28 Sep 2010 2:49 pm

Being able to watch fansubbed anime on my TV is a lot more pleasant than watching it on my monitor; for one thing, the TV’s larger (barely), but more importantly, it’s way easier to lounge about while doing so. When I first got my Xbox 360, my buddy Doug pointed out TVersity to me. Essentially, it lets you stream media from your computers to your Xbox without having to hassle with the vagaries of the Windows Media Center nonsense. Also, it lets me watch video in a wider array of formats… like, say, .mkv, which as far as I can tell, WMC still doesn’t support without extensive modification.

Now, until the last year or so, this setup was pretty sweet, as almost all my shows were either hardsubbed anime (old fashioned .avi files) or non-subtitled shows in mkv. The twist came when I tried watching subtitled .mkv’s, which seems to be the format of choice for most fansub groups these days (just check out the ratio of mkv to avi on animesuki‘s list…). Then my system ended up giving me conniption fits when I tried to watch those shows; either I’d get sound but no video, video with no subtitles, or desynchronized audio and video.

After giving my system a thorough sweep, I’ve finally gotten to the point where, with one minor kludge, I can watch soft-subtitled .mkv format anime. I’m noting down what I did here so that I can re-create it in the future, and to help anyone else who’s been having problems getting this to work, since relatively stepwise information for enabling soft-subtitles in .mkv formatted files via TVersity are sort of scarce on the internet. Do note that these instructions are very Vista/Windows 7-centric. I also highly recommend that anyone following these steps actually reads the instructions and FAQ’s for the two things we’ll be installing: TVersity and CCCP — the Combined Community Codec Pack, as what I’ll be describing later is more of an overview rather than an in-depth series of instructions.

First, download and install TVersity. During the install process, opt not to install any video codecs, as we’ll be using CCCP’s codecs later. Don’t bother installing any video players that come with TVersity either, as you’ll be getting a more up-to-date copy of Media Player Classic in a bit anyway. Once TVersity is installed, bring up your Services panel and look for the TVersityMediaServer entry. Choose the “Log On” tab, select the “This Account” radio button and fill in the data for the primary user on your system (the user who actually watches anime, and who’s running the TVersity application in general). This is necessary because the ffdshow settings that you’ll be changing later are saved on a per-user basis.

Next, get and install the latest copy of CCCP. Yes, this is a beta; it’s what’s working for me, so it’s what I’m advising. Leave things pretty much on default. The only thing you’ll be changing here will be the above-mentioned ffdshow settings. Find and play an .avi file on your system (yes, this is a bit of a shortcut, but bear with me). Look in your toolbar, and rightclick the red ffdshow video decoder icon. Check the “subtitles” option, and then, near the top, select the ffdshow Video Decoder menu item. In the ffdshow video decoder configuration window that comes up, check the “subtitles” box and basically check off all the applicable options (blu-ray subtitles, vobsub subtitles, text subtitles, Substation alpha subtitles, etc). Click on Apply.

Congratulations! The hard part’s over with. Now all you have to do is tweak your TVersity settings for maximum clarity. From your icon bar, bring up TVersity and select settings; in the left hand pane, select Transcoder. Under the heading “Maximum Video and Image Resolution”, fill in the appropriate values as per your TV’s specs for the Video Resolution line (either 1280 x 720 if you’re running 720p, or 1920 x 1080 if you’ve got 1080p on your TV). Click on Save, and you’re done this part.

The last bit is getting the subtitles to display. While it is a bit of a kludge, the least painful way to get this to work is to just extract the subtitle file from the video that you intend to watch. Download MKVToolnix and MKVExtractGui (make sure to unarchive the MKVExtractGui files into the MKVToolnix folder). Then, just run MKVExtractGui and point it at your .mkv of choice. Let it extract all the relevant files (it should do so in the same directory as the target file itself). It’ll tend to append a” _chapters” pseudo-suffix to the .ass file, just rename that file so that it’s the same as the .mkv, barring the extension. Say the file was called “example.mkv”; you’d end up with “example_chapters.ass” in the same folder — just rename that to “example.ass”, and you’re good to go. When you watch this on your XBox, you should now have functioning softsubs for your show.

If you think that this is a pain, it’s infinitely preferable to the old process, which was to extract the subtitles, then re-encode them with the video into a hardsub format (which could take anywhere from 30 minutes to a few hours per file…). This way is much faster, and relatively cleaner. And also, yeah, before anyone says anything, I know this is a lot easier on the PS3. I don’t own one, and very few of my friends do, so the network effects are more in favor of me retaining my 360 rather than going out and spending cash on a PS3. Mind you, this may change a year down the line when I finally break down to get Disgaea 4…

March 21, 2011 edit: After having all kinds of headaches with TVersity (including massive CPU consumption and garbage collection problems), I’ve made the switch to PS3 Media Server, and it does the trick right out of the box, with no finagling of files. It reads embedded subtitles in .mkv’s with no problems whatsoever. It does have the occasional issue with some older format .avi’s and I have yet to figure out how to get it to stream youtube videos, but since the majority of my use of the Xbox 360 as a media server is to stream subtitled anime, I’m not too concerned with these issues.

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