How to convert DVDs for iPhone, iPad, and other Apple devices

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[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.]

If you’re like a lot of our readers (and editors) you have more than one Apple media device on which you play videos—a click wheel iPod, iPod touch, iPhone, iPad, and Apple TV. While having such a collection allows you to play videos in just about any environment, it does pose this question: If you want to rip a DVD you own or encode a video on your hard drive just once—for all your Apple devices—what’s the best option? Two answers present themselves:

1. Encode for the least-capable device.

2. There isn’t a single best option. You should encode more than once.

Let’s take them in order.

Encode once

It’s helpful to understand that in regard to video capabilities, Apple’s media players break down into two camps. The iPod nano, classic, touch, and all iPhones prior to the iPhone 4 support 30 frames per second (fps) H.264 video at a resolution of 640 by 480 at an average bit rate of 1.5Mbps. The iPad and iPhone 4 support 30fps H.264 video at 1280 by 720 (720p). The Apple TV also supports H.264 at 1280 by 720, but only at 24fps. For 30fps video you have a maximum resolution of 960 by 540.

Therefore, the least capable of these devices are those in the first group. If you attempt to copy video encoded specifically for the second group of devices to members of the first group, iTunes will tell you that it can’t be done because the files are incompatible. (They’re incompatible because their resolution is too high.) This helps explain why iTunes’ Advanced menu includes two settings for converting video: Create iPod Or iPhone Version and Create iPad Or Apple TV Version. (That first option isn’t entirely accurate, however, because the iPhone 4 can play videos encoded at higher resolutions that are compatible with the iPad and Apple TV, but not earlier iPhones.)

This means that if you want to encode your videos just once, you’d choose Create iPod Or iPhone Version if you’re encoding with iTunes. And that may be perfectly fine if the only devices on which you’re viewing your video are a click wheel iPod and iPhone—possibly even an iPad. A 720p video I encoded using these settings had a resolution of 640 by 360 and looked fine on an iPod and iPhone and passable on my iPad. However, when I viewed it on a TV with a connected Apple TV, iPod, and iPad, the artifacts were in evidence.

Before you encode that second copy, however, you have another option. You can use a third-party utility to create a higher-resolution version that works on all Apple mobile media players. The free and open-source HandBrake ( ) offers a variety of encoding presets. One of them is the Universal preset, which, in my test, encoded that same 720p video at a resolution of 705 by 400 pixels. Although artifacts were visible when the video was shown on an iPad and TV, the image was cleaner using this universal preset than with iTunes’ iPod option. And if you're ripping a DVD or dealing with a file that iTunes can't understand (AVI or MKV files, for example), you can't use iTunes anyway and will need a utility like HandBrake.

[Geek note: Wait, doesn’t that exceed the iPod and older iPhone’s resolution limits? Yes and no. You can exceed some of these resolution numbers because the limit isn’t resolution, but rather the macroblock count (a macroblock is a group of 16 by 16 pixels). To determine the maximum number of macroblocks one of these devices supports, multiply the resolution width by the height (640 times 480, for example) and then divide by 16 by 16 (256). This tells you that iPods and pre-4 iPhones have a macroblock limit of 1200, and the iPhone 4, iPad, and Apple TV (at 24fps) support up to 3600 macroblocks. In this case, a resolution of 705 by 400 gives us a macroblock count of just more than 1100, which is under the 1200 macroblock limit.]

Encode twice

The second option is to encode your videos twice—once for your iPod and older iPhone, and once more for your Apple TV, iPad, and iPhone 4. Again, iTunes provides an option to encode video for the iPad or Apple TV in the Advanced menu (and, as mentioned, you can use this setting for an iPhone 4 too). The trade-off is file size. I encoded a two-and-a-half minute 720p clip using iTunes’ iPod setting, HandBrake’s Universal setting, and iTunes’ iPad and Apple TV setting. The iPod setting produced a 29.5MB file. HandBrake’s Universal setting created a 20.1MB file (it was smaller than the iTunes-produced file because its bit rate was lower). And the 1280 by 720 iPad version produced by iTunes was 95.3MB. The iTunes version looked clearly better on a TV but not so markedly better on an iPhone 4 because of the iPhone’s smaller screen.

HandBrake lets you encode good-looking videos at a file size smaller than iTunes.

But iTunes isn’t your only option in this case either. If you select HandBrake’s High Profile preset and configure the resolution to 1280 by 720 (if you’re encoding an HD video, of course), you can save some space because, with this setting, HandBrake encodes at a lower bit rate. My test movie came in at 54.7MB, for example. And it looked great on the iPad as well as on an attached TV.

What to do?

You know best the devices you have, the situations in which you’ll use them, and how tolerant you are of video artifacts. Encoding for a single device using HandBrake’s Universal preset means encoding just once, creating smaller videos than you can with iTunes (when iTunes is even an option), and being free of the worry of which copy to sync to which device. Encoding twice, on the other hand, gives you the option to better match the quality of the video you watch to the device you watch it on. Now that you have the facts, the choice is up to you.

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