Editor’s Note

A new version of this article is now available. 

Please see our new Complete Guide to iPod, iPhone and Apple TV Video Conversion (Mac).

In the first part of our iPod video encoding tutorial, we looked at converting videos already on your computer into an iPod ready format. A separate tutorial discusses the iPod’s apparent and actual technical limitations so that you can make smart quality level choices before you encode your entire library. This piece looks at a practical but controversial part of iPod video encoding: converting DVDs into iPod-viewable files.

First, a disclaimer. iLounge is read by people in countries all over the world. The legality of DVD-to-iPod ripping varies based on your country of residence. iLounge does not in any way endorse violation of the valid rights of copyright holders, and strongly recommends that you consult your country’s copyright and fair use laws before copying any video content to your iPod. We take no responsibility for your actions, and assume that you will only rip DVDs that you are entitled to rip under the laws of your country.

Importing and Encoding DVDs

Almost all DVD movies are sold with CSS encryption, which must be broken before you transform the DVD’s contents into an iPod-ready format. It is generally accepted that you may convert a DVD provided that it is “yours” – which is the case if you’ve created the content yourself, for example.

For the conversion of DVD content to an iPod-ready format on a Mac, iLounge has had good results with the free, open-source software “HandBrake.” Before the new iPod was actually released, many people were recommending Handbrake as a smart video encoding tool, only to discover that the files it created were not actually iPod-compatible. But with its most recent update, HandBrake is now equipped for single-step conversion of DVD video into iPod-ready H.264 and MPEG-4 formats.

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To begin, download HandBrake 0.7.0 and drag the downloaded file into your “Applications” folder.

When you launch HandBrake, it will immediately prompt you for a DVD video source (see below). “Detected Volume” is an actual DVD disk you have in your Mac’s DVD drive, although the label (like “/dev/rdisk1”) is not very helpful in telling you so.

 

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If you prefer not to import directly from a DVD, you can point HandBrake to a folder (”./VIDEO_TS”, typically) or an image file created by a DVD import. Skip this next part if you’re willing to import directly from the DVD, and go right to the tutorial on Importing Directly from DVD.

An Optional Aside: Creating a DVD Image File for Later iPod Conversion

To create an image file for later iPod conversion – a step we recommend that you skip – there is a program called MacTheRipper (free).

 

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Within MacTheRipper, choose the “Mode” tab, select “Full Disc Extraction,” and click “GO!”. Depending on your computer and DVD drive, the import process can take 30 minutes, give or take, and will require up to 9.4GB of free space on your hard drive – a lot of space. Again, if you don’t have this much free space, skip this step and remember that HandBrake can simply import directly from the DVD disk, a much easier route.

Importing Directly from DVD

Returning to Handbrake, once we’ve chosen our DVD disk or folder source, HandBrake will scan our selection for “titles” it can convert:

 

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When it finishes, you’ll see all of HandBrake’s conversion options in one window. We’ll go through each subset of these options, one by one.

In the upper left is the “Source” panel.

 

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This panel allows you to select which parts of the DVD you’d like to encode. You’ll need to know the “Title” number of the portion you’d like to encode. The longest title, typically Title 1, is clearly the main film, but if you’d like to, say, encode one of the special features, simply use Apple’s DVD Player application to determine which title number corresponds to the clip you want. Within a title, you can select a specific range of chapters to convert, as well. The default option is to encode all chapters in a title, but if you’d really only like to capture a certain scene, the option is there to do it (again, use DVD Player to determine which chapter numbers you want).

When initially testing various combinations of encoding settings, do yourself a huge favor, and begin by selecting only a chapter at a time, or even better – a very short title. For our testing, we encoded 70-second clips several times to make sure our settings worked before continuing to two-and-a-half hour movies.

In the upper right corner of HandBrake’s main window, you’ll find the “Destination” panel.

 

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These options allow you to select which codec you’d like to use. For the iPod, the first pulldown menu must always have “MP4 file” selected. To pick between MPEG-4 and H.264, use the “Codecs” pulldown menu:

 

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In the “File” field, select an output location and filename for your converted video, and then proceed to the “Video” options panel:

 

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These settings are of paramount importance for whether or not your encoded video will work on the iPod, so we’ll spend considerable time discussing them.

“Framerate (fps),” at least according to Apple’s technical specifications for the iPod, cannot exceed 30 fps regardless