DVD-ripper roundup

DVD-ripping applications compared

[Editor’s note: The MPAA and most media companies argue that you can’t legally copy or convert commercial DVDs for any reason. We (and others) think that, if you own a DVD, you should be able to override its copy protection to make a backup copy or to convert its content for viewing on other devices. Currently, the law isn’t entirely clear one way or the other. So our advice is: If you don’t own it, don’t do it. If you do own it, think before you rip.]

Although DVD prices have dropped, replacing beloved DVDs that have become scratched, covered in jam, or chewed on by a teething two-year-old is a bother. (More of a bother is if one of those discs is no longer available.) Fortunately, there are a variety of applications for creating digital copies that are playable on your Mac. We gathered some of the most popular of these applications and put them through their paces in the hope of finding the best performers.

The applications

I tested five applications—the free 64-bit version of HandBrake 0.9.4 ( ), the gift-ware MacTheRipper 4.0, The Little App Factory’s $20 RipIt 1.4.3 ( ), DVDSuki Software’s $10 Mac DVDRipper Pro 1.5.5 ( ), and iSkysoft’s $39 iSkysoft DVD Ripper ( ). Some of these applications merit further discussion.

The iSkysoft package is available by other names from other companies. Specifically, iSkysoft DVD Ripper is also available from Wondershare (iSkysoft’s parent company) as Wondershare DVD Ripper for Mac. At $45 it costs $6 more than iSkysoft DVD Ripper, yet is the same piece of software with a different skin. Wondershare’s OEM partner, Aimersoft, also sells the program under the name DVD Ripper for Mac. It’s priced at $39. (All three of these applications are routinely marketed via forum spam and on questionable “reviews” sites. I questioned the company about these methods and was told that while Wondershare doesn't allow this practice, not all of its many affiliates follow the rules.)

MacTheRipper exists in a few forms. The free 2.x version found floating around the Internet is old, contains the software necessary to decrypt copy-protected discs, and doesn’t work with many modern DVDs. The current version can be legitimately obtained only by sending the developers a “gift” (the suggested price is $50, but we obtained a copy for $20). To do that you must join the RipDifferent forums, send an inquiry to one of MacTheRipper’s developers, and then wait for a response to learn how to send your gift so that you can receive the latest version of the utility. This version does not contain the CSS decryption tools you need to rip commercial DVDs—the information for obtaining it is found in a special area of the RipDifferent forums (which you have access to only when you’ve offered a gift and received a reply).

It’s understandable that tools like MacTheRipper are frequently used to pirate DVDs and the legal ground on which their developers stand is shaky, but the secrecy and back-alley character of this tool’s distribution is annoying. Given the many murky issues surrounding the acquisition of MacTheRipper, we’ve chosen to not rate it, though I did test it.

HandBrake and the iSkysoft/Wondershare/Aimersoft applications not only strip commercial DVDs of their copy protection (HandBrake can do this only if VLC is also installed on your Mac), but also convert the resulting videos to other formats—ones compatible with an iPod, iPhone, Apple TV, or iPad, for example. MacTheRipper and Mac DVDRipper Pro simply create decrypted archives playable on your Mac with Apple’s DVD Player application or another application capable of playing content housed in VIDEO_TS folders. RipIt similarly creates decrypted archives, but version 1.4 introduces a beta Compress feature, which allows you to additionally create movies at one of five settings—High Quality MP4, Apple TV, iPhone/Touch, XBox260, and PS3.

Testing, testing

I tested the five applications with two DVDs—Pixar/Disney’s Wall-E and disc one of the first season of HBO’s Six Feet Under. I chose Wall-E because Disney is one of the studios that uses a copy-protection scheme that hides a movie’s main feature among dozens of “copies.” These copies aren’t copies at all but rather scrambled portions of the disc’s content identified as the main feature. Each copy is of a different length and size, making it tough for a ripping tool (or user) to identify the real feature. These discs also cause many DVD ripping applications to misidentify the amount of data they hold. Some claimed, for example, that the Wall-E disc held nearly 60GB of data, when, in fact, it held just 7.85GB.

