Convert DVD and Blu-ray discs to digital video files

by Neil Bonner on May 9, 2012

in Life, Review

Moving your video collection from DVD or Blu-ray discs to “on demand” digital content is easier than you may think. As the years have gone by your collection of commercial DVD discs has likely grown large. In recent years you may also have purchased blu-ray discs because of their superior High Definition resolution on large HD televisions. With the advent of devices like the Apple TV which lets you stream your own music and video content, more people are considering converting their existing content rather than repurchasing it in a digital (non-disc) form.

Apple TV with remoteOver the past few years, I have converted my favorite movies and TV shows into a format that I can stream directly to my HD television. I also load movies onto my iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch devices.  The best part is that you can do it yourself without spending much money. Here’s how.

There are a number of devices you can hookup to your HD TV that can act as a media server/player. My favorite is the Apple TV which can play videos and movies in 1080p and it supports Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound. At only $99 it is an incredible bargain especially if you already use iTunes to manage your music and video content. You will also need a computer and an external hard drive to hold all of your media. I use an Apple Mac Mini to convert my disc content to digital files. If you do not have a DVD reader/writer the Apple SuperDrive is a good drive for Mac users. Another option to consider is the Samsung USB2.0 External Slim Blu-ray Writer Drive. It uses two USB 2.0 ports but requires no power cable. It’s small, lightweight, supports both DVD and Blu-ray, works on Windows and Macs; all for around $80. I use the Samsung drive to “rip” Blu-ray discs directly to my computer’s external hard drive.

Some terminology

If you are a novice at converting video content there are a few concepts you need to understand before you dive into the deep end. “Ripping,” refers to the process of moving content from a DVD or Blu-ray disc to (usually) a hard disk. “Re-encoding,” or to transcode refers to the process of changing a video from one format (or size) into a different format or size. Then there is “muxing or to remux” which refers to the process of repackaging the content into a new container but not changing the actual content. Lastly, you will want to “tag” content with metadata so that you can browse your video collection by title, genre (drama, comedy), rating, etcetera. This may sound more complicated than it is in practice, yet if you follow the steps below you can have your own on-demand digital library.

Is this legal?

The first step is to choose a DVD or Blu-ray disc that you legally own. The U.S. Copyright Office has issued exemptions to prohibition on circumvention of copyright protection systems. The ruling would allow consumers to legally remove copy protection on DVDs and Blu-ray discs in order to backup or change the format of the content – which is exactly the process we describe. Be advised that you must have legally acquired and own any disc that you intend to convert and the conversion must be for your own private use.

Follow these simple steps

Step 1: Rip the disc to your hard drive. There are a number of programs both commercial and shareware that can do this step. I recommend MakeMKV. While this program is still in beta (been there for years) it is free to use. MakeMKV comes in both Mac and Windows versions. It will take your Blu-ray or DVD disc and remove the copy protection and save the video, audio and subtitles to your hard drive without altering the content by compressing the video, for example. The MakeMKV program stores the movie into the Matroska Video (MKV) container format that is open and patent-free. The MKV format has quickly become a de-facto standard for storing movies.

After the movie is ripped to the hard drive you will want to preview it to ensure that the video, audio and subtitle tracks (if any) have been saved properly. I recommend you use the free Videolan VLC application as it will play movies in nearly all videos formats. It is important to check and ensure that you saved the correct audio track(s) as you want to be able to hear your movie in full Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound. Alternatively, you can use the free MediaInfo program to check the video file to ensure that it was ripped correctly. MediaInfo allows you to peer inside of most video files to check out things like the bitrates and other conversion settings.

Normally you cannot stop at this step because the resultant video file is too large to fit onto many devices or too large for video streaming over a home WiFi network. DVD rips typically are between 5GB and 8GB in size. Blu-ray rips typically are between 17GB and 35GB. Also the MKV format is not a container format that the AppleTV, QuickTime, or Windows Media Player is able to play.

Step 2: Encode the video into a format that works for your device. Apple products use the H.264 / MPEG-4 Advanced Video Coding (AVC) which is a standard for video compression of high definition content. In most cases you will want your videos in this format. The beauty of the H.264 format is that it can preserve the video quality at substantially lower bitrates than previous standards. I mostly encode my rips to play thru my AppleTV in 1080p (if the source is a Blu-ray disc). If I want to play the content primarily on an iPad or iPhone, I would likely save the movie in 720p resolution. DVD source content should be saved in 480p resolution for best results.

