Computer-based video is everywhere nowadays. You can get it from your video camera and your digital camera, you can create your own movies using iMovie or other multimedia apps, and the Internet is a veritable cornucopia of clips. Which is great news for owners of fifth-generation iPods, since you’ve got so many places to get stuff for your spiffy portable movie player.
The problem, as many iPod owners have discovered, is that much of that content won’t play on the iPod—the iPod’s software supports only a small range of video formats, mainly variants of H.264 and MPEG-4, while the world has decided that there should be myriad video formats, none of them universally compatible. iTunes can convert some formats into iPod-compatible versions, as can QuickTime Pro, but the former’s support is quite limited and the latter costs $30 (not to mention that the performance of both leaves a lot to be desired).
If you’re going to spend money for video conversion, consider instead Techspansion’s $23 VisualHub 1.17 ( ), which offers support for a larger variety of video formats and is both easier to use for basic conversion while offering a greater number of advanced options—a rare combination.
The first time you launch VisualHub, you’ll be prompted to download a few additional video-conversion libraries. (This is necessary because of licensing restrictions that differ from place to place around the world.) The download and installation process takes only a minute or so via a broadband Internet connection and is automatic; if you prefer to install manually, you have the option.
VisualHub’s interface is very simple for basic conversion. First you drag your source video—in nearly any format—into the main window; it will appear in the file list. Then you choose the device on which you intend to play the movie; for iPod conversion, click the iPod tab. Finally, you choose your conversion preferences. For iPod conversion, you can choose to optimize the video for playback on the iPod (320 by 240 pixels) or on a TV (640 by 480 pixels, a resolution unsupported by many other iPod-video-conversion utilities); whether to use standard MPEG-4 or higher-quality H.264 encoding; and the overall quality of the resulting movie, from Tiny to Go Nuts. (Quality is inversely proportional to file size; for example, Go Nuts takes over five times as much space as Standard.)
Click Start and VisualHub will do its thing, displaying its progress at the bottom of the window. Depending on the options you’ve chose, VisualHub can also automatically add the resulting movie to iTunes for transfer to your iPod.
As an example of VisualHub’s performance, I had a 5.8GB, 1 hour 49 minute, AVI version of a movie that I wanted to convert for iPod viewing. QuickTime Player (the Pro version) failed to convert the file after a long time trying, citing an error, even though I had installed plug-ins for AVI support. From past experience, I can tell you that it takes as long as an hour for QuickTime Player to convert similar-sized MPEG videos to iPod format. VisualHub, on the other hand, successfully converted the AVI down to an 87MB iPod-compatible MPEG movie (using the Standard-quality setting) in less than 8 minutes! To convert the same AVI to the higher-quality H.264 format, which takes significantly longer via QuickTime Pro, took under 11 minutes using VisualHub; the resulting video was only 72MB in size. Finally, using H.264 with the “Optimize for TV” setting at High quality took 22 minutes and 40 seconds and produced a 204-MB video file. (All tests were performed on a 2.66GHz Mac Pro; slower Macs will of course take longer; however, performance is excellent on all Intel- and G5-based models.)
According to Techpansion, VisualHub won’t rip your commercial DVDs to iPod format; to do that you’ll need the free HandBrake or HandBrake Lite. That said, I tried a couple of my own commercial DVDs, and surprisingly, VisualHub converted them just fine. Your mileage may vary.
If you drag multiple video files into the file list, VisualHub will automatically convert them all with one click, so you don’t have to repeat the process for each. Another cool feature, Stitch Videos Together, automates the process of combining several video clips into a single video. In fact, VisualHub will even combine MPEG-4 clips, something QuickTime Pro can’t currently do.
But VisualHub isn’t just for converting video for the iPod. It also lets you convert video specifically for playback on Sony’s PSP, as well as to DV, DVD, AVI, MP4, WMV, MPEG, and Flash formats. (MP4 or MPEG are good for watching movies on your Mac, and there are even options for HD video, Wii-compatible video, and TiVo-supported MPEG profiles for sharing video from your Mac to your TiVo.) To do so, you simply click the desired format tab at the top of the VisualHub window and then choose your preferred settings. These various modes each include helpful extras; for example, if you choose PSP format, VisualHub formats the video for the PSP’s screen and, if you choose your PSP’s memory card as the destination, automatically names the resulting file using the special format needed by the PSP and places the movie in the correct folder on the memory card. (Well, that’s the theory, at least; for some reason, the files were named properly but weren’t put in the correct folder. However, they played fine once I moved them manually.) And DVD mode gives you the option to burn your converted video—up to 18 hours of it—to a DVD playable in standard DVD players.
Finally, VisualHub offers a number of advanced settings. The appropriately-named Advanced button brings up a dialog that lets you fine-tune each conversion type and format. As the window warns—“Don’t! You’ll screw it all up!”—you should be careful what you change here; however, there are a number of useful tweaks you can make. For example, you can reduce or amplify the audio track of the resulting video; enable two-pass encoding, which results in higher-quality video; crop video to better fit different playback devices (or to remove edge scan lines that result from some tape-to-digital transfers); and add automatic chapters on burned video DVDs. You can even view a live preview of the what the resulting video will look like. And if you’re doing batch encoding with an Xgrid, VisualHub can send a different video to each machine—and can even use each processor on a single machine for a separate video. (I didn’t test these Xgrid features.)
VisualHub includes an excellent manual that explains each type of conversion and its respective settings, as well as ways to go beyond even the advanced settings to tweak your video conversions.
Besides the PSP-folder glitch, the only other problem I experienced with VisualHub was an AppleScript error when I tried to use the Preview feature from the advanced-settings screen. However, this error didn’t in any way affect the conversion process or even the settings I was changing. I also wish VisualHub could convert VIDEO_TS folders (local versions of DVD movies). But if you spend time converting video files between formats, VisualHub is a must–have.
(If all you need is basic video-to-iPod conversion, check out the company’s free iSquint.)
VisualHub 1.17 requires Mac OS X 10.3.9 or higher and is a Universal Binary.