PopCorn and VisualHub Redux

This week, I was motivated to download a bunch of video into my iTunes library encoded in a form compatible for the iPod, but optimized for TV.

As mentioned recently, I picked up a copy of Visual Hub and had previously purchased Popcorn 2.0.

After using both packages for a bit — mostly because one or the other would occasionally barf on a bit of content or had a bug that prevented a particular workflow from working — I have concluded that there is certainly an opportunity in the Mac market for someone successfully sell a bunch of copies of a video encoding app.

For both apps, the path of least surprise and generally acceptable results is to use the basic user interface to select a target format and dial in a quality setting using the rather vague selections offered in either program.

When selecting iPod, Popcorn offers “Standard”, “High” and “For TV” quality settings. Can you guess which of “High” or “For TV” is better quality? … or if “For TV” indicates whether or not it is still iPod compatible? “For TV” is the best “standard” setting and it will still work on an iPod.

Don’t even bother trying to use the custom settings in Popcorn. The user interface and workflow is such that you will constantly find yourself hitting some random button or popup that resets all the custom settings that you just entered! Doh!

Visual Hub is only slightly better in this regard. You first select iPod and then there is a radio button for optimizing the rendering for iPod or TV — no direct indication of compatibility, but the tooltips are excellent. There is a generic slider that ranges from “Tiny” to “Standard” to “Go Nuts!” that apparently controls a number of a parameters that ultimately results in a smaller, lower quality result or a larger, higher quality result.

Now, oddly, you would think that you could adjust the slider to some particular setting, then hit the “Advanced” button to have Visual Hub show whatever specific settings it has selected in the advanced pane.

Nope. Doesn’t do that. The advanced pane, while it does have the ability to save/load settings, always starts out with all fields set to zero (though that is often invalid).


Popcorn‘s UI is aesthetically useless. That is, the visual design is modeled after the venerable Toast and UI elements are often rendered largely useless for the benefit of presentation (the target size quarter round, for example).

When it works, it works well enough. Slowly, but it does work. When it doesn’t work, the failure modes and error messages are utterly baffling. Error -50? Progress bar goes to 99.9% and then spins forever? Huh?

The target size quarter round bears special focus simply because it is so broken. In 1.0, it was used to indicate how much of either 4.7GB or 650MB (later 9.0GB) the encoded content would use. The intent was to show how much of the optical media would be consumed as the result of the selected options.

In 2.0, Popcorn continues to have the quarter round indicator but now it has a little popup that allows you to select target sizes between 128MB and 8+GB (16? I don’t know — the app is currently busy. Though the UI continues to passively track the mouse and highlight UI elements, clicking on anything but the “cancel” button doesn’t do anything).

Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

Even my 8 year old GPS receiver’s speedometer automatically scales the display based upon how fast you are going. If I cruise around at walking speed, the max is 20mph. Whip out some sprints on the bike around 25mph and the top end will show 40mph. Fly in a plane and the top end might go up to 1000mph. Smooth. Easy to read. Intuitive. Just works.

For optical media, I can understand the point of a capacity limit, but the quarter round indicator’s only visual clue(s) that you have gone over capacity is that it is “full” and red. There is zero indication as to how much over you might have gone — no indication as to whether you might be able to get away with a minor quality loss or need to do some drastic changes to the encoding to make the result fit the targeted size.


Visual Hub‘s UI puts practical functionality above spiffy presentation, but it does so with ease of use in mind. As long as you stick to the main window, it is easy to use and generally “just works”.

Operations tend to be a bit more manual than Popcorn — you have to drag in every part of a multi file DVD based video track, for example — but Popcorn doesn’t work consistently in that case anyway due to a really annoying bug.

And when Visual Hub fails, it fails hard. The program doesn’t crash, but you often need to quit to start over. Also, when encoding DVD content, it is quite easy to end up with an audio-only encoding merely by dragging in the wrong bit of the DVD. That whole manual thing bites again.

Neither program works well when messing with advanced settings. Frankly, though I have now spent close to $100 on encoding software — Popcorn 1.0 + Upgrade to 2.0 + Visual Hub — I feel like I need both to do what I wanted to do these past few days.

And, yet, I’m left feeling like I haven’t really archived a bunch of video that we had laying around in any kind of optimal fashion. While Visual Hub amused me, it didn’t teach me anything. Popcorn neither amused nor educated.

All in all, I’m happy to have gotten it done, but I feel like I’m just gonna have to do it all over again some day once I figure out how to really tune these things.

Both programs have decent manuals. Complete, thorough, and short. Visual Hub’s manual is also just plain entertaining. Very very funny.

Popcorn’s manual is dry, professional and exceptionally annoying. The margins comprise about 40% of the page area (to be fair, this may be because my system is hosed right now — but I can’t imagine how that might affect PDF rendering in this way).

Also, one last query for both developers:

Where the hell is the “For HD” option? I can understand the lack therein when targeting the iPod as the device can’t deal with the resolution. Neither program shows any signs of “HD readiness”. Boo.

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