The best program to convert your rips into device-playable content is HandBrake. This is a magnificent piece of open source (GPL) software that works on Mac, Windows or Linux. HandBrake has many options and can be complicated to figure out the optimal settings to use. Thankfully, the program comes with several default profiles including a profile for the AppleTV3 that can be used as-is or adapted. I may write another blog post about the ideal conversion settings for Handbrake, but for now this article focuses on the overall process of converting movie discs to digital video files.

Completing this step will take a typical 25GB MKV file (blu-ray rip) and save it down to a 4GB to 6GB M4V (MP4) file. Note that processing a feature-length movie in 1080p with “high quality” options can take a considerable amount of time even with a fast computer. Using a Mac Mini with an i5 processor, I can expect encodes in the range of 5 to 12 Frames per Second (FPS) when performing 1080p encodes. If your computer cannot encode at this speed or faster, you should consider scaling down display size or the quality.

Step 3: Tag your digital video file. The last step in preparing your new video file is to tag it with the metadata that describes the content. My favorite program for this is Subler which is only available on the Mac platform. If you use Windows, MetaX is a good metadata editor and costs $9.95. Both of these applications allow you to search online for a content match (movie, TV Show) and automatically tag the file with the relevant metadata. You should also be able to load artwork during this process so that the cover image shows up nicely as you browse through your movie titles. Both of these apps are worthy of your support and can save you a lot of time versus manually searching the web to find the right metadata.

Step 4: Load your video file for access. By simply using drag-and-drop I can add the video file to iTunes. I use iTunes to stream my content to all of my Apple devices. My iTunes library is on my Mac Mini which is always on our WiFi network which means my content is always available. You will want to have a device that is always on and always available on your home network.

Hopefully you will find this quick overview helpful. Once you become proficient with this method there are other tools available for more sophisticated video conversions.

  • S Fitzpatrick

    Okay so I am not ashamed to say that I am not by anyway great with electronics. I have and IMac and what I want to do is convert some of my sons favorite dvds so that we can put them on his kindle for when we are traveling this summer….is this process how i would get there??? or is it even possible. Using the cloud won’t work, we have a long drive and an even longer flight without wi fi. THanks S Fitz

  • IrishPrince

    Yes, just follow the directions to create a MP4 video file. Then you can follow these directions to transfer the video to your Kindle Fire: http://howto.cnet.com/8301-11310_39-57339867-285/how-to-put-your-videos-on-a-kindle-fire/
    Good luck!

  • S Fitzpatrick

    Thank you so much!!

  • Stephanie

    Wonderful information, thank you! I did have one question, several of the DVDs I’m planning on converting are not movies, rather they are series (ex. Walking with Dinosaurs & Ken Burns Civil War are just two in my collection). They are ripped fine in MakeMKV but then I don’t know how to combine them into one title. I could leave them as separate files but it would be easier if they were combined into one for playback. I don’t see a way to do that with HandBrake, is there a program you could recommend to stitch the files together before sending them through HandBrake?

  • IrishPrince

    Stephanie, most folks keep the eposodes in a TV series as separate files. iTunes, in particular is designed to handle them that way. However, if you still want to combine them then “MKV Tools” or “mkvtoolnix” should be able to combine them for you. HandBrake is not really designed to combine files that way. Good luck!

  • Stephanie

    Oh, now I see what you mean. I was worried they would be all over the place in the iTunes library but I see that after tagging it, iTunes does all the work to combine them. This is great, we’re traveling with our sons this fall & now I can take movies along to keep them happy on the plane. Thanks again!

  • IDA

    This was really helpful. I just encountered a problem with VLC when playing the file I made from MKV, everytime I want to fast forward or skip a chapter VLC crashes, anyone else who has had this problem and found out what to do?

  • blakecpa

    Neil, I am having a problem with subtitles. I can rip the movies with MakeMKV, then convert them to MP4 with HandBrake. When I play the resultant MP4 in VLC Player, the subs are there, with an option to toggle them on and off, like we’re all used to doing with DVDs. However, when I play the same MP4 in Windows Media Player or on my Ipad, there are no subs. In WMP there is an option for subs but when you choose it, nothing shows up. On the Ipad there is no option at all. What am I doing wrong? How can I fix this? Thanks!

