If there's a bigger bugaboo in digital media than DVD ripping, I'd like to hear about it. (OK, ripping Blu-Ray movies may qualify. We're not quite there yet.) It's an obvious need, but DVD ripping is also encumbered by two equally obvious problems: It's unwieldy because of ripping times and storage issues, and it's potentially illegal. It doesn't get any more controversial than that.

Understanding the issues

To rip a DVD, you will need two tools. Thanks to various copy protection and encryption schemes employed by commercial DVD makers, you will need a way to "unlock" (or unprotect, or decrypt) DVD movies so that they can be copied. You will also need a DVD ripper, a tool that is used to transform a movie on a DVD into an unprotected digital file that you can then playback on your PC, a digital media set-top box, or a portable media player.

One of the most obvious questions that comes into play during any discussion of DVD ripping is whether this process is legal. Even if you own the DVD in question--otherwise, it's obviously illegal--the answer to this question is not clear. On the one hand, US consumers are protected by the country's Fair Use laws, and the Audio Home Recording Act states that it is legal to copy a media source you have purchased for purposes of creating a backup or replacement. On the other hand, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) states that it is illegal to circumvent measures that control access to copyrighted works. In the case of DVD ripping, you have a legal right to make a backup copy of content you legally purchased. However, to do so, you must utilize software that circumvents copy protection and encryption technologies and thus violates the DMCA.

There are basically two audiences here. You could be a full-blown pirate, in which case you don't need this guide anyway. Or you're just a regularly Joe who'd like to enjoy the DVD movies you've already paid for on your Zune, iPod or other device, or in your living room using an Xbox 360, Apple TV, or other set-top box.

This guide is for you, Joe.

Even with the rise of multi-core CPUs, ripping an entire DVD collection to your PC's hard drive can be time consuming. And the resulting size of each file--usually 1 to 1.5 GB for a two-hour feature film--will make them difficult and/or expensive to store, let alone backup. So ripping DVDs may not make sense for everyone. I happen to like to travel as light as possible, so I usually rip a few of my own DVDs the week before a trip, watch them on a laptop during the trip, and then delete the digital copies when I'm done. That said, even this type of usage isn't ideal. Renting movies from Zune Marketplace, the iTunes Store, Amazon Unbox, or a similar service can make more sense, especially if you want to watch a film with which you're not familiar, or one you've never seen or don't own.

Still interested? Here's how it works.

Tools of the trade

When it comes to DVD ripping applications, there is Handbrake and then there is everything else. Handbrake is free, open source, and it works on Linux and Mac OS X in addition to Windows. It rips DVDs exclusively into MPEG-4 video formats, including the H.264/MP4 video format I've chosen as the One True Video Format for Digital Media Core.

Unfortunately, Handbrake isn't enough. Before Handbrake can do its thing, you'll need a way to unprotect commercial DVD movies, using what's called a DVD decrypter. For this purpose, I use and recommend a wonderful (but expensive) tool called Slysoft AnyDVD. (And now it's even more expensive than before because you must now pay for AnyDVD for each year of use, which wasn't always the case.)

That said, AnyDVD is indispensible, and for its roughly $56 asking price for the first year (or a more reasonable $68 for two years) you also receive a number of additional benefits related to DVD playback on your PCs, including the ability to automatically skip past all the pre-title junk that so many movie companies are packing on their DVDs these days. For purposes of this discussion, AnyDVD runs silently in the background and works well.

Note: I haven't tested other tools, but there are free DVD decrypters out there as well. These include Free DVD Decrypter, DVD43, and possibly some others. If you use and can recommend a superior free product, please do let me know.

Once you've got the decryption figured out, ripping a DVD with Handbrake isn't that difficult. And thanks to advances in technology, software and device compatibility issues are no longer a problem as they were just a few years ago. So today, you can rip DVDs into a high quality format that will play just fine on a wide range of PC software and devices, including Windows Media Player and Windows Media Center (in Windows 7 only), Apple iTunes and QuickTime, third party media player software like VLC media player, iPhones, iPod touch, iPad, Zune HD, Apple TV, Xbox 360, Roku Player XD|S, WD-TV, and many more. (One compatibility gotcha is captioning. I explain this below.)

The video files created by Handbrake can be roughly DVD quality, though the resolution will vary from DVD to DVD. That is, they're not HD and should thus be considered standard definition from a resolution perspective. But the quality is generally excellent, and thanks to improvements to Handbrake's encoding presets over the years, you won't have to do a lot of futzing around to get a single file that is almost universally compatible across all the hardware and software solutions you use.