To rip Wall-E successfully with those applications capable of ripping just the main title—HandBrake, MacTheRipper, and iSkysoft DVD Ripper—I had to first determine which of the 99 titles was the right one. You can do this by playing the DVD in DVD Player and then selecting Go -> Title. The resulting Title submenu revealed that title 30 was the correct one to use.

The Six Feet Under disc doesn’t use this type of protection, but, like other TV-compilation discs, it does contain multiple episodes. I chose this disc to see which of the applications could extract individual episodes.

I conducted the tests on a quad-core 2.66GHz Mac Pro with 8GB of RAM, running Snow Leopard.

The basics and beyond

The range of abilities of these applications is fairly broad. On the Incredibly Simple end you find RipIt, which offers just two interface options—Rip and Compress. Choose Rip and it rips the contents of the entire disc—you don’t have the option to pick out the main feature or individual chapters or episodes. Click Compress and you can create a full-disc copy or, optionally, attempt to extract just the main feature or episodes in one of the five formats I mentioned.

When clicking Rip, the resulting file is a .dvdmedia DVD Player archive that you can play with Apple’s DVD Player. Within this archive is the VIDEO_TS folder, which contains the disc’s video files (you can also uncheck a preference to have it just give you a VIDEO_TS folder). You can convert this unencrypted VIDEO_TS folder to a movie file compatible with your Mac, iPod, iPhone, iPad, or Apple TV with a tool such as HandBrake, or Roxio’s $100 Toast 10 Titanium ( ) or $50 Popcorn. You can also use a tool such as the free DVD Imager or LiquidCD to create a disc image or burn the folder to a playable DVD as a backup. Click Compress and the file is saved in the format most appropriate for the destination device. In the case of Apple’s devices, it’s an H.264 file.

Mac DVDRipper Pro is similarly simple. It rips only the entire disc—offering no feature or episode extraction. It can rip a disc either as a DVD Player archive or as a .iso image file. Unlike RipIt or MacTheRipper, once you’ve decrypted the disc, you can choose to burn a copy, all within the application. I did this successfully with the Wall-E disc. Additionally, it provides you some control over skipping bad VOB units (due to scratches) or cells (added as part of a copy-protection scheme). This last option helps you with difficult discs.

MacTheRipper will decrypt discs and save their contents to folders. Inside these folders you’ll find the VIDEO_TS folder, which you can play or convert as explained earlier. Additionally, MacTheRipper lets you remove region coding (the scheme that restricts DVDs to being played in the geographical region in which its sold). It can also seek out a DVD’s main feature and chapters. Like HandBrake, it shows you all available features and lets you select the one you want. Although you can select individual episodes, it doesn’t allow you to add multiple episodes to a queue, as does HandBrake.

iSkysoft DVD Ripper can’t perform a full-disc extraction that results in a VIDEO_TS folder. Rather, you have the option to extract and convert just the main feature, combine all of the DVD’s movies into a single video, or extract individual movies from the DVD. It offers 74 different output formats, and each can be tweaked with a click of a Settings button. When you choose to extract just the main feature it doesn’t let you choose the correct feature on a disc such as Wall-E, so if it makes the wrong guess, you’re out of luck. In this case, it chose the correct title.

iSkysoft DVD Ripper also lets you choose subtitles and audio tracks. When you enable a subtitle track, it’s burned into the video—you can’t turn it off. Additionally, when you rip the disc you have the option to trim the beginning and end of the video, crop it, and add effects to it. The application includes a preview window so you make sure that you're ripping the material you want.

HandBrake is also designed to extract and convert a disc’s features and episodes rather than the entire DVD. It offers far fewer conversion presets than does the iSkysoft application, but the ones it does offer are useful—Universal, iPod, iPhone & iPod Touch, Apple TV, two Regular presets (Normal and High Profile), and a handful of Legacy presets (Classic, Apple TV Legacy, iPhone Legacy, and iPod Legacy). You can tweak each preset within the main window as well as manipulate the quality of the resulting video by setting a target size, average bitrate, or constant quality slider. You can additionally create subtitles that can be turned on and off and add episodes to a queue, making it easy to rip a disc’s-worth of TV shows with one click rather than ripping each episode individually. It offers a large Preview window and can encode short snippets of video so you get a good idea of how your converted video will look and sound. It also has a number of controls for tweaking advanced settings.

