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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

How I rip DVDs and Blu-rays

dvdrip

The hutch beneath my living-room TV is filled with DVDs and Blu-rays. Many of these are TV shows that now stream in HD on Netflix, making me question my purchase decisions, but every time I’m about to take a flight or go somewhere with questionable connectivity, it’s nice to be able to load some of these movies onto an iPad and not worry about it.

When I mention converting DVDs and Blu-rays on Twitter, people ask me about the method I use. For some people, getting video off of a disc and playable in iTunes or on an iOS device is old news. For other people, though, it’s still a bit of a mystery. Back in the Macworld days, one of our most popular stories was about how to convert DVDs into files, so clearly there’s interest in this subject.

I’ll detail my methods below, but as at Macworld I want to start with a disclaimer: I don’t use these tools for piracy, and neither should you. I use these tools on discs that I own, in order to create files that I keep within my household. Is it legal? Your mileage may vary. Distributing files that subvert copy protection is arguably illegal in the United States; using that software is more arguably legal. I don’t have any qualms about place-shifting my personal viewing of content I’ve purchased and still own. Still, if the idea of any of this makes you uncomfortable, look away.

The mise en place: What you’ll need

An external optical drive. Time was, almost every Mac came with an optical drive. But those days are gone now. I have two of this $40-ish model, which serves as a CD/DVD burner and also reads Blu-ray discs. It’s not pretty, but it works. (If your Mac does have an optical drive, you can use it—unless you want to read Blu-rays.)

HandBrake. There’s only one primary tool that Mac video converters need, and that’s HandBrake. It’s free and it works.

DeCSS. There was a time when HandBrake shipped with the software required to decrypt standard DVD copy protection, but unfortunately that time has passed. Fortunately, you can download and install that file, and then HandBrake will convert copy-protected DVDs just fine.

(Update: El Capitan breaks installed versions of libdvdcss due to the new System Integrity Protection feature. However, there are some workarounds. Look in /Library/SystemMigration/History/, inside a folder that begins with the word Migration, and inside the QuarantineRoot folder inside there. If you see libdvdcss.2.dylib inside there, great! Move it to /usr/local/lib. (To get there, type Command-G inside a new Finder window, and type out the path. If your Mac says that no such directory exists, go to /usr/local instead, and make a new folder called lib.) Once the file is moved to /usr/local/lib, HandBrake will see it and all will be good. You can also just install a copy via homebrew by typing brew install libdvdcss, if you’ve got homebrew set up. Or just download the file and copy that file into /usr/local/lib.)

MakeMKV. If you want to convert Blu-rays, use MakeMKV. It’s free during its extended beta, but I bought a copy. MakeMKV will let you extract Blu-ray discs right onto your hard drive, but its interface is wonky. Fortunately, it can also work with HandBrake!

Dave Hamilton wrote an essential piece about getting Blu-ray ripping to work with HandBrake over at The Mac Observer, which you should check out. Basically, once you install MakeMKV and HandBrake, you need to issue a few Terminal commands to give HandBrake the ability to understand the format of Blu-ray discs.

mkdir -p ~/lib
ln -s /Applications/MakeMKV.app/Contents/lib/libmmbd.dylib ~/lib/libaacs.dylib
ln -s /Applications/MakeMKV.app/Contents/lib/libmmbd.dylib ~/lib/libbdplus.dylib

Getting started with HandBrake

full-handbrake

Once you’ve got everything set up, converting discs is relatively easy. HandBrake’s interface takes some getting used to, though it comes with presets that make life easier. Insert the disc you want to convert and open HandBrake, which will prompt you to select that disc in an Open dialog box. HandBrake will churn for a while as it reads the disc.

If you don’t see a drawer on the side of the HandBrake window, click the Toggle Presets button in the toolbar. HandBrake’s developers are kind enough to provide a bunch of presets, including ones for Apple devices. You can also create your own presets or import ones saved by other people.

For most iOS use, I recommend the “AppleTV 2” and “AppleTV 3” presets, which will generate files that are no larger than 720p HD and 1080p HD, respectively. And despite the name of the preset, these files play just fine on an iPad or iPhone. (If you’re only planning on viewing on a small device, you might want to save space and opt for the 720p/AppleTV 2 preset, especially since only the iPhone 6 Plus can really show a native 1080p image.)

Once you click on a preset, you can pretty much press the Start button in the toolbar and get going—HandBrake tries to pick the right video file to convert, with frequent success. But there are plenty of areas of the interface you should familiarize yourself with. I’m not going to step through everything there is to know about HandBrake—you should check out that Macworld article for more—but I want to hit the highlights.

