AntiPack - Get your videos working without destroying your PC

Aug 02 2009

We welcome this post from guest blogger Andrew Van Til. Also known as Babgvant, Andy has been a longtime contributor in the HTPC space and is an expert on file codecs, formats and such. He's also the creator of the world famous DVRMSToolbox application which removes your commercials from your recorded TV programs.

I’m no fan of codec packs, more often than not they end up causing much more harm than good.  Solving the short term problem (how do I get this file to play) , but leaving behind a larger mess that often leads to the conclusion that there is something fundamentally broken with the PC as a A/V device.

The real problem with PCs (and not just in this case) is complexity; most (understandably) want the convenience and not the hassle of dealing with containers and codecs so they turn to a pack to solve the immediate need.  I completely understand that it’s a complex topic; something that everyone that has ever tried to get mystery file X to play has struggled with.  Doing it the right way is hard, where codec packs are easy. After repeating “uninstall the codec pack” more times than I care to remember, I figured it was time to do something proactively to hopefully reduce the pain.  So it is with some hesitation (and irony) that I’ve decided to roll my own “codec pack”. 

AntiPack is intended to be part guide and part installer; hopefully making it easy enough for everyone to understand what they are doing, and provide an excellent/easy end user experience at the same time.  Most important it is based on the filters I use on my system.  Most are almost completly stock (with some changes to merit to reduce the arms-race nature of many OSS filters) but some I have customized to fix issues or to make them play nice with other filters. 

All of the filters in the installer are OSS filters (all but one are GPL); each is disclosed with the option to opt-out during the install and includes a short description of what it does.  I’ve also written a simple application that makes it easy to configure the filter where applicable and control its merit if necessary.

Essential Downloads:

Optional Downloads

Getting Started:

If you're staring from a pristene install you can skip this part, but chances are you've already installed another pack or ffdshow so the first step is to get rid of them.  Hopefully whatever codec pack you have uninstaller works and cleans out the nasty, if not GraphStudio will help when the time comes.  

Before moving on, let's talk briefly about why I don't like ffdshow.  Generally, I have found ffdshow's audio decoder to OK as long as you always decode to PCM.  It can be configured to bitstream AC-3 and DTS, but will not do so reliably.  Given the way I use audio decoders, that isn't an issue for me, but it is troubling that it doesn't respect it's own settings.  That said the audio decoder is pretty decent, and will decode almost anything so it can be a good solution.  The problem is that you can't install the audio decoder without also getting the video decoder.  With no hardware acceleration and improperly formed media types make for a buggy and craptacular experience.  The only reason I can think of to use it is if you really,really want subtitles in WMP; and even then something like VSFilter is probably a better choice.

Most importantly, ffdshow is not a good DirectShow citizen.  It installs itself with a ridiculously high merit, and in the default configuration will accept almost anything so it ends up doing the same thing that many codec packs do, screwing up your PC.  Usually just breaking hardware acceleration, but because ffdshow also has some stability issues (esp when it is not the only filter) it can also cause the player to crash or exhibit strange behaviors.  If you know what you're doing ffdshow can have a place on your machine, but I wouldn't recommend it.

Installing AntiPack:

Now it's time to install AntiPack.  

Antipack

Nothing to see here, just click "Next"

Antipack

All of the filters except one (SubtitleRender, which uses my MS-RL variant) are GPL, so it's easy to agree with the EULA and click Next.

Antipack

Now it's time to chose from the list of recommended filters.  If you're not running SageTV, there isn't much benefit to installing SubtitleRender.  If installed, it will join playback graphs outside of Sage, so if your player supports SRT subtitles you may want to uncheck it.

Most of the decoding work is handled by the modified MPC-HC filters.  They include some bug fixes and changes to make them play better in my environment.  For e.g. I prefer AC3Filter for AC-3 and DTS, but AC3Filter does not handle LPCM (even though it claims to) properly or decode other audio codecs like FLAC and AAC that I use.  While it is possible to use merit to prefer AC3Filter, the outcome is much more certain if the MPC-HC Audio Decoder won't accept AC-3 or DTS by default.

Click Next when you're ready.

Antipack

If you don't have a commercial dvd player installed (i.e. PowerDVD) and are installing on XP or a version of Vista that doesn't include a DVD capable MPEG2 decoder, you should select these.  Everyone else, it's up to you.

Click Next when ready.

Antipack

Select the file source/splitter filters that you'd like to install on this page. Checking the first two (mp3/mp4) will install and register the filters as both source and splitter.  The FLAC filter is a file source only, and the MPEG is a just a splitter.