  • IrishPrince

    blakecpa, Subtitles can be very complicated. You didn’t say you were converting Blu-ray discs but if you are then you need to use “foriegn audio search” in Handbreak and burn the subtitles into the video.

    DVDs generally use Vobsub which is a bitmap. iOS devices I believe only support “soft” subtitles such as those in the SRT format. Subler can convert bitmapped subs into SRT files as explained here:

    http://apple.stackexchange.com/questions/57095/subtitles-in-videos-dont-appear-on-ipad

    Hopefully, this helps you out somewhat.

  • blakecpa

    Thanks for the reply. What I’m trying to accomplish is an MP4 with subs that can be toggled on or off, just like you do with a DVD player. Everything I read on the web winds up just being instructions on how to permanently burn the subs onto the video, which isn’t what I want to do. For now I’m burning one version of the video with subs and one without, resulting in two copies of each movie. Is there a way to have the subs be a “toggle-able” option when playing the movie back??

  • IrishPrince

    Blake, the link in my previous reply explained that iOS devices and QuickTime only support SRT and 3GPP (soft) subtitles. Your MP4 video files are likely hard (bitmapped) subtitles. So if you want the ability to toggle on and off as you state, you will have to convert the bitmapped subs on your DVD to soft subs.

    If you google “subler windows alternatives” you may be able to find a program to do the conversions for you — unfortunately I’m mostly using Macs these days so I can’t recommend one for you.

    Generally speaking there are ‘crowed sourced’ soft subtitles out there on the Internet. Using a program like MP4 Tools will allow you to mux the soft subs into the main file without having to transcode again.

  • Gregory Allen

    Thank you for this article. Once I was able to get acquainted with the programs I haven’t had any issues, and I am on my way to having my collection in digital format. What I was wondering though, is it possible to do this conversion with 3D blu rays? And Sony is now putting out 4K movies, can these be converted into digital format?

  • IrishPrince

    Greg, there is a commercial product: DVD Fab Blu-ray (3D Plus), that is supposed to be able to rip Blu-ray 3D discs and convert them to 3D (or 2D) digital files. I haven’t used this product so I can’t say how well it may or may not work.

    I hear that Sony is coming out with a media server this fall that will be preloaded with 4K movies. Because of the large size of these movies they can only be loaded or upgraded via a hard-wired connection. As far as I know there are no 4K commercial discs available. None of the ripping or encoding products can currently handle 4K.

  • Gregory Allen

    Thanks for the information. The price is reasonable, but I don’t yet have the 3D TV or monitor, just the 3D blu-rays. So, I can’t quite justify the small investment yet, but if I get there I’ll report back on my experience.

  • Gregory Allen

    So no report yet on the 3D blu-rays, but I have a question. I just got the extended version of the The Lord of the Rings, and it is a two disc blu-ray per movie. Is there a way to rip both the blu rays and then somehow combine them in Handbrake to make one digital file? I’m going to continue looking into it, but thought you may have come across this issue already. Thanks for any help you may be able to provide.

  • IrishPrince

    I’m in a similar situation. I also purchased the extended version of the Lord of the Rings in Blu-ray. Right now I have them as two-part episodes however they can be made into one part for each of the three movies.

    Here’s how you do it. After you rip to disc using MakeMKV, use MKVtools (http://www.emmgunn.com/mkvtools/mkvtoolshome.html ) to join the two parts into one big MKV file. Then use Handbrake as you normally would to master a version suitable for your device(s).

  • Marina

    Great article but i am sooooooo confused…we have about 2000 dvds…we want to be able to just turn the tv on and flip through them virtually….we love apple…we have a macbook pro and macbook…in laymen terms can you roughly reccomend what to buy and what to do? Is there something better than appletv? if we use appletv, that means all those dvds are going to be stored on itunes? Please don’t laugh lol….my hubby and i need some help…thanks.

  • IrishPrince

    Hi Marina, based on what you love (Apple) and what you want to do (turn and TV and flip thru movies), here’s what you need and what I recommend.

