Over the years, iTunes and Apple’s media devices have expanded well beyond their humble beginnings as tools for simply managing and accessing music to encompass just about everything a user could possibly want to store, manage and access—books, movies, TV shows, podcasts and even apps have taken us to the point where the name “iTunes” doesn’t even really seem to properly describe the app anymore.
Unfortunately, while iTunes does a remarkable job of simplifying the process of converting, storing and managing a user’s personal music collection, it has never quite been able to adopt the same seamless approach for videos; ripping a CD is generally as simple as placing the disc in your optical drive and pressing a button, however the same is not possible for DVDs due to copy protection and various legal and licensing issues. Further, video formats have traditionally been far less standardized than audio formats, making the whole issue of video conversion a much more complex one.
Although iTunes itself is of little help when it comes to converting your own DVDs and home videos, a large collection of third-party applications have sprung up to fill that void. In fact, there are so many third-party video conversion tools available for the iTunes, iPod and iOS ecosystem that users may find themselves somewhat overwhelmed in trying to find the right one for their needs, particularly with so many of these apps vying for the user’s attention in a saturated market.
The good news, however, is that although many of the apps that you may see advertised cost money, there is actually an entirely free solution that is much better. For a number of years now, we have been recommending Handbrake as the preferred solution for video conversion as it handles a wide variety of source video formats, is regularly updated, open source and best of all, free.
Handbrake originally began its life several years ago as a Mac application designed exclusively for ripping your own DVDs into an iTunes and iPod ready format. Since that time it has expanded to add a Windows version as well as support for converting just about any source video file in addition to direct DVD conversion, and added a collection of simple presets that can help the average user produce great conversion results without any need to dig into the application’s comprehensive set of more advanced features.
A Word about Copy Protected DVDs…
Copy protection is pretty much standard in the DVD industry, and therefore virtually all movies and TV shows that you encounter on DVD will be copy protected. Unfortunately, laws such as the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act and Canada’s soon-to-be-passed Bill C-11 make it effectively illegal to circumvent these technological protection measures for just about any reason, including making copies of DVDs that you already own. In fact, in some jurisdictions, simply possessing the tools that would allow you to circumvent such “digital locks” may in and of itself be illegal.
For this reason, many applications, including Handbrake, have actually removed the DVD decryption components that were previously included, relying on users to acquire the necessary components themselves, but also making the process more complicated. For Mac OS X users with a pre-2.0 version of VLC installed, Handbrake will simply use the decryption libraries included with VLC, however even VLC removed these as of version 2.0, requiring users to obtain and install them separately. For Windows users, the process can be even more complicated, as the DVD decryption libraries for Windows have not been as readily available in the open source community.
If you live in a jurisdiction where it is not illegal to circumvent digital copy protection, you can obtain the necessary libraries from the VideoLAN (VLC) site at http://download.videolan.org/pub/libdvdcss/1.2.11/. Mac OS X users simply need to place the libdvdcss.2.dylib file in their /usr/lib folder; Windows users should download the appropriate 32- or 64-bit version of libdvdcss-2.dll, rename it to libdvdcss.dll and place it in the C:Program FilesHandbrake folder. Alternatively, Mac OS X users can simply download and install a pre-2.0 version of VLC, which includes the necessary DVD decryption library. Handbrake will pick up and use these libraries automatically as long as they are available in the proper locations.
Note that even without these libraries, Handbrake can still be used for converting non-copy-protected DVDs such as many educational materials, home videos that have been converted to DVD and even DVD-R discs from video cameras that use that format.
Converting DVDs with Handbrake
Before we begin, it’s important to understand how typical DVDs are laid out. DVD content is divided into separate “titles” and most DVDs will contain more than a single title; movies typically use the additional titles for various forms of bonus content while TV shows on DVD will use a separate title for each episode. Since each title represents a separate piece of content, Handbrake converts them separately and you will need to look for and select the appropriate title for the content that you want to convert.
Titles are often further divided into chapters, which are the subsections of a movie or TV show that you normally see in the “Scene Selection” mode on your DVD player. In most cases you will likely want to convert ALL of the chapters of a given title (e.g. the entire show or movie), although Handbrake does allow you to encode only a specific range of chapters if you’re so inclined.
Selecting the Source
When you first open Handbrake, you’ll be prompted to choose a source for the video you want to convert. This can be an individual file or a DVD inserted in your computer’s optical drive.
When you select a DVD, Handbrake will scan all of the individual titles, showing you a running summary of the scan and how many titles are on the DVD in total.
Once the process finishes, you will be able to view and select the specific title you want to convert from the “Title” drop-down menu. Each title has a duration shown beside it in hours, minutes, and seconds which provides a clue to help identify the title you’re looking for.
