Tuesday, August 17, 2010

5 Tips and Tricks: USB Video on the Roku

One of the big selling points for the XR version of the Roku is the addition of a USB port. And although there’s no official Roku support for USB video playback yet, there is a private USB channel available thanks to citizen-coder Nowhereman. (Submit your own channel in Roku’s developer contest by September 7th.) The channel is easy enough to set up with Nowhereman’s detailed instructions, but there are some quirks to watch for. If you want to try it out, arm yourself with a few tips and tricks first:

1. Be prepared to convert video files for playback on the Roku, as the USB channel only supports MP4 video (plus MP3 audio, and PNG and JPG photos). Luckily, you can grab transcoding software for free off the Web. Try downloading the open-source HandBrake transcoder if you need format conversion.
2. You can use a USB flash drive with the Roku’s port, but it likely won’t work if you try to hook up your 500 GB Western Digital external drive. Rule of thumb: if it needs to plug into the wall, it probably won’t work with the USB channel.
3. Frame rate matters. Encode your video files at 29.97 frames per second rather than the standard 30 fps. Otherwise, be prepared for a lot of buffering.
4. Bit rate matters. Encoding at a bit rate that’s too low will create blockiness in playback, particularly with action scenes. Start with a rate of 2.5 Megabits per second. The trade-off in file size is worth it.
5. Get a bigger USB drive. It’s amazing how much space a movie can take up when you’re encoding at 2.5 Mbps. Luckily, thumb drives are pretty cheap these days. You can grab a 16 GB drive for a measly $25 or $30 on Amazon.