It’s hard to believe in the iTunes era of blink-and-you-miss-them CD rips, but in the mid-90s, ripping a CD was a time-consuming process, fraught with peril. Ripping a single disc to 128kbps MP3 could take 8 hours on a 200MHz Pentium! Fast forward a decade, with faster hardware and better software and CD ripping is so mainstream your mom does it.
Ripping DVDs and transcoding the video stored within into more efficient formats involves an order of magnitude more scary math than ripping audio CDs. A machine that will rip the latest Miley Cyrus CD in moments could take hours to extract and convert your copy of AVP to an iPod-friendly format. However, with the right software, a quad-core equipped PC, and a little know-how, you can cut your disc rip time from hours to 20 or 30 minutes. There are still plenty of tricks and traps for first-time rippers, but we’ll show you the basics, then walk you through the secrets of ripping power users everywhere.
However, the first thing you need to decide is simple: what player are you ripping your discs for? Are you ripping for a portable player, like the PSP or iPhone? Would you rather stream to device in your living room, like the Xbox 360, PS3, or Popcorn Hour? Are you simply interested in making an archival-quality DVD rips, in case you lose your collection? More likely, you’re probably looking for a combination of all three of these things. We’ll show you how to rip your DVD to a file suitable for streaming that consumes a fraction of the disk space of a DVD but maintains full video and audio quality. Then you can take that file, and convert it for whatever other devices you might have, like a PSP or an iPod. For the purposes of this story, we're going to focus on DVD rips. Getting ahold of unencrypted high-defintion video legally is still pretty tricky. We'll update with Blu-ray ripping info as ripping Blu-ray gets easier.
With the preliminaries out of the way, let’s get started.
There are several different factors that determine the compatibility of your ripped video files. The resolution of the video, the video and audio codecs, the container format used, and even more esoteric things like the framerate can affect whether your video will work on your device of choice. If you just rip discs as you need the content and then delete files afterward, simply rip to the target of choice. However, if you want to build an archive of ripped movies, we recommend that you use open, widely-supported codecs and containers at the native resolution of the DVD, and then transcode the files as you need them to lower resolutions and bitrates. Naturally, we’ll show you how to do both.
Your player selection also impacts your choices when it comes to audio tracks and subtitle support. While the most common container formats, mp4 and mkv, support multiple track and subtitle streams in one file, few players will work with multiple audio tracks, and an even smaller subset will work with subtitles. That means you need to rip a single audio track—typically the main movie’s English soundtrack—and burn the subtitles into the video, rather than leave them as separate streams inside the container.
Bitrate is a little trickier. Most hardware players will handle whatever bitrate you select, especially if they're designed for high-definition playback. Both consoles and the AppleTV support high-definintion files, so they're more than capable of playing DVD-resolution video at whatever bitrate you choose. However, the higher a bitrate you choose, the larger the file will be. From our testing, we found the sweet spot for most movies to be around 2000kbps average, but we cranked it up to 2500kbps for movies with a lot of action. If your hardware supports high-profile H.264 (Xbox 360, PS3, and the Apple TV do, but many portable players don't), you can get away with a lower bitrate. With 1.5TB hard drives available for about $180 now, we'd rather rip at a too-high bitrate to ensure maximum quality video than save a few hundred MB of disk space.
We typically recommend ripping to the MP4 container, it’s widely supported on both streaming devices and portables. Furthermore, the tools for manipulating the streams within the file are established and easy to use, which makes it easy to transcode your video to a less supported format for a specific player.
Typically, DVDs include multiple subtitle streams that serve different purposes. Nearly every DVD has some English subtitles, even non-foreign language movies. It’s important that you understand the difference between subtitles and closed captions. Subtitles are simply the dialog from the movie written across the bottom of the screen. Closed captions include subtitles, but they also include audio cues that help people with impaired hearing enjoy the movie fully.
While closed captions are present on almost every disc, many English-language movies also use subtitles to show what a character speaking a foreign language is saying. On some discs, these subtitles will be hidden in a separate stream, while in others, they’ll be mixed in with the closed-captions, but marked so that the DVD player only shows the proper captions. Regardless, it’s crucial that you get the proper subtitles for all the films you rip. Otherwise, you’ll never know what Jabba or Greedo are saying in Star Wars, and watching a long expository scene in another language without the benefit of subtitles sucks.
In practice, the first English subtitle track is typically the one that includes subtitles and forced or otherwise, while the second subtitle track is the one that includes closed captions.
The first thing you’ll need to do when ripping a DVD is remove the copy protection. Most discs use a variant of the Content Scrambling System (CSS), but many also use other techniques to make it more difficult to extract the video from the disc. Although DVD ripping apps, like HandBrake and AutoMKV aren’t updated as frequently as new copy protection schemes come out, there are a pair of utilities that are dedicated to stripping copy protection—AnyDVD (€49, www.slysoft.com ) and DVD43 (free, www.dvd43.com ).
Both apps do a fine job, although AnyDVD justifies its high price by bypassing new forms of encryption extremely quickly after they appear. Both of these apps serve as on-the-fly disc decrypters, stripping copy protection before your ripping utility or playback software even knows the disc is present. Want to rip an unencrypted disc to hard drive? It’s as easy as copying the contents of the disc’s VIDEO_TS file to your hard drive once you’ve installed AnyDVD or DVD43. Regardless, before we continue, you should install one or the other of these apps. AnyDVD is free to try for 30 days, while DVD43 is always free.
For simple, high-quality rips of any kind of content, it’s tough to beat Handbrake . We like Handbrake for a few reasons—its built-in presets make it very easy for anyone to use, it does a good job of detecting the proper video, audio, and subtitle selections, and it has never failed to successfully rip a DVD, and we’ve ripped hundreds of discs.
