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.
Over 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.
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.