    For you to pick out a movie “on demand” you need to have a computer in your house on all the time. MacBooks make a poor choice for “on all the time” since you will likely take the notebooks out of the house from time to time. A good choice for a media server would be a Mac Mini. See the right-hand column for my Mac Mini recommendation.

    You would hook up an external hard disk (see recommendation) that would hold all of your digital movies. iTunes just LINKS to these movies as I note in the article above. You would need to use the software that I describe above to convert the DVDs to digital movies. This is the high level overview. The details are in the article above. If you have any specific questions, just post again. I’m happy to help.

  • marina

    Thank you so much….it makes sense now…just needed one more clarification after reading your article…..thanks again!! :) this is going to be a huge project!

  • John Paul

    This is awesome! I successfully was able to put a few of my DVDs onto my external hardrive and it looks like the quality is pretty good. My question is this. My tv has a few USB ports and I hooked my external hardrive to my tv via the USB port and opened my media player on my tv and I was able to play the movies that way as well (after formatting the hardrive to MS-DOS(FAT)) but I was wondering if I lose video quality doing this? The video looked fine to me but I know DVDs are only 480p. If I try to rip blurays will I still be able to stream them at 720p or even 1080p via the USB port? Thanks!

  • IrishPrince

    The USB port is not the limiting factor, it’s if your TV can play HD content off of an external hard disk. My guess is that yes, it would work based on what you write above.

    One thing to consider is that Blu-Ray conversions can be larger than 4GB which means your MS_DOS FAT hard disk will not be able to store the movies as with FAT you are limited to 4GB as max file size. If you are a Windows user, you might consider formatting your external hard disk to use the NTFS file system. You can then have files that are over 4GB in size. Glad my article was able to help you out.

  • Chris Tubbs

    Neil,

    First thank you for posting this article – I have been looking for this very solution for some time.

    I followed the directions in this article and was successful in uploading my DVD to my iTunes folder. While it both is present and plays from the computer that I loaded this onto, it will not appear through my Apple TV.

    I loaded the digital movie into iTunes on my desktop computer. All my movies and music are stored on an external hard drive (a 4TB WD My Book Live Duo External Drive connected via ethernet to my desktop). I have verified that in my iTunes preferences, the storage location continues to be this External HD.

    When I access my Apple TV through my television, and I navigate to my digital movies, it does not appear…nor does it appear on any of my other Apple devices such as my iPad and iPhone. Should I be able to locate under the Movies/Purchased area or only through the Computer/My Library section of Apple TV? I have been trying to access it though the Movies/Purchased area as my Apple TV is having difficulty in accessing my library.

    I am at a loss as to why I cannot make it appear in my Apple TV. Can you provide any insight or recommendations? Thanks!

  • Wendy G Thomas

    Hello..Thanks for posting this. It is extremely helpful. Once the blu-ray has been converted and stored on the external hard drive is it possible to cut and edit? Thanks so much

  • IrishPrince

    Hi Chris,
    I have a few suggestions for you to try. First, make sure that you configure iTunes to share your library. This will allow the AppleTV to see your iTunes library.

    You also need to login to the AppleTV with the username you use for your iTunes account. Can you see (hear/play) the music files from the ATV?

    Of course, your ATV needs to be on your network and the video files that you converted should have M4V file extension.

    If you sync your iPad and iPhone with the computer that has your iTunes you can transfer the movies to those devices. Lastly, try using AirPlay from your iPhone or iPad to the AppleTV.
    Let me know how it goes!
    Neil

  • IrishPrince

    After you covert with HandBrake you have a ‘normal’ MP4 video file. So yes, you can cut and edit it for your own private use.

  • Shannon Bryant

    This article was exactly what I was looking for so thank you so much for sharing! I have been slowly ripping my old dvd’s using DVD Fab and HandBrake over the last couple of years. It’s a time consuming process but I’m almost done. We have upwards of 250 movies in our iTunes library an 3TB external drive. I recently splurged a bit and purchased a Mini Mac and Airport Time Capsule The 3TB is shared across all devices in our home network through the Airport Time Capsule and we use the Mac Mini as our media server and have connected it directly to our home theater system. I’m now looking to take things to the next level and start ripping my blue-rays instead of DVDs and had a couple of questions for you if you don’t mind.

