Convert video for the iPod

After years of consumer speculation and anticipation, Apple has finally released an iPod that not only plays music and displays photos, but also plays videos. And along with updating iTunes and the iTunes Music Store, Apple has made video content available for purchase and download.

But how about taking the video you already have—iMovies, DVDs you own, TV shows you’ve recorded with a Mac-based digital video recorder (DVR)—and converting them so you can play them back on the new iPod? No problem: just read on to get the lowdown on encoding and transferring your video content for viewing on-the-go.

Rip your DVDs

The first question many people have about the new iPod is “Can I put my DVDs on it?” And the answer is yes. The simplest way to do so is with the free HandBrake, an application that can rip DVD content to MPEG-4.

To rip a DVD, pop the disc into your DVD drive and launch HandBrake. Click on the Open button, and HandBrake will scan the disc. If HandBrake can’t read a disc (which sometimes happens with recent DVDs that have special copy protection), the app will give you the message “no valid title found.” In that case, you’ll need to download and run MacTheRipper, which is more adept at bypassing DVD copy protection (for legal reasons, its Web site has moved several times, so check VersionTracker if you need it). If you’ve used MacTheRipper, choose DVD Folder/Image in HandBrake and navigate to the VIDEO_TS folder of the disc you’ve extracted.

At this point, HandBrake will present you with a list of titles —discrete elements such as a film, TV show episode, bonus interview, making-of documentary, and so on. Pick the title you want to convert. If it’s a movie, it’ll be the title with the longest duration; if you’re ripping a DVD of a TV show, you’ll notice several titles of similar length—to figure out which episode is which, check the DVD case for the order.

Now it’s time to pick your settings—the most important is the video format. Start by selecting MP4 File as your file format, and then choose AVC/H.264 Video / AAC Audio from the Codecs pop-up list. Although MPEG-4 will also work, you’ll get better quality at smaller file sizes using H.264.

The other important option is image size—since all DVDs have images larger than the iPod supports, you’ll need to scale down your movie. Click on the Picture Settings button to adjust the picture size. H.264 content on the iPod can go up to only 320 by 240 pixels. So click on the down arrow for width until the number reaches 320. The Keep Aspect Ratio option is turned on by default, so the height scales accordingly. For a 4:3 video—for instance, many TV shows and full-frame DVDs—height will be 240 pixels, while a wide-screen movie will have a much smaller height (such as 144 pixels) to keep the correct aspect ratio. Such a movie will appear letterboxed on the iPod unless you turn off its Widescreen setting, in which case it’ll chop off the video’s sides and play the video at full screen. (Because of a bug in HandBrake, you may need to turn off the Keep Aspect Ratio option after you’ve scaled down the width, but before you click on the Close button).

You can leave most of the other options at their default settings, but you need to pay attention to a few. The Average Bitrate (Kbps) setting defaults to 1,000, which is higher than the iPod supports for H.264 video. I recommend changing the bitrate to 500. If you find that the image quality is too low for your tastes, you can go as high as 750. This will create a larger file, but it may look better to your eyes. You must also change the Encoder setting to x264 (Baseline Profile). For the best picture quality, enable 2-Pass Encoding. Choose your preferred language track in the Language 1 pop-up menu, and give your file a name in the File field of the Destination area. Now click on the Rip button and take a break.

HandBrake is pretty fast—it took 83 minutes to convert a 91-minute movie directly from one of my DVDs on a dual-processor 2.3GHz G5. To save yourself time, though, consider ripping just a chapter or two with different settings until you find the ones that work best for you (you can choose which chapters to include in HandBrake’s Source section).

Convert files on your hard drive

In QuickTime 7.0.3, Apple added a Movie To iPod (320x240) export option, available to users of the $30 QuickTime Pro and to users of Apple applications built on QuickTime—such as iMovie and Final Cut Pro—that offer export options. If you can open a movie in QuickTime—meaning that you have a QuickTime component that can decode it—you can export it for the iPod using QuickTime Pro (the exceptions are MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 files, because of the way they mix audio and video into a single track). This is a great option, as long as you have plenty of computing time to spare: although Apple’s multipass H.264 encoding creates beautiful-looking files, it can take four or five times longer than real time to encode, even on a fast Mac.

A more efficient option is to use a single-pass H.264 encoding process via QuickTime Pro’s Movie To MPEG-4 export command. Open a movie in QuickTime, select File: Export, choose the MPEG-4 option from the pop-up menu, and then click on the Options button. Choose MP4 as the file format and H.264 as the video format. I recommend increasing the default data rate from 256 to 500 Kbps or so (what’s necessary will vary by content type; experience will show you what you can live with). Image size defaults to 320 by 240 pixels, but if you have wide-screen content, you may want to do the math and enter a custom size that retains the aspect ratio of the original. (You can find the resolution by selecting Window: Show Movie Info for a movie that’s open in QuickTime and looking for the numbers in the Format section; a typical 16:9 movie might scale down to 320 by 180 pixels.) The Frame Rate pop-up menu defaults to 30 frames per second, but you should select the Current option so your video will keep the same frame rate as the source material—this ensures a more accurate copy. Finally, click on the Video Options button and make sure to enable the Baseline Profile option—without it, your movie will not play on the iPod. On a fast Mac, single-pass encoding times should be real time or slightly faster—and with quality very similar to that of the much slower multipass encoding.

There are two utilities worth looking at that will help you encode video for the iPod: the free iSquint, which can convert many files (including MPEG-1s and MPEG-2s) to single-pass H.264 iPod movies, and the $10 Podner, which provides a preview window and presets for converting files (including MPEGs) to iPod-compatible H.264 (single-pass and multipass) and MPEG-4. Neither requires QuickTime Pro to work.

[ Jonathan Seff is Macworld ’s senior news editor. ]

HandBrake makes short work of ripping your movie or TV-show DVDs to an iPod-compatible format.Converting videos using QuickTime Pro’s MPEG-4 settings can save you hours of encoding time.

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