How To Rip DVDs to Play on Any Device—For Free!

By Will Smith

Our ultimate DVD copying guide shows you how to use Handbrake to rip discs for playback on your laptop, Xbox, PS3, iPhone, Zune, netbook, iPad, PSP, iPod, and pretty much anything else

There are a nearly infinite number of reasons to rip your DVD collection to more compressed, more compatible formats. Whether you want to use your Apple TV or Xbox 360 as a video jukebox with nigh-instant access to all your favorite flicks, protect your precious discs from the peanut buttery hands of your toddlers, or you just want to watch Pee Wee’s Big Adventure on your iPhone, ripping DVDs is easy and takes about a half hour—assuming you have a relatively modern computer with a multi-core CPU. Want to know more? We’ll show you exactly how to rip DVDs for playback on all your devices—Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, iPhone, iPod, Zune, laptop, netbook, and PSP—the fast and easy way.             

     

The big benefit to ripping your DVDs is that you can shrink the 4-8GB MPEG2 videos on your DVDs to much more compressed file without reducing the quality noticeably. The secret is the H.264 video codec, alternately called MPEG-4 Part 10 or simply AVC. H.264 can compress DVD-resolution video with no reduction in quality at less than half the bitrate of MPEG2. The upshot is that the video that takes up 7GB on your DVD will take 1GB-2GB or less on your iPhone or on your streaming server.

It’s worth mentioning that bypassing the copy protection mechanisms that are present on most DVDs is illegal in the US under the DMCA, but there are questions about the legality of the no breaking copy protection portion of the law, and there’s been no legal challenge to that portion of the law. The upshot to a normal person who just wants to rip discs for personal use it that it’s very unlikely that you’ll be caught and prosecuted for ripping discs, unless you do something dumb, like post your ripped videos on the Internet. As long as you don’t distribute the ripped movies, everything should be cool.

What You’ll Need

Whether you’re going to rip discs on Mac or PC, our DVD ripping software of choice is Handbrake. Handbrake uses a modified version of the X264 codec to convert the MPEG2 video on DVDs to the more efficient H.264 format, but it lacks the ability to decrypt the CSS encryption found on most commercial DVDs due to US law. Because of that, you’ll need to use a second application to handle decryption duties—whether you’re on OS X or Windows. On the Mac, you can simply download VLC and tell Handbrake where to find it. If you’re using 32-bit Handbrake, you’ll need 32-bit VLC; if you’re using 64-bit Handbrake, you’ll need 64-bit VLC, which can be a little tricky to find, at least right now. You’ll need to download a nightly build (look for one with intel64 in the name), but you may need to try one or two before you get one that actually works. It’s worth it though, because the 64-bit version of Handbrake is about 10% faster than the 32-bit app on the same hardware. Alternately, you could just use Fairmount, which works much like AnyDVD to decrypt DVDs on the fly.     

Fairmount for OS X

PC users have a lot of decryption options, but VLC is not one of them. If you’re running 32-bit Windows, DVD43 is a great, on-the-fly DVD decrypter. It’s free, but it doesn’t work with 64-bit Windows. If you’re running 64-bit, AnyDVD does exactly the same thing, but it costs 50 Euros for a 2 year subscription. It is incredibly well supported though, and is well worth the money if you’re planning on ripping your entire movie collection. Alternately, 64-bit users can rip discs to their hard drives first using DVD Decrypter. This adds another step, but it may be better than spending $50 for AnyDVD. Windows users will also want to download and install VLC, as Handbrake needs it to display video previews. 

AnyDVD DVD Info Pane
Pioneer DVR-116DBK and Samsung SH-S223 (with a firmware patch) are the fastest drives for DVD ripping.

Ripping Your Discs

At this point, we’re going to assume that you’ve installed Handbrake as well as your DVD decryption software for your platform of choice, so you should be ready to rip your first disc. Drop it in the tray, open Handbrake, and click the Source button. Point it at your DVD drive (or choose the folder option and point it to the folder you ripped the disc to, if you’re using DVD Decrypter instead of AnyDVD or DVD43) and wait while Handbrake scans your disc. If all goes well, Handbrake should detect the movie and select it automatically, but it’s a good idea to check the runtime that Handbrake reports and make sure that it’s within a minute or two of the number reported on the back of the box. 

