DVD to iPod made easy

If you’ve got a 5th-generation iPod (“with video”), one of the things you probably want to do is put movies on it. After all, despite the small screen, movies really do look great on the iPod, and it’s a lot easier to carry around than a laptop or portable DVD player.

The problem is that commercial DVDs are copy-protected, which means you can’t “rip” them in iTunes as you can a music CD. So you need a special tool that removes this copy protection as it extracts the video content; if that tool can then convert the video to a format suitable for playback on your iPod, even better. (And by the way, I’m not talking about movies you’ve rented or borrowed; I’m talking about movies you actually own.)

My favorite tool for accomplishing this task is Eric Petit and Laurent Aimar’s free (and open-source) HandBrake 0.7.0, which our sister site Playlist recently named a 2005 Plays of the Year recipient. In fact, last month, Playlist showed you how to use HandBrake to rip your DVDs for watching on your iPod. But using HandBrake requires you to choose the right settings, which some people have found frustrating; after all, given how lengthy the process of converting a DVD to an iPod-ready movie can be, it’s a hassle to get all the way to the end only to discover that your video file won’t play on your iPod.

To make the process easier, Tyler Loch (developer of the iSquint video conversion tool) has taken HandBrake, stripped it of all the confusing settings and options, and released a new version that anyone can use, regardless of their level of technical expertise: HandBrake Lite 0.7.0 (   ; download link ). Unlike the standard version of HandBrake, which requires you to choose a number of different settings, such as video size, frame rate, bit rate, audio sample rate, video and audio format, and so on, HandBrake Lite makes all those choice for you: The resulting video file is automatically resized for an iPod’s screen, using compression settings that are a good compromise (size vs. quality) for on-iPod watching.

Using HandBrake Lite couldn’t be much easier. You insert your DVD—one you own , of course—and then launch the application; in the dialog that appears, choose DVD Drive. Alternatively, if you’re converting a DVD you’ve already ripped to your hard drive using a utility such as MacTheRipper, choose VIDEO_TS Folder or Disc Image and then navigate to the movie’s VIDEO_TS folder. Click Open and HandBrake Lite will scan the contents of the DVD or VIDEO_TS folder.

HandBrake scanning

Next you perform the other two necessary steps: First, you choose which track to rip from the DVD; it’s usually 1, but you generally want to choose the longest track or the one that best matches the movie’s length. Then you choose where to save (and what to name) the resulting iPod-playable video file.

HandBrake choose

Click Rip...and then wait...and wait...and wait. Seriously, compressing and converting video is a slow process. To give you an idea of how long it takes, I coverted the DVD of 2003’s “Monster,” which clocks in at 1 hour 49 minutes, on two different Macs. The process took about 1 hour and 11 minutes on my Power Mac G5 dual-2GHz. On a slower computer—a 1.42GHz Mac mini—the total time was 2 hours.

When conversion is finished, simply drag the resulting .mp4 movie file into iTunes, and the next time you sync, the movie will be copied to your iPod.

Although HandBrake Lite is very simple to use, it does limit you. For example, if you want to use H.264 encoding, higher bit rates, or larger frames to make the resulting video file look better on a TV, you’re out of luck; you need to use the standard version of HandBrake. But for the typical iPod owner who wants to easily put their DVD movies on their iPod, HandBrake Lite is the best tool I’ve yet seen.

(Note that some DVDs can’t be ripped by products such as HandBrake Lite, HandBrake, or MacTheRipper. I’ve come across only a few over the past few years, but they’re out there.)

Is this legal?

Some readers may be wondering if using a tool such as HandBrake Lite is legal; here’s a quote from Macworld editorial director Jason Snell, taken from the DVD-ripping article metioned above:

Creating software that extracts video from the copy-protection system used on DVDs is illegal under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA)—even if the software is meant only to extract video from personal DVD collections for personal use. However, the law is murkier when it comes to using tools such as HandBrake and MacTheRipper. Common sense would suggest that if you’re extracting video from DVDs you own in order to view them yourself, you’re well within your rights. But common sense and the law don’t always intersect. Some court rulings suggest that it’s not unlawful to circumvent DVD protection for noninfringing purposes; on the other hand, the Motion Picture Association of America maintains that any DVD ripping violates the DMCA. So what’s an iPod owner to do? As far as we’re concerned, moving video from your DVDs to your iPod is an absolutely fair use of the video on DVDs you’ve bought. But because the law is still not completely clear on this matter, every iPod user will need to personally assess the risks involved in ripping DVDs.

HandBrake Lite works with Mac OS X 10.3.9 and higher.

Update 1/9/06: This article was originally published with an incorrect Mice rating; the current (3.5) rating is the correct one.

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