One of the great things about smaller consumer electronics is that you can take your entertainment anywhere, and not have to be worried about lugging a lot of hardware and cables with you. This is especially true of DVD video. A portable DVD player doesn't take up much room and is quite light. But for a growing number of people, even a portable DVD player is a bit much. They want to be able to view video on a smaller device.
How much smaller? How about something that fits in the palm of their hands? Devices like digital media players, the popular iPod Nano, or even a smartphone. In fact, a good friend of mine watches movies on his Blackberry while travelling.
As you've probably noticed, the average portable device doesn't come with an optical drive. You have to convert a DVD to a format that the device can play, and then copy the resulting file to the device. There is a lot of software out there that does anywhere from a decent to a very good job of converting DVD video. One of the best and most flexible that I've encountered is an Open Source application called Handbrake.
Getting to know Handbrake
Handbrake enables you to convert video on a DVD to MPEG-4, which is a method of encoding and compressing video. It can output multiple video formats, and you can target the video for a number of devices including:
There are version of Handbrake for Windows, Mac OS, and Linux. The Windows and Mac OS versions both have graphical and command line versions; the Linux version is command line only. This TechTip will be focusing on the Windows version of the application.
You can download an installer for Handbrake. Before you install it on Windows, though, you'll need to install Microsoft .NET Framework 2.0. Once .NET Framework is in place, the installation for Handbrake takes less than a minute.
The user interface for Handbrake isn't pretty. But it gets the job done. The options can seem a bit confusing, especially if you're not familiar with digital video. But, as discussed a little later, a lot of the work is done for you by the program. You only need to customize a conversion if you really want or need to.
With Handbrake running, insert a DVD into your computer's optical drive. In Handbrake, click the Browse button in the Source area. In the dialog box that appears, find the drive that you're DVD is in.Then, navigate to the folder VIDEO_TS -- for example,
D: \ VIDEO_TS.
This is where the video data on a DVD is stored. Then, click OK.
Handbrake will try to read the contents of the folder. I say try because Handbrake can't deal with copy protected DVDs. How do you know when you've got such a DVD on your hands? There are two sure signs: first, Handbrake will take longer than a minute to read the DVD; and second, the message "No Title(s) found. Please make sure you have selected a valid, non-copy protected source" appears.
Fiddling with settings
Handbrake comes with 17 presets -- each one for a different target device. With the presets, everything is done for you. All the settings are optimized for the target device, and you only need specify the folder into which you want to save the converted video, and then click the Start button to do the conversion. With the half dozen or so DVDs that I worked with, the results garnered by using the presets were more than good enough.
But if you feel the need, you can change any of the settings before doing the conversion. The three sets of settings that you'll change the most are Output Settings and Picture Settings.
Output Settings control the way in which Handbrake encodes the video and audio. You can choose one of the following video encoding options from the Encoder list: H.264 (balances good quality and a smaller file size), Xvid (which can be burned to a CD or DVD and played in a player that supports DivX video), and MPEG-4 (higher-quality video that's well suited for streaming or broadcast). From the Audio Encoder list, choose one of the following: ACC, MP3, Vorbis, AC3, or ACC + AC3. For more information about these formats, see this TechTip.
Picture Settings control how the video looks while you're watching it. If you want a smaller picture, you can choose Custom from the Crop list. Then, you can specify the number of pixels that you want to crop from the top, bottom, and sides. You can also squeeze the image to fit within the screen by clicking either the Anamorphic PAR (which precisely squeezes the image, making it clearer) or Loose Anamorphic (less precise, but still clear) options. According to the developers of Handbrake "there are some other minor differences in the output of loose versus strict, but they are nerdy." Unless you're a dyed-in-the-wool videophile, you probably won't notice the differences.
Note: A lot of Handbrake users have shared their custom settings with the wider user community. You can read about how some users have set up Handbrake here.
Doing the conversion
Whether you're using the Handbrake presets or if you've created some custom settings, once you're ready to perform the conversion all you need to do is click the Start button. A terminal window appears, and displays a running tally of the progress of the conversion. Note that the conversion can be slow, even if you have a fast PC with a lot of memory. It can take half an hour or more to convert an average DVD. Be prepared to go get some coffee or a snack while Handbrake is doing its thing.
After that, all you need to do is transfer the video file to your portable device. You can either sync it with your computer, or do what a friend of mine does: copy the file to a secure digital card and then pop the card into your device (in his case a smartphone). From there, you're ready to watch video while on the go.
Running into problems
I've found that using the presets, the output from Handbrake is quite good. But your mileage may vary. Aside from the copy protection problem that I mentioned earlier, there are a number of other problems that you can encounter. The Handbrake support FAQ details solutions to some of the more common problems. And you can always find help in the user forums.
Overall, though, Handbrake is a solid application that can do a solid job of converting DVD video to a format that can be played on a portable device. It's fairly easy to use, and is frequently updated. If nothing else, Handbrake is worth a close look before you think about buying a relatively expensive piece of commercial conversion software.