When a DirectShow player loads a file it tries to find a file format specific filter first by searching HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT\Media Type\Extensions if a matching key is found (i.e.HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT\Media Type\Extensions\.mp3) it looks at the "Source Filter" value for what filter should be used.  If the key or value is missing generally it will use the generic file source filter and search for a splitter filter.  Registering as a source filter will guarantee that the filter will be used if the player loads the file using this method, but since some players will not expect the behavior it can cause trouble in some cases.  In my experience it's only been a problem for MPEG file types, but your mileage may vary.

Click Next when ready.

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Choose a location and click next. After the installer completes it will automatically launch the settings tool.

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The first tab configures the main video decoder.  Use this page to select which video formats should be supported.  To make it easier, the page tells you what video card is installed and each check box has a tool tip explaining a recommended setting, some basic information about the codec and a link to learn more.  For the lazy, there's a button to apply my recommended settings based on your video card.

One thing to note; if you have a commercial media player that provides H.264 (AVC) decoding (like PDVD or TMT) and you would prefer to use their filter, the H.264 DXVA options should not be checked.  The MPC-HC video decoder has been modifed to not connect to the SageTV MPEG splitter, I was unable to make it work so the media type was removed.  Generally this should not be an issue, since the HD PVR (the only source I know of for H.264 in .ts files for SageTV) comes with TMT.  Both Haali and the MPC-HC MPEG splitter present H.264 using the AVC1 mediatype which works great.

Antipack

The next tab configures the MPC-HC Audio Decoder.  Unless "Decode AC-3 and DTS" is checked the filter will not work for those media types.  If you would like it to support those types check the box and set your speaker configuration.

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Duplication the AC3Filter configuration pages was a more complex than I was willing to do, so clicking the big "Launch..." button will open its configuration page and you can choose the settings that make sense for your system.  My setup is captured below.

PCM output:

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The main changes I make on the first tab are ensuring/setting "AS IS" and "PCM 32bit" in the output section. I use Reclock so, SPDIF is left unselected.  If you prefer SPDIF (bitstreaming AC-3/DTS as AC-3 or DTS instead of decoding to multichannel PCM) make sure to check the "Use SPDIF" option (see the Bitstream Output section below).  

Bitstream Output:

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Note the "Use SPDIF" option is checked.

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On the SPDIF tab, check both AC3 and DTS

Both:

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The last thing to do is make sure that the types AC3Filter accepts are set correctly.  Most of the problems I've seen with AC3Filter are because PCM is checked, it also doesn't handle LPCM correctly so you should uncheck both.  AC3Filter treats merit like an On/Off switch; it's either crazy high or uselessly low.  Don't worry about making the right choice, the AntiPack settings tool will enforce the merit you choose on the AC3Filter tab.

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The last page is where the merit for each of the other filters is managed.  Filters that are not installed will display a "NotInstalled" merit; changing this to another value will not do anything.  Click Save to apply all of the setting changes.  Merit is a machine level setting so the tool will require elevation, but decoder settings are stored at the user level.  If you have multiple user accounts on the PC they will need to be made for each one.

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If you ever need to change the settings (or make them for another account), a shortcut is added to the start menu.

Installing Haali:

The next step is to install the Haali Matroska splitter to enable MKV playback.  If you don't need to play MKV (if this is you, we need to talk; you're missing out ) you can skip this step.

Antipack MKV

After you've read the EULA, assuming you're OK with it let's move to the next step.

Antipack MKV

Where you choose a location for the filter and supporting files.

Antipack MKV

And the name on the start menu.

Antipack MKV

Before Installing, it's very important to change the defaults so Haali doesn't cause problems.  By default, the splitter installs not just as the source filter (the thing we just talked about) for MKV, but also wants to act as the source for MPEG-TS (*.ts, *.m2ts) and MPEG-PS (*.mpeg, *.mpg) files.  IMO Haali is the best MKV splitter, but only does so-so with MPEG; so make sure you uncheck those boxes.  I don't use it to split MP4 files (I use the MPC splitter included in AnitPack), so I can't say how well it does with those.

Antipack MKV

Alright, finally done with installing the filters.  Now let's make sure that everything is working the way we want.

Using MediaInfo:

Don't worry we're almost done :)  MediaInfo is the easiest way I've found to tell me what codec a file uses.  Open the GUI and drag a file in.

Antipack MediaInfo

Using GraphStudio:

DirectShow uses something called a Graph to handle playback.  It's essentially a container for filters (the things we just installed) that provides the necssary plumbing so they can connect to each other and pass data in a meaningful way.

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Just like MediaInfo you can drag a file in, but in this case we can see how DirectShow will create the playback graph using Intelligent Connect.  If everything went OK (getting rid of the bad filters, and installing the good ones) you're done.  If it didn't then you'll want to read this.

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