The default settings for video quality (Constant Quality, 60%) and cropping are very good, although they can be overkill for handheld devices. You’ll want to select the proper profile for your devices, although it’s our experience that pretty much any device that supports H.264 will work with the Regular -> Normal preset, which uses main profile H.264 for video and encodes audio as two-channel AAC in a MP4 container. You may want to adjust those settings for your specific device (we’ll cover what devices support which settings in a bit), but for general playback on everything, go Normal. Handbrake should also configure itself to properly crop, detelecine, and deinterlace the movie, but you’ll need to look at audio and subtitle options, for foreign movies, but also for English-language films that include characters who speak another language and are subtitled, like Star Wars.

Let’s hit audio first. As a general rule, you’ll only need to adjust audio for foreign language films. IT’s simple—click the Audio tab, then choose the track you want on the left. If you’re using an MP4 container (also called M4V by Apple), you’ll want to stick with AAC for the format, but you can adjust the audio mixdown based on the devices you want your video to work with. Mixdown is simply the process that Handbrake uses to combine multiple audio channels—typically on DVD you have five positional channels and one subwoofer channel. Unfortunately, neither the PS3 nor the Xbox 360 properly supports 5.1 audio in MP4 containers.

Handbrake Audio Selection

Handbrake Subtitles

Now, all you need to do is make sure Handbrake is going to save your ripped movie as a MP4 file and decide what to call your ripped video and where to save it. Once you’ve done that, you can press the Start button to get the rip started. Depending on the speed of your machine, it will take anywhere from 25 minutes to a couple of hours to do the rip.

If you have a slow machine, or just want to queue up a bunch of rips to go overnight. You can copy the decrypted DVD’s VIDEO_TS folder to a folder on your hard drive, then point Handbrake to that and follow the steps listed above.   Instead of pressing Start to start your rip, if you press Add to Queue, you can queue multiple rips to run one after the other. Make sure Handbrake is actually processing the queue before you go to bed though! Your rips won’t start until you open the queue and press the Start button.

Best Presets for Different Devices

After testing a whole boatload of different presets on a host of devices to see what works best, if you want to rip for one particular device with the best possible picture, sound, and subtitle settings, instead of ripping for maximum compatibility. Here's what we found. 

Xbox 360

For native streaming to the Xbox 360, we use the High Profile setting, unfortunately with the audio stream mixed down to simple stereo AAC. The Xbox 360 simply can't handle 5.1 streamed audio, unless you use Microsoft's proprietary container and video codec. Bummer. While you could use a tool like Nero to rip high quality WMV for playback on the Xbox 360, that will work with virtually no other devices.

Playstation 3

    
      

We prefer the PS3 to the Xbox for streaming, even though it doesn't support 5.1 AAC in MP4 containers either. It makes up for that shortcoming by including support for many more container formats, including mt2s and vob. This means you have a couple of options if you want 5.1 sound streamed to the PS3, either you can pack your files in a container that the PS3 supports natively, or you can use server software that will transcode those files on the fly--like PS3 Media Server. To create native files, rip using the High Profile preset in Handbrake, but select the MKV container. Go to the audio tab and make sure that you've selected the English AC3 track, set the audio codec to AC3 Passthru and set Mixdown to Automatic. Then use mkv2vob to convert your mkv files to m2ts files. It's a little more involved than simply transcoding, but the resulting files will work with most servers, and you'll retain the ability to fast forward and rewind the movie as you watch it.

AppleTV


AppleTV is not a great way to stream video, but if you use either the AppleTV or the Apple Universal preset, you'll get pretty good results. You need to use the MP4 container, but keep in mind that the AppleTV doesn't support soft subtitles on ripped movies, so you'll need to burn them into video if you want to see them on your movie.

