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 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 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. Assuming 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-blow 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 iPod or other device.

This guide is for you, Joe.

That said, I'm of the opinion that ripping an entire DVD collection to your PC's hard drive is too time consuming to recommend. Furthermore, the resulting size of the files--about 1.5 GB for a two-hour feature film--will make them difficult and/or expensive to store, let alone backup. Whether ripping DVDs makes sense at will vary from person to person. For me, I like to travel as light as possible, so I usually rip a few of my own DVDs before a trip, watch them on a laptop or iPod touch, and then delete the digital copies when I'm done. That said, even this usage isn't ideal. Renting movies from the iTunes Store, CinemaNow, Amazon Unbox, or a similar service makes a lot more sense, especially if you want to watch a film with which you're not familiar.

Tools of the trade

When it comes to ripping DVDs, 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 video format I've provisionally 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 first. For this purpose, I use and recommend a wonderful tool called Slysoft AnyDVD. It's not free or even inexpensive thanks to today's exchange rates, but AnyDVD is indispensible, and for its roughly $77 asking price you also receive a number of additional benefits. (Not the least of which is 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 wonderfully. Case closed. (Update: I haven't tested this yet, and I know it won't work on x64 versions of Windows, but there is a free DVD decrypter called DVD43 you might want to try as well.)

Ripping a DVD with Handbrake could be easier, but it's manageable. Adding to the complexity, however, is device compatibility. Today, Apple's iPod/iPhone devices dominate the portable media player space and the company's Apple TV is a viable contender in the home theatre sweepstakes. (I use all three, by the way.) Unfortunately, if you rip a DVD at too high a quality level, it will not work on Apple's devices (or on competing devices like the Microsoft Zune that have similar limitations). For this reason, when I rip DVDs I ensure that they work with the baseline device I'll be using--in this case, the iPod--thus ensuring compatibility across all of the devices and applications with which I may access the resulting file. However, this file is technically sub-DVD quality and should thus be considered standard definition from a resolution perspective.

The following information applies to modern video-capable iPods, which today means the iPod with video (5G, Late 2006), the iPhone, the iPod touch, and the iPod classic. It also refers to Zune 2 devices and to the Apple TV (all versions).

  Native device resolution Maximum output resolution to TV Maximum H.264 resolution Maximum H.264 bit-rate
iPod with video (5G, Late 2006) 320 x 240 640 x 480 640 x 480 1.5 mbps
iPod classic 320 x 240 640 x 480 640 x 480 1.5 mbps
iPod nano 320 x 240 640 x 480 640 x 480 1.5 mbps
iPod touch 480 x 320 640 x 480 640 x 480 1.5 mbps
iPhone 480 x 320 640 x 480 640 x 480 1.5 mbps
Zune 4/8 320 x 240 n/a 720 x 480 1.5 mbps
Zune 80 320 x 240 640 x 480 720 x 480 1.5 mbps
Apple TV n/a 1280 x 720 (720p) 1280 x 720 5 mbps
Xbox 360 n/a 1920 ? 1080 (1080p) 1920 ? 1080 10 mbps

Put more simply, if you accept a modern video-capable iPod as the baseline for compatibility, you will rip full-frame movies at 640 x 480 (less than DVD-quality 720 x 480) and widescreen movies at 640 by whatever value is necessitated by the aspect ratio of the source film. (That is, the vertical resolution will always less than 480). The average encoding bitrate must be 1.5 mbps (1500 kbps) for H.264 format or 2.5 mbps (2500 kbps) for standard MPEG-4. If you exceed these quality levels, the resulting file will not play on an iPod or iPhone (or Zune 2) device.

There are, however, some things you can do to improve the quality of the files you'll create. H.264, for example, is superior to MPEG-4 from a quality standpoint and will typically result in smaller files. And Handbrake supports various two-pass encoding schemes that dramatically increase the time it takes to rip a DVD movie but can subtly improve the visual quality. The people behind Handbrake say that their stock "iPod High-Rez" preset, which utilizes a single encoding pass, has been optimized to minimize the differences between one-pass and two-pass encoding, but I can sometimes see a difference. The question is whether you're willing to sacrifice a bit of quality for a lot of time. (That said, I almost always use Handbrake's iPod High-Rez preset and opt out of two-pass encoding. These files are temporary, after all.)

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. (It needs to be run under Administrative privileges on Windows Vista.) The application will look something like this:

Digital Media Core - Ripping DVDs

Click the Browse button next to Source and locate the TS_VIDEO folder on the DVD movie. It should look something like this:

Digital Media Core - Ripping DVDs

Click OK to continue. Handbrake will display a Reading Source dialog while it evaluates the contents of the DVD. When it's done, you can proceed.

