it and refuse to try to understand it. I expect it will happen many more times in the future. I’m disappointed, but it doesn’t bother me too much beyond that because the book is made of paper and ink. Its contents can be replaced, and its message is still the same.

    The Muslims, however, believe something a little deeper. I’ve been told that they don’t believe a copy of the Koran is simply paper and ink bound together, but that once the message of the Koran is printed on that paper, the book becomes a holy and sacred object. The destruction of that book becomes a tragedy. I remember a news report many years ago about Taco Bell switching to 100% recycled napkins, and Muslims being concerned that a Koran may have been recycled, and become part of a napkin, and now someone is wiping ‘Fire’ sauce from their face with the  sacred pages of scripture. I remember it being a very big concern at the time. They take the sacredness of the physical manuscript seriously.

    Now, if the Dove World Outreach Center is looking to conduct an experiment to find out what happens if you combine paper and fire, I can already tell you the result. The book will burn, there is no question about that. That leaves me to wonder what their true motive is?

    Despite the fact that they might be fully in the right, and comply with all local laws, they won’t back down on their activity. The only motive I see left in their continued attempt to burn the Koran is to intentionally cause pain, heartache, anger, and contention in the hearts of other children of God who believe differently than they do. That, in all of my studies, is not something that Christ taught. I doubt it is something that the Koran even teaches. So perhaps in the name of peace, they ought to seriously consider a different action.

    Isn’t the dove a symbol of peace anyway? And won’t a world outreach involve extending an olive branch rather than a stick on fire?