iPod video users get a brake

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I realize that there are lots of skeptics out there who don’t think that the iPod is suitable for watching videos, but they’re wrong. I fully understand why someone wouldn’t want to watch “Lawrence of Arabia” on a small screen, or why someone with bad eyes would find watching the iPod to be a trial. But I really enjoy watching videos on my iPod, both during my commute and when I travel. And the good news for iPod video fans is that getting your DVDs onto your iPod has just gotten a whole lot easier.

Before I go any further, let me give you the usual rigamarole: in many parts of the world, including the United States, it is apparently illegal to write software that extracts video off of commercial DVDs. And the Motion Picture Association of America would argue that it’s illegal for consumers to use those tools, even on their own DVDs—a point that is disputed by others, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

In any event, anyone who uses DVD-to-iPod conversion software should know a few things: You might or might not be breaking the law. Use your own judgment. And if you are using the software to convert DVDs you don’t own, you are almost certainly breaking both the law and your momma’s heart. (This subject is a philosophy major’s dream: is it wrong to rent a DVD, copy it to your iPod, watch it, and then delete it?)

Anyway, with that out of the way, let me share the good news: Eric Petit, the author of the excellent DVD conversion software HandBrake, has released a beta version of Instant HandBrake. This is good news because although HandBrake is a powerful tool that does a great job at converting your DVD videos into iPod-ready format, it’s not at all easy to use. It can be downright confusing at times.

Instant HandBrake, on the other hand, is a breeze to use. Although it’s clearly still in beta form, it’s already miles ahead of HandBrake on ease of use. Once you stick in a DVD and launch Instant HandBrake, the program automatically figures out which tracks you’re most likely to want to extract (i.e., the long ones). You choose your target device (the program supports not only iPod, but PlayStation Portable as well), choose whether you want it to crop your movies or keep them in widescreen format, pick an audio track and (optionally) a subtitle track, and press Convert.

Of course, encoding video is a whole lot more difficult than encoding MP3s, so you’ll need to wait quite a while before Instant HandBrake finishes its work. (I often will leave the computer running overnight to convert a DVD full of TV show episodes.)

It’s unfortunate that governments and movie studios have forced the makers of these tools underground, and equally unfortunate that the massive amount of piracy of entertainment media on the Internet gives their extreme stance some legitimacy. But while the titans and pirates continue to fight their battles, it’s good to know that Eric Petit, the author of HandBrake, is giving iPod users easy-to-use tools to help take their movies on the road.

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