For movies, the longest title is generally the movie itself and the one you actually want to select for conversion. TV shows on DVD will likely have several titles of similar duration for each episode, plus a few extra shorter titles for bonus content.
If you’re uncertain as to which title is the correct one for conversion, you can use a DVD player app, such as the one included with OS X, to load the DVD for playback. Simply start playing back the DVD as you normally would, and once the actual video content (movie or TV show) begins playing, you can determine which title is playing simply by checking the DVD playback controls or menus. You can then close the DVD player and return to Handbrake to select the appropriate title.
Options in Handbrake to the right of the title menu allow you to choose different sections of the title to encode, which can be based on chapter markers, frames or seconds. Most users can leave these alone to simply encode the entire title.
Selecting the Best Output Format
The next step is to select a destination and format for the resulting video file. The Destination field is pretty self-explanatory, although you may find it useful to locate the destination file somewhere in your iTunes Media folder—this will save you the trouble of copying it later when you import it into iTunes, since if the file is already in the iTunes Media folder, iTunes will simply move it to an appropriate location.
Handbrake provides a number of useful presets for choosing your destination format that should accommodate the majority of users. You can open the Presets drawer by clicking on the “Toggle Presets” button in the top-right corner of the Handbrake window; the “Devices” section contains a listing of presets optimized for typical Apple devices.
The “Universal” preset is usually the best choice for standard definition content as it provides the highest possible quality settings while maintaining compatibility across almost all of Apple’s video-capable devices, including the iPod classic, and all iOS device and Apple TV models. Only the fifth-generation iPod is excluded from this list—if you need to convert your video for an older 5G iPod you should use the “iPod” preset
The other presets: iPhone & iPod touch, iPhone 4, iPad, Apple TV and Apple TV 2 provide quality settings optimized for each of these devices while sacrificing compatibility with other devices. There’s little reason to use the “iPhone & iPod touch” preset in most cases, as “universal” will usually suffice, although it can be useful if you’re concerned about storage space as these create smaller files optimized for the older iPhone and iPod touch 320×480 screens.
The iPhone 4, iPad, and two Apple TV presets provide higher quality settings geared toward higher resolutions for these specific devices, and are only necessary if you’re encoding HD content.
Consider the Source
Although Apple’s media devices have been pushing into higher resolutions over the past couple of years, many users will still be working with standard definition DVDs. While Handbrake provides a number of presets to encode HD video, there is absolutely no advantage of converting a standard DVD into a 720p or 1080p HD video. Video “upconversion” is of dubious value even in most home entertainment equipment, and neither Handbrake nor any of Apple’s device provide any form of upconversion of resolution enhancement. If you’re working with a standard DVD, you should simply encode it in standard definition; any higher resolution conversion will simply be creating a larger file with no added quality benefits.
Note that for most presets, Handbrake also uses Anamorphic encoding by default, providing a proper widescreen 16:9 aspect ratio in much the same way as the DVD does. This just works in most cases and the average user won’t need to sweat these details, but those who are curious can read more about anamorphic encoding and aspect ratios in our Guide to iPod, Apple TV and iPhone Video Formats.
From an audio quality perspective, the Universal and Apple TV presets each provide an additional AC3 audio track to accommodate Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. This is encoded as a second track to maintain compatibility with iOS devices, which only support the standard AAC CoreAudio format. The Apple TV will automatically use the AC3 Passthru track when available while iOS devices and iTunes on your computer will simply play the AAC version. Note that Handbrake also automatically mixes down Dolby Digital 5.1 to Dolby Pro Logic II surround sound for the AAC track.
As a rule of thumb, we recommend using the “Universal” preset for all standard-definition content unless file size is an overriding consideration and you never plan to play those videos on anything other than lower-resolution devices such as an iPod classic or older-generation iPhone or iPod touch. However, as Apple has proven with its Retina Displays in recent iOS devices, it’s always wise to use settings that guarantee compatibility with future devices in the first place rather than having to go back and convert hundreds of hours or video content.
For encoding HD content, you may be faced with a tradeoff between the highest possible resolution and the devices that you want to view that content on. 720p content is supported on the Apple TV, all iPad models, the iPhone 4/4S and the fourth-generation iPod touch and the “Apple TV 2” preset will provide the best quality in this area while maintaining compatibility across all of these devices; the actual “iPad” and “iPhone 4” presets are simply provided if you are concerned about producing smaller files optimized for the 1024×768 or 960×480 resolutions of these devices.
Note that Handbrake at this time does not provide any presets for 1080p content on the new third-generation Apple TV or iPad models or for the new iPad Retina Display. If you’re concerned about ripping 1080p content you can adjust the Handbrake settings manually or simply wait for a future update that will likely provide the necessary presets.