Performance

On my Mac Pro I was able to rip Wall-E in well under an hour. Specifically, MacTheRipper ripped the main feature in 22 minutes and 52 seconds, RipIt ripped the entire disc in 28 minutes and 3 seconds, Mac DVDRipper Pro did the same job in 28 minutes and 30 seconds, HandBrake ripped and converted the main feature to the Apple TV format in 32 minutes and 16 seconds, and iSkysoft DVD Ripper took 31 minutes and 43 seconds to accomplish this same rip and conversion.

RipIt’s first iteration of the Compress feature didn’t work well—RipIt 1.4 refused to rip Wall-E (though when it couldn’t, the program offered to send a report to the developers). The current version (1.4.3) did rip Wall-E and the three Six Feet Under episodes using the Apple TV compression setting, but it took a long time to do the jobs—just over 57 minutes for Wall-E and 1 hour and 56 minutes for the three TV episodes. If you want to rip and convert DVDs in a relatively speedy way, HandBrake is the better choice.

Quality wasn’t an issue with MacTheRipper, RipIt (using the Rip option), or Mac DVDRipper Pro because they don’t convert the source movie—it looks the same as the original. It does matter, however, with HandBrake and iSkysoft DVD Ripper, which convert the video. HandBrake’s Apple TV conversion looked significantly better than the one performed by iSkysoft DVD Ripper when using DVD Ripper's Apple TV H.264 preset—with more detail and fewer artifacts. Additionally, the iSkysoft DVD Ripper videos had a stuttering quality. This was a little surprising as the HandBrake version had a lower bit rate (1122-kbs versus 1643-kbps), smaller video size (720 by 352 versus 960 by 540), and lower frame rate (24fps versus 30fps). I adjusted DVD Ripper's Apple TV preset to bring it in line with the HandBrake settings and the quality of the resulting video improved, but it still lacked the clarity of the HandBrake rip.

HandBrake preserved Wall-E’s chapters—making it easy to navigate through the movie. iSkysoft DVD Ripper didn’t. And HandBrake’s closed captions looked far better than DVD Ripper’s burned-in subtitles.

As for the Six Feet Under tests, the applications that create archives without converting the video were again faster. RipIt managed the job in 26 minutes and 20 seconds, MacTheRipper ripped the disc in 26 minutes and 33 seconds, and DVD Ripper Pro took 28 minutes and 49 seconds. HandBrake ripped the disc’s three episodes using the Apple TV preset in 53 minutes. iSkysoft DVD Ripper ripped those same three episodes using its Apple TV H.264 preset in 1 hour and 7 minutes. Again, the quality in the decryption rips didn’t vary as they preserved the original video. And, also again, HandBrake produced better looking videos than did iSkysoft DVD Ripper.

Conclusions

When choosing a disc ripping application, you have a couple of broad choices. One is an application that decrypts the disc, leaving you with an archive that you can play on your Mac, but that needs to be converted with another utility so that the archive’s video can be played on an iPod, iPhone, iPad, or Apple TV. The other is a tool that decrypts as well as converts.

Of the decrypting tools, RipIt has the advantage that it’s dead-simple to use and is capable of ripping just about any disc you throw at it. I’ve yet to have a failure with it. Mac DVDRipper Pro is inexpensive at $10 and, even though it can be tripped up when making archives (as it was with Wall-E), it offers the .iso workaround, lets you rip discs after you’ve converted them, and gives you a measure of control over intentionally bad sectors that can interfere with a rip. MacTheRipper has a lot going for it in the form of its speed, but obtaining a copy is confounding.

There’s no contest between HandBrake and iSkysoft DVD Ripper. HandBrake is clearly the better tool. It’s free, provides more advanced options, and produces better-looking results, even when using its default settings.

Products mentioned in this article

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