Title pop-up. This is where you pick which video you want to convert. On a disc with a movie, you’ll probably have a bunch of small bonus features and a single, long track that’s the main feature. HandBrake will show you the running time of all the tracks (at the end of each entry, in the format 00h00m). In my example, there were two tracks, and the one that was three hours and five minutes long was the one I wanted, so I selected it. If you’re ever unclear about which title is which, select one and then click the Preview Window button in the toolbar. You’ll be able to scrub through and see the contents to confirm that it’s the item you want to convert.

If you’re converting a disc with multiple items on it—say, several episodes of a TV series—you’ll want to select each one in turn and then rather than clicking on the Start button in the toolbar, click on the Add to Queue button. Then when you reach the last item on the disc, press Start and all the items you’ve queued will be converted in turn.

Video tab. Halfway down the HandBrake window is a set of tabs, labeled Video, Audio, Subtitles, and Chapters. On the Video tab, the most important feature to pay attention to is the Framerate (FPS) pop-up. American TV plays at 30fps, British TV at 25fps, movies at 24fps. I always set Framerate to “Same as source,” so HandBrake doesn’t bother to convert the framerate of the video and leaves it to the playback devices to get it right. I’ve never had a problem with this approach.

Audio tab. Video files can have more than one audio track. By default, most HandBrake presets for Apple devices try to lay down two audio tracks: A mixed-down stereo track that’s listenable on any device, and a digital track that’ll play back on any home theater system that supports DTS or Dolby Digital.

This stuff can get complicated. Some audio formats can be passed through, and others can be converted. You can also select additional tracks, such as foreign-language or commentary tracks, and convert them too. In general I’ll pass through a 5.1 surround track if it’s offered as a secondary source, but the first audio track is a stereo mixdown in case I’m watching on an iPad.

In this case, there’s a secondary audio track I want, but I can’t tell which of the three sets of English audio tracks I want. To find out, I select one as the top audio track, then click Preview Window in the toolbar, then click the Live Preview button to give me a 15-second preview. If the audio I selected is the one I want, I know which track to select. If it isn’t, I repeat the process until I find the track I’m looking for.

Previewing an audio track to see if it’s the right one.

Other tabs. I don’t touch the other tabs, usually, but if you’re someone with subtitled content, you’ll need to experiment with the Subtitles tab to make sure you’re going to get the options you want. If your movie or TV show has occasional subtitles for foreign languages (think Greedo in “Star Wars”), choose the Foreign Audio Search option and HandBrake will try to find any subtitles that are meant to be visible during the movie when it’s being played in its default language.

What’s next

Video files take a long time to encode. Even on my 5K iMac, this three-hour HD baseball game will take more than two hours to encode. Be patient, or let your encodes run overnight.

Once my files are done, I transfer them to a very large hard drive (in my case, it’s a Drobo 5D) and add them to iTunes. I can watch them on my AppleTV via home sharing or transfer them to my iOS devices. The ultimate goal is to make my DVD boxes as irrelevant as my old collection of CD jewel cases.

If you really want to get nerdy and take control of your video encoding process, let me recommend the works of Don Melton. If you don’t know who Don is, he’s a former Apple engineer who is pretty obsessed with transcoding his disc collection. After discussing his video methods on Rene Ritchie’s Vector podcast, he posted a GitHub project with his video transcoding scripts. This is graduate-level stuff, but I’m glad Don is out there tweaking HandBrake’s settings to get the perfect encodes so that I don’t have to.

Is it worth it?

Good question, section heading! I don’t know. As I said at the start, a lot of my DVDs have now been released in HD formats. Do I want to bother ripping a standard-definition copy of a movie or TV show that’s now available in HD? Perhaps I should just wait for the next time I want to watch it, and buy it on iTunes, or buy the Blu-ray, or stream it from Netflix or Amazon. I’m not converting a lot of standard-def video these days.

I’m not buying many Blu-rays these days, but sometimes the format just offers more content than is available via download. And of course, even when those Blu-rays come with digital copies, the copies are often in standard definition or trapped behind hinky apps and UI. An example: When I bought the J.J. Abrams “Star Trek” on Blu-ray, it came with a standard-definition digital copy. When I want to watch “Star Trek” on my iPad on a trip, what version do I watch? The ripped Blu-ray, of course.

Will I ever really convert my entire video collection to digital formats? I suspect I will probably convert the stuff that’s not readily available elsewhere—these World Series games are never gonna be on Netflix—and deem much of the rest of it disposable.

If you’ve got questions or comments about this, feel free to drop me a note at jsnell@sixcolors.com. I will update this post if it turns out there are questions that I haven’t properly answered.

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