In the Presets panel on the right, choose iPod Hi-Rez. This will make a number of settings changes, such as configuring the video encoder to H.264 format, the audio encoder to AAC, and selecting "Insert iPod Atom."

In the Source section, click the Title drop-down. 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 DVD player (Windows Media Player or whatever) and view the movies, taking note of their exact lengths. (See below for another unique case regarding TV shows.)

Once you've selected the movie ("title") to rip from the DVD, click the Browse button next to Destination. Here, you will pick a name for the digital video file you're going to create. I usually go the logical route (i.e. the file name is the name of the movie). Optionally, and preferably if you're using Apple devices, you can and should change the file type from mp4 to m4v. (This file type is gaining acceptance and works fine with the Zune, for example.) Click Save.

In the Picture Settings tab, ensure that Crop is set to Automatic. This will retain the aspect ratio of the original film and should help cut down the resulting file size.

On the Video tab, optionally choose "2-Pass Encoding" if you want slightly better video quality. Note, however, that ripping times will be dramatically longer.

If you want captioning, visit the Audio & Subtitles tab and select the correct language from the Subtitles drop-down. Note that captions are hard-coded into the movie. That is, if you enable this feature, the captions will be written directly into the video and you can't toggle them on and off; they're always "on." Eventually, this won't be the case, as Apple has added captioning support to QuickTime, but for now, this is the inelegant solution for those who do need this functionality.

Now you're ready to roll: Click Start to start the encoding process. A command line window will appear describing the application's progress while it rips the DVD movie. Depending on the speed of your machine and whether you choose two-pass encoding, a two-hour movie should rip in anywhere from 90 minutes to four hours. On my desktop PC, for example, a two hour film took well under two hours on a single-pass encode but expended a whopping three and a half hours on a two-pass encode. On older systems, you will want to leave your PC alone during this process, but I've found my PC to be useable during DVD rips, though the processor cores are always pegged.

Tip: You can optionally change Handbrake's priority level from its default of "Below Normal" to something more intense to achieve lower rip times. However, if you do this, you will want to leave the PC alone while encoding video. Visit Tools, Options, Performance to change this setting.

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 complex 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.

Digital Media Core - Ripping 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.

If, however, you would like to encode all of the episodes on a given disc, your job is much easier, though the process is somewhat convoluted. 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:

Digital Media Core - Ripping 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.

Digital Media Core - Ripping DVDs

Tip: If you're going to manage ripped TV shows in iTunes, you may want to force iTunes to show these episodes in the TV Shows section of the UI and not in Movies, where they'll appear by default. Unfortunately, you have to make this change on an episode-by-episode basis. (You can't multi-select episodes and do it all at once.) To do so, select the first episode in iTunes, right-click, and choose Get Info. Navigate to the Video tab, as shown below, and change Video Kind to TV Show. Then, change the Show, Season Number, Episode ID, and Episode Number accordingly. Unfortunately, you're still not done: To get the episode number to actually appear in the TV shows list, you'll also need to change the Track Number value for each episode. This is done in the Info tab. Silly? Yep. While you're there, think about setting the show's name (Name), Album Artist, and Genre accordingly as well.

Digital Media Core - Ripping DVDs

Playing ripped DVDs

If you're not a QuickTime Player/iTunes fan but would like to play your H.264-based DVD rips on a PC, you will need to download a different media player or add H.264 support to Windows Media Player. My advice is to go with a free, lightweight player alternative like GOM Player or VLC Media Player. Both offer far better performance than Windows Media Player and QuickTime/iTunes and will be more battery friendly if you're watching on the go.

Using Windows Media Video

While Handbrake is a slam-dunk for those wishing to use H.264, the Windows Media Video (WMV) world is a bit less clear-cut. I'm not aware of any free DVD-to-WMV encoders, but I have purchased and can provisionally recommend a solution called Slysoft CloneDVD Mobile. It's a bit expensive at roughly $61, but it supports a wide range of portable devices specifically as well as WMV generally. If you're interested in WMV ripping, or using ripped DVDs with non-iPod devices, this looks like a decent choice. In my limited tests, I've found WMV-encoded movies created by CloneDVD Mobile to offer almost identical quality to similarly-encoded H.264 movies created by Handbrake. (CloneDVD Mobile supports Apple's devices as well, but Handbrake is a better and less expensive solution.)