Rip it, rip it good

To rip a DVD, ensure that AnyDVD is running, insert the DVD into your optical drive, dispense with any auto-run silliness that may ensue, and fire up Handbrake. The application will look something like this:

How to Rip DVDs

In the Presets panel on the Right, choose Apple, Universal. This may seem counter-intuitive if you're planning to play the resulting files on a Zune, Xbox 360, or some other non-Apple product, but don't be fooled: This preset really is universal and the resulting file will work with virtually anything.

Now, click the Source button and choose the DVD from the drop-down list; this is typically the last item in the list.

How to Rip DVDs

After Handbrake finishes scanning the disc (the app's controls will be grayed-out during this process), click the Title control to select the part of the DVD you'd like to rip. What you'll see here will depend on the type of DVD you've inserted, but for most movies, there will be a single lengthy entry (90 minutes to two hours for a typical movie) and possibly several smaller entries, for supplemental material. Identifying the correct movie is usually easy, but in some cases, you may see two nearly-identical length movies (as is the case when both a theatrical and "director's cut" version of the movie are on the same disc). If this happens, you'll need to load the DVD into your PC's software-based DVD player (Windows Media Player or whatever) and view the disc, taking note of the exact lengths of each movie it contains. (See below for another unique case regarding TV shows.)

Once you've selected the movie "title" to rip from the DVD, you can optionally rename the destination file. (Note that the default name is formatted automatically and uses an iPod-friendly and broadly compatible *.m4v extension. This, too, will not typically cause problems on non-Apple solutions.)

Adding captions

If you want to add captioning to the movie, you have some options to consider. Click the Subtitles tab (oddly located in the bottom half of the application window) and then click the Track drop-down box to see a list of available caption types.

How to Rip DVDs

Generally speaking, you will see a number of items with "(Bitmap)" in the name. These types of captions are called hard captions; they are written directly into the resulting file, so they will appear at all times and cannot be enabled or disabled on the fly. Many movies will also include an item named "Closed Captions (Text)." This item enables soft captions, which can be enabled and disabled on the fly, but only in compatible players. These include all of Apple's solutions (hardware and software), VLC media player, and others, but not any of Microsoft's solutions. So the Windows Media, Zune, and Xbox products do not support this feature. (If you're unsure if the products you use support this feature, simply rip a single chapter from a DVD track, testing different settings.)

How to Rip DVDs
Soft captions look nicer and can be enabled and disabled on the fly, but only by those few solutions that natively support this feature.

How to Rip DVDs
Hard captions look a bit jaggedy and are hard-coded into the video, so they cannot be removed.

To enable captioning, select the appropriate item from the Track drop-down and then click the Add button. For English captions this will typically be English (Bitmap) for hard captions or Closed Captions (Text) for soft captioning.

When you're reading to begin the DVD rip, click the Start button. A command line window will appear describing the application's progress while it rips the DVD movie. Depending on the speed of your machine, a two-hour movie should rip in anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes. On older systems, you will want to leave your PC alone during this process, but I've found my own PCs to be useable during DVD rips.

How to Rip DVDs

Ripping TV shows

Given the popularity of DVD-based TV show compilations, there's a good chance you might need to rip TV show episodes to disc. This is a bit more monotonous than ripping a single movie, because a DVD can hold multiple TV show episodes, each of which is typically 30- or 60-minutes in length (or a bit less given the built-in time for commercial breaks). And when you view these episodes in Handbrake's Title drop-down, they will all have similar lengths, as shown below, making it difficult to know what's what.

How to Rip DVDs

If you need to encode just a single episode, you'll have to use the trick noted above: Load the DVD into Windows Media Player (or whatever DVD player application) and note the exact length of the episode you want. Then, choose accordingly from the Title drop-down in Handbrake. Some DVDs are constructed so that the episodes are actually in order, but this isn't always the case. You will want to hand-check each file to be sure you got what you expected.

If you do want to encode all of the episodes on a given disc, you have to set up like you're encoding a single movie, as per the instructions above. When it comes time to select a title from the Title drop-down, select the first episode in the list. Then, in the Destination/File box, choose a name like "Magnum PI Season 5 Episode 1" or whatever. But instead of clicking Start to start encoding, click Add to Queue. A secondary Encode Queue window will appear, resembling the following:

How to Rip DVDs

Now, repeat this process for each additional episode: Return to the main Handbrake window. Select the next episode from the Title drop-down. Change the name of the file to match the episode number. Click Add to Queue.

When every episode is queued up, as shown below, you can click the Encode button in the Encode Queue window to encode all of the episodes as separate files. When the encoding is done, you may want to rename these files to match the names of the episodes. There are a number of ways to accomplish this: I usually use the Episodes sub-menu on the TV show's DVD to match up the in-video episode name, if given.