What about Blu-Ray?
Ripping commercial Blu-ray discs is a much more complicated process as the copy protection is more complex and there are no libraries directly available to Handbrake to do this. That said, if you have a Blu-ray drive in your computer and it’s not illegal in your country to circumvent copy protection, you can download a separate tool to handle the actual Blu-ray ripping process and then feed the resulting content to Handbrake for conversion into an Apple friendly format. MakeMKV is a free tool available for both Mac and Windows that will rip Blu-ray discs into an MKV format that can then be converted using Handbrake; for Windows users, the commercial AnyDVD HD application provides a way to directly rip a Blu-ray DVD into an unencrypted Blu-ray format which can then be handed over to Handbrake for conversion. Note that you’ll need Handbrake 0.9.5 or later to be able to read a Blu-ray disc layout.
Once you’ve selected the title, destination and format, you can either begin the conversion process immediately by clicking on the “Start” button in the top-left corner of the Handbrake window or use the “Add to Queue” button to add your current selections to a queue for batch conversions. The queue feature is particularly useful for converting TV show DVDs, which may contain several episodes as individual titles on a single disc; in this case you can choose your presets and other settings and then just choose each title and destination file and add it to the queue. Once you’ve queued up all of your conversions, the “Start” button will begin processing the entire queue.
Note that there are some other more advanced options in Handbrake you may want to consider when converting DVDs. These settings are entirely optional, but are worth discussing for users who may want to take advantage of them.
Alternate Audio Tracks
By default, Handbrake will include the primary audio track from your source DVD or file along with an AC3 Passthru track, where available, if you’re using the Universal or Apple TV presets. You can change this or add any additional audio tracks found on the DVD such as alternate languages or Director’s Commentary tracks. Simply visit the Audio tab before beginning your conversion or adding to the queue and choose any additional tracks and audio formats from the drop-down menus; an additional “None” line will appear at the bottom as new tracks are added, allowing you to continue adding more. An “Add All Tracks” button is also available to simply include a line for each track found in the source DVD title.
Advanced users will note that additional audio formats can be selected here as well in the “Codec” column, including DTS Passthru for DTS source tracks and other variations of AAC and MP3. iOS device users should stick with the AAC (CoreAudio) format, while Apple TV users may want to include AC3 Passthru and DTS Passhtru as alternate tracks if they are so inclined.
Handbrake also provides the ability to include subtitles and closed captioning tracks found on most DVDs in a format that can be accessed on Apple TV and iOS devices. The Subtitles tab works in a similar manner to the Audio tab discussed above, allowing individual sub-title tracks to be added to the output file.
By default, “soft” subtitles are used, meaning that they can be toggled on or off from the Apple TV or iOS menus. The Burned In option allows you to select a track to use as a “hard” subtitle track that is actually embedded in the video and can’t be turned off; some users may find this desirable to include a default English subtitle track for foreign films, for example.
Handbrake also includes Chapter Markers from the DVD title, allowing Apple TV and iOS device users to easily select and jump between individual chapters, in much the same way as on the original DVD. Generic chapter titles are used by default, but users can customize these by visiting the Chapters tab and double-clicking on any title line and simply typing in their own text.
Note that it is also possible to edit chapter markers in the actual video file later on using a third-party tagging tool such as MetaX.
Advanced Handbrake Settings
Handbrake includes a plethora of much more advanced settings that allow users to customize many aspects of the application’s operation and conversion settings. As this is designed to be a guide for getting users started, most of these settings are well beyond the scope of this tutorial, and the vast majority of users will never need to even look at these settings, much less tweak them. For advanced users and the generally curious, the Handbrake Wiki provides access to documentation, FAQs and many more useful resources.
Converting Video Files
In addition to DVDs, Handbrake can be used to convert video files from a wide variety of other formats. The process for doing this is basically the same as converting a DVD—simply choose a file rather than an entire DVD, select a destination, and choose a preset. All of the same presets are available as for DVDs and you won’t need to select a title or worry about features such as audio tracks, subtitles or chapter markers in most cases, making it an even more straightforward process. The Queue option can also be very useful here for batch converting several files in a single operation.
Putting it all together in iTunes
Once you have converted one or more videos into an iTunes-ready format, the next step is to actually get them into iTunes in a usable and organized format. While importing the file is extremely straightforward—just drag-and-drop it into iTunes or use the Add to Library option on the File menu—actually organizing the file can be a somewhat more involved process. Third-party tools such as MetaX can help with this and can be used either before or after you import your video files into iTunes.
Our Complete Guide to Managing iTunes Videos provides a wealth of additional information on how to actually get your videos organized once you’ve converted and imported them.