 WD TV/Popcorn Hour/Asus O!Play/Seagate FreeAgent/Etc

These devices are universally awesome for playing ripped videos. They're cheap, easy to setup, and play virtually every type of file out there. We recommend using the High Profile with a MKV container, burned in subtitles, and the AC3 passthrough setting for your audio tracks. While most of these devices will support soft subtitles, getting them to work can be a hassle, and it's really unnecessary, unless you have a multi-lingual household and need to be able to turn subtitles on and off at will. The best thing about these devices is that they're cheap--our favorites are the Asus O!Play and the Western Digital TV--you should be able to find either for less than $120. 

iPhone/iPod Touch

Any of the Apple-specific presets will work with the iPhone, but any soft subtitles or 5.1 channel audio streams you include will be stripped out by iTunes before they're transferred to the iPhone. For that reason, if you're ripping exclusively to play on the iPhone, we recommend the iPhone preset.

 ZuneHD

The ZuneHD is a little bit of a tricky beast. While it's screen is relatively low resolution, the if you hook it up to your TV or monitor, it will output 720p video, if you have it stored at high resolution on the device. If you're not going to hook the Zune up to your TV, the iPhone preset is just what you're looking for. If you are going to connect to a TV, the TK preset looks great, even on a big screen. 

Playstation Portable

Of the build in presets, only the iPhone and Regular Normal profile presets work with the PSP. You can use either, but we found that the Regular Normal profile gave better video quality for the PSP's screen.

I’ve Ripped My DVD Collection, What’s Next?

Now that your DVDs are all ripped, and sitting in a folder on your hard drive. What to do with them? Well, you can start by copying them onto your favorite portable player. Or, alternately set up a DLNA server on your computer and use it to stream them across the network. We’re partial to the TwonkyMedia Server software, which is awesome and available for Mac, PC, and Linux, but costs $30. If you’re looking for a free-er alternative, try the increasingly misnamed PS3 Media Server. PS Media Server is good, but it’s not updated very frequently, it’s more difficult to configure, and requires Java to work.

The Behind the Scenes DVD Authoring Info You May or May Not Care About

There’s a lot more to ripping DVDs than ripping CDs. While you don’t necessarily need to know how DVD authoring or ripped video files work, more understanding can help you troubleshoot problems, when you have them. And, if you’re going to rip a substantial DVD collection, you’re almost certain to find a problem disc.

Let’s start with containers. The container file does exactly what its name implies—it holds all the different components that make up your movie including the video stream, the audio stream, and the subtitle stream. Containers simply specify how the data within them is stored, not how it’s encoded. Containers are kind of like zip files, minus the compression. There are a whole bunch of container formats, but the ones you’ll see most frequently are MP4 (or M4V), MKV, AVI, VOB, and MOV. Container formats can be very open (they work with many different video and audio formats) or locked down to just a handful of compatible codecs. Containers can also limit your support for features like subtitles, as well as contain the metadata about your movies. We recommend using the MP4 container for maximum compatibility and minimum file size, although you’ll need to keep your MP4 files under 4GB for compatibility with the Xbox 360.

Next up is the video stream. Usually, the video stream is highly compressed using a video codec, like H.264 or MPEG2, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be. The container type used determines which codecs are compatible. Most hardware supports H.264’s normal profile, which is what we recommend using.

There are two variables that are relevant to audio streams: codec used and number of channels. While MP4 supports up to 5.1 AAC audio, the common streaming platforms and mobile devices don’t. If you want to stream to your Xbox 360, you’ll need to downmix the audio to 2 channels. Yes, we know. It sucks. Some containers let you store multiple audio streams for one movie, so you can store the English audio track, the director’s commentary, and the French dubbed track, all in one file.

Finally, subtitles. In almost all cases subtitles are stored on DVDs in a soft format, which your player renders over the video stream. DVDs contain multiple subtitle streams to support viewers who speak different languages or are deaf or hard of hearing. Unfortunately, a surprisingly large number of movies use forced subtitles. They’re used for non-English language text in a movie where the primary language spoken is English, and they’re typically displayed whether you’ve turned subtitles on or not. Some discs label the specific lines that should always be displayed in the main English subtitle stream, but older discs may include two separate English-language subtitle tracks—one for forced subs and one for all subtitles. Unfortunately, few devices actually support soft subtitles, so Handbrake includes the handy-dandy option to permanently burn subtitles into the video stream. This takes a little more time, but it’s vital if you watch many foreign movies.