To rip your first disc, drop it in your drive and click the Source button in the top-left corner of the Handbrake window. If you’re using AnyDVD or DVD43, you can safely ignore the prompt asking for the location of VLC. If you aren’t, you’ll need to download VLC . Unless you have multiple optical drives, the disc in your DVD-ROM should be one of the listed options. If it’s not, select the choose a folder option and navigate to your optical drive. Handbrake will take a minute or two to scan the contents of your disc, and will do its best to determine the appropriate titles and chapters on the disc. Handbrake’s generally spot on for movie DVDs, although you’ll probably need to manually select the proper chapters and titles for discs that contain TV shows (more on ripping TV shows here).
After Handbrake’s familiarized itself with your disc, you need to select the proper output preset. For streaming to or playback on, the Apple Universal preset is terrific. It looks great, and works great on the iPhone, newer iPod Classics, and the Apple TV. For streaming to the PS3, Xbox 360, or pretty much anything else, we typically recommend a modified PS3 preset. If you don't care about the details, you can just choose Handbrake's default PS3 preset, which uses the H.264 video codec to encode your disc’s video at its native resolution using 2500kbps variable bitrate that’s also compatible with the Xbox 360. It automatically downmixes your disc’s 5.1 audio to a 2.0 Dolby ProLogic II stream.
Once you've selected a preset, make sure that both the two-pass encode and the turbo first pass options are checked on the video tab. Then flip to the Audio/Subtitles tab and ensure the proper subtitle and audio selections are checked. If the movie includes some subtitles, you should select the first English subtitle track and check the Forced Subtitles Only box. If you’re not sure, it’s best to go ahead and check it. Don’t worry, if the disc is mastered properly and there are no subtitles, it won’t affect your rip at all. Once you’re happy with your settings, you can press the + button in the preset window to save your profile (we recommend giving it a different default name than the others). Unfortunately, caption settings aren’t saved in presets, so you have to manually set them each time you rip another disc.
Before you can start the encode, you need to tell Handbrake where to save the finished rip and what to call it. You can save the resulting file anywhere on your hard drive. Once you’ve done that, press the Start button, and your encode will start. Depending on the number of cores you have and the speed of your processor, encoding could take anywhere from 40 minutes to several hours.
Because the transcoding process takes a lot of time and monopolizes your CPU, it’s helpful to queue up several discs to be transcoded at a time when you’re not using your PC. You can do this by copying the full DVDs to your hard disk and then queuing several movies in Handbrake to transcode one after the other.
If you’re using AnyDVD, you can start the DVD ripping tool by right clicking the tray icon and selecting rip DVD to hard disk. Tell the app where to save the disc’s contents and click copy. You can do this for as many discs as you have hard disk space to hold. Then open Handbrake and click the source button. Point the app to the folder that you copied your discs to, and select the first one. Instead of selecting Start when you’ve selected the proper profile and tweaked your audio and subtitle settings, click Add to Queue. Repeat this for each disc you’ve copied to your hard drive, and press Encode when you’re ready to start transcoding.
Ripping TV shows is a little trickier than ripping a single large movie, but it’s similar to the procedure we just outlined for queuing multiple discs. Different studios use different techniques, but the basic idea is the same. First you need to load your DVD in Handbrake. Then, find the individual episodes in Handbrake’s source section. The easiest way to to find episodes is to look at the playtime for each chapter or title. Typically 30 minute TV shows are around 23 minutes and hour-long shows are about 46 minutes. Once your settings are right and you’ve found the right titles, you can add each individual episode to the queue. Make sure you assign each one a unique name, or Handbrake will overwrite the old episodes as you rip new ones. After the episodes have been ripped, you’ll need to make sure that each one is properly named, frequently the first title on the disc isn’t the first one that’s listed in the menus.
By now you should have quite a few movies and TV shows ripped in a high-quality archival format. However, many devices won’t play videos encoded at this resolution or bitrate. Lucky for us, Handbrake makes it easy to convert videos to other formats. All you need to do is load the video you want to convert using the Source menu, and then choose the appropriate preset or output settings for your player and transcoded away. You can even queue multiple files for conversion.
Now that you’ve ripped your DVD collection, how do you stream the videos into your living room? The easy way to stream MP4 files to your Xbox is to install the Zune Marketplace software , which you can download at Zune.net (whether you own a Zune or not). Once you add the videos to the Zune software and enable sharing, you’ll be able to open them using any Xbox 360 on your home network.
If you want to stream to a PlayStation 3, it’s a little more complex. Fortunately, we have a how-to that explains exactly how to use TVersity to stream video from your PC to your PS3, Xbox 360, or any other UPNP-enabled device . It can be a little tricky to get TVersity running properly, especially if you’ve installed a ton of codecs on your system.
We’ve also heard great things about PacketVideo (formerly known as TwonkyMedia). We haven’t tested Twonky since the 4.4 version came out, but it has strong reviews from the community and might be worth trying out. It offers many features that are comparable to TVersity , and is reportedly easier to install and run to boot. If you’ve had trouble getting codecs working with TVersity in the past, PacketVideo is a great option.
If you just want to watch the videos on your PC, there are lots of options. If you have a recent version of WinDVD or PowerDVD , either of those apps should play the videos with hardware acceleration to boot. A good free alternative is VLC , which should play pretty much any video file you throw at it.Or, if you don't mind fiddling with lots of codec incompatibilities, you can install one of the codec packs that float around the Internet, like CCCP , and play your movies in Windows Media Player or Media Player Classic.
Now go enjoy your movie library!