    1. Even though I’ve been using HandBrake for what seems like forever, I have to admit I’m still a total noob. Honestly, I’m lucky I’ve gotten as far as I have without any issues and just haven’t taken the time to research all of the tecnhical settings to get to the ultimate sweet-spot for the best quality output (thank God for presets). So my first questions is, did you ever get around to documenting the tweaks to the ATV3 preset for blue-ray?

    2. Have you had any issues with blue-ray drive failure due to excessive use for ripping? We don’t currently own a blue-ray drive and I assume we can’t use our player for a drive (I apologize if this is a completely stupid question). My DH read something about the drives being less reliable and failing more frequently than a player. Not sure why that would be, but thought I would ask before we invest either way.

    3. With regard to blue-ray players / drives, other than the overall quality of the components, is there really a difference in the video / audio quality of say the $80 Samsung you mention above and a high end $1000 price point Marantz (realizing they probably don’t make drives)? The reason I ask is that my DH also splurged and purchased a high end Marantz home theater system. He’s having someone come out and professionally install and calibrate it and is now considering going high end on a new blue-ray player too. My preference would be to get the drive and just start ripping our blue-rays like we have with the DVDs and put them in the attic as and eliminate all of the clutter. He seems to be worried about 1) the reliability issue I mentioned above, 2) loss of audio / video quality through the conversion process or if we are watching the physical disk directly from the drive, going from it through the mini mac, then through the Marantz to the HDTV causing quality issues.

    Sorry for all the questions, but your blog is articulate and concise. You are obviously very knowledgeable about this process and the technology overall, so I would very much appreciate your thoughts / feedback. Thanks in advance for your time!

  • IrishPrince

    Hi Shannon,

    Glad to help and happy you found my post useful. You asked a lot of questions and here is my opinion (no right or wrong) and what I do.

    1. Handbrake is the best and no, I haven’t documented my settings in a separate blog post. Here are some recommendations that I find is the best for blu-ray that trades off quality, speed and storage considerations. Use the following to copy-and-paste in the advanced tab for the “options string”:

    b-adapt=2:vbv-maxrate=25000:vbv-bufsize=31250:deblock=-1,-1:psy-rd=1.0,0.15:bframes=5

    Under the “video” tab, use RF 22 for the “Constant Quality”. And always have “Web optimized” selected to you can stream without delay.

    Under the “audio” tab, use the DTS track to generate an AAC track and an AC3 track. You’ll get better sound by using the DTS track to generate the AC3 track (vis-a-vis the AC3 pass thru).

    2. No issue with the Blu-ray drive failure. I don’t even own a blu-ray PLAYER — I just use the blu-ray drive (which can’t play blu-ray movies) to rip to the hard disk with MakeMKV.

    3. You DH is right in that nothing is better than a Blu-ray player hooked directly up to your home theater system. But… you gotta deal with discs, etc. The one real advantage to a BD Player is that you can hear the DTS soundtrack. MP4 standard only gives you AC3 (5.1 soundtracks) as there is no DTS standard for MP4s yet. But… A good Handbrake conversions from DTS to AC3 is more than good enough for my ears.

    I agree with you about the ripping and streaming. Using my settings above 99% of the movie buffs could not tell the difference between a good HB conversion (video/audio) and raw BD. It’s way too convenient to have everything “on demand” from you iTunes direct to your TV.

    Let me know how it goes!
    -Neil

  • Wacey

    Hi, Just wondering if this will work for an external hard drive and what file does it usually have to be in to play on a TV. Thank you!

  • Shannon Bryant

    Thank you so much for the quick response and advise. I apologize for all the questions ;). I’m going to head out and see if we can find the BD writer you recommended and get started on our collection. I’ll let you know how it goes.

    One last question (for now at least). Do you need to purchase separate software to get the Samsung writer to work on the mac? I saw one the other day while wondering through Best Buy (I think it was Pioneer) that states it was compatible with mac but when I went online to research it, I found that you had to buy additional software to get it to work on a mac system.

  • IrishPrince

    You need no additional software on the Mac to Rip (copy) the movie to your hard disk as described. What others may be talking about is PLAYING the movie right from the drive. Which it won’t do without 3rd party software.

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