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Converting movies for Apple TV using Roxio Crunch (an in-depth review)

Want to watch DVDs on Apple TV? On May 8th, Roxio will introduce a new application called Crunch designed specifically to convert a variety of different video formats for use with iPods, Apple TV, and the soon to be released iPhone. Check out how Crunch stacks up against the existing video conversion alternatives in our exclusive 3-page review.

The new Crunch joins Roxio's existing Popcorn 2 product, which already converts various video formats for use on the video iPod. At a list price of $50, Popcorn is identical in price to the new Crunch, but it offers some features that Crunch does not, including the ability to burn backup copies of DVDs and save disk images of DVDs. Popcorn also provides presets for converting videos for use on the Sony Playstation Portable, DivX players, and 3GP mobile phones. Rather than being a replacement or upgrade to Popcorn, Crunch is positioned specifically as a simple, "one button" converter for Apple's devices that sync with with iTunes: the video iPod, Apple TV, and iPhone.

An overview of Crunch

Crunch offers an interface familiar to users of Toast: a single window that serves as a drop target for video files. Drag and drop any video file format natively supported by QuickTime, including DV home movies from a digital camcorder, QuickTime MOV files, or the AVI files common to Windows and some digital camera movie clips, and a single click will convert them into the format used by the Apple TV, and copy them to iTunes for synching.

Crunch can also convert DivX videos, which Roxio refers to as a "non-QuickTime video file format." However, DivX support can actually be added to QuickTime for free by installing the appropriate QuickTime components. One problem for Crunch is that most of the video formats supported by Quicktime natively or via installed components can already be converted for use with video-capable iPods or the Apple TV using iTunes' Advanced > Convert selection for iPod command, or using QuickTime Pro's Export > Movie to Apple TV. However, an Apple tech note Apple TV: What kinds of music and movies can I play on Apple TV? warns:

"If you can't add or play a movie in iTunes or QuickTime Player, then you won't be able to convert it to play on Apple TV. Some examples of movies you can't add or play include 1080p QuickTime files, WMV, AVI, DivX, RealMedia (rm), and Flash format files. Some third-party utilities may be able to convert these types of movies to a format compatible with iTunes and Apple TV."

Despite that warning, support for most AVI, DivX, XviD, unprotected WMV, some RealMedia files can be added to QuickTime using free components including Microsoft's Flip4Mac, DivX, XviD, and open source projects including the free Perian. Once the appropriate components are installed, any QuickTime application should be able to open the files and export them to any other supported format, including the standard QuickTime presets designed for the video iPod and Apple TV.

Roxio Crunch

In some cases, iTunes will not allow users to add file types it does not recognize, even when QuickTime will play them. Those files must be opened in QuickTime Pro or some another QuickTime application with the ability to export files. QuickTime Pro is a $30 paid upgrade from Apple; it does not actually add new functionality to QuickTime, it only unlocks features in the QuickTime player application itself.

Crunching DVDs

If all these conversions can be done for free, where does that leave Crunch? The product's main focus is accomplishing a task QuickTime can not do: convert DVDs for playback on Apple TV. (see: Apple TV: Using DVDs and other Video Sources.) Because of DVD licensing and DRM restrictions, commercial applications can not legally rip DVD movies. Neither iTunes nor QuickTime offers any ability to read a DVD movie and convert it for use on the Apple TV or iPods. How does Crunch manage to do this?

Actually it does not. While the product seems to be targeted specifically at converting DVD movies for use with the Apple TV, it can only convert unencrypted DVDs. That rules out all commercial DVD movies, which are all encrypted with the CSS DRM used by DVD players and held a closely guarded secret by the DVD Consortium. All commercial software that can play DVDs, including Apple's DVD Player in Mac OS X, are expressly forbidden by the DVD licensing agreement from allowing any type of conversion or export.

In order to use Crunch to convert DVD movies, users will need to first break the encryption themselves, using a free, open source tool such as MactheRipper or HandBrake. These utilities remove the CSS encryption from DVDs, allowing users to save an unencrypted version of the DVD to their hard drive. While Crunch does not do this itself (it would be a problematic legal issue for Roxio to offer such a tool commercially), it can take a ripped version of a DVD and convert it for use on Apple TV.

However, if users have to obtain a free tool like HandBrake to rip their DVDs, why not use HandBrake itself to finish the conversion? That's another problem Crunch faces: everything it does for DVDs can be done for free using other tools. The question for consumers contemplating Crunch is: does Crunch do a better job at converting video, or does it offer a simpler, cleaner interface that is easier to use? If it does, its $50 price tag may be well worth the quality gained and the time saved.

The Crunch Interface

Crunch does offer a simple interface, particular to users already familiar with Toast. A drawer exposes four video source inputs, allowing users to select from an (unencrypted) DVD disc, a disc image file, a Video_TS folder (from a DVD stripped of encryption and ripped to the hard drive by another application), or individual video files, including DivX movies, AVIs, or other QuickTime compatible files.

Roxio Crunch

If a user attempts to convert a standard DVD movie, they are presented with a warning that states "The disc you have inserted is CSS encrypted and cannot be copied by Popcorn. If you are online now, click 'More Info' for more information about CSS encrypted discs." Clicking more info simply takes the user to Roxio's website, where they would have to search for CSS information on their own. In searching, I could not find anything on the Roxio site that would explain this situation to users who buy Crunch specifically to get their DVDs to work on Apple TV. It's also confusing for Crunch to refer to itself as Popcorn, and indicates that Crunch is simply a subset version of Popcorn with a couple of new presets which Roxio hopes to sell for $50.

Roxio Crunch

Crunch Quality

Crunch is a QuickTime application, and relies upon QuickTime to do the majority of its heavy lifting, although rather than using a QuickTime component for DivX and MPEG-2, it supplies its own code to handle conversion of those types.

Because the output MPEG-4 H.264 conversions Crunch performs are actually done using QuickTime, it can't provide any boost in quality or speed over using iTunes or QuickTime Pro itself to convert files for the Apple TV. Alternative applications, including HandBrake and other open source utilities, do bypass QuickTime to use different video processing libraries that may offer either higher quality settings, faster encoding, or at least more control over how the conversion will be done. When converting for Apple TV, HandBrake uses the open source x264 or FFmpeg libraries rather than QuickTime, for example.

That means Crunch's only real, potential benefit over other QuickTime based applications is in its user interface. How well does the Crunch interface work in real world conversions? The product aims at solving two basic problems for users: converting DVDs from disc, and converting assorted video files.

On page two: Using Crunch to convert DVD movies.