By Jason Snell
January 31, 2017 3:08 PM PT
What I Use: Video on demand
A bit earlier I told you my sob story about a bad iTunes decision I made. What I often prefer to do is buy Blu-Ray discs, which are a “bag of hurt”, but can be converted into a much less painful (and more flexible) format. Here’s what I use to make that happen. (For a little more detail, here’s a story I wrote two years ago on the subject.)
USB Blu-Ray Drive. I have a couple of these drives, and they work just fine. You can’t use them to play Blu-Ray discs on the Mac, but that’s not the point—they work and work well, and you can use them to rip your old music CDs if you really want to, too.
MakeMKV. This utility lets you extract video files off of a Blu-Ray disc and save them in the Matroska Video container format. It takes time and uses up space, but it works! Once they’re off the disc and on your hard drive, you can convert them to playable formats with other software.
Don Melton’s transcoding scripts. Former Apple engineer Don Melton has spent an awful lot of time finding the best presets for converting those extracted files from Blu-Ray discs into high-quality, playable videos. Installing his scripts is somewhat technical—you need to install them via the command line, and if that terrifies you, you should probably just use Handbrake, which is a standard Mac app and works well, and comes with a bunch of presets that let you choose the right level of quality.
Once I got Don’s scripts running, though, I found that I prefer them to Handbrake because I’d rather trust in Don than in Handbrake. So, if you’re up for a little Terminal work, give Don’s stuff a try. If you’re not, Handbrake will convert those MKV files just as well.
Plex. I used to add video files to iTunes and use the Computers item on the Apple TV to play them on my network. These days I use Plex, which I run on my Mac mini server (but you can also run on network-attached storage devices like those from Synology). Plex apps are available for iOS and Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV and many other platforms, so I can browse my entire video collection from just about anywhere. The Plex server can transcode video on the fly for the appropriate device and network connection speed. You can also download videos from a Plex server to the Plex app on the iPad and play them back when you’re offline.
(Plex will transcode MKV files, too—I use Don’s scripts to do the transcoding because I don’t want to save the enormous Blu-Ray files and I prefer to hang on the option to load my videos directly onto my iPad rather than use an intermediary like Plex.)
Plex is a bit strange when it comes to metadata, but this article by Casey Liss showed me the one true way to name your video files. Once you follow Casey’s guide, the Plex experience becomes a lot easier to navigate. There’s also a great episode of Mac Power Users that talks a whole lot about using Plex.
Format pain. I’m not going to go deep into this, but yes, I do sometimes use TunesKit to convert iTunes-purchased videos to DRM-free format. It works, but it’s not cheap and it’s not for everyone. Still, if you want to get your iTunes movies playable on non-Apple devices, this is the way to do it. Also, if you’re a big fan of Marvel/Pixar/Disney movies, you should sign up for Disney Movies Anywhere—basically, it’s a free service that lets you connect your iTunes, Google, and Amazon accounts, so if you buy a movie in one store, it’s automatically available to you in all the different stores. (It also upgraded my old standard-def copy of Iron Man to HD!)
So that’s my story. In a couple of days my “When Harry Met Sally” Blu-ray will arrive, and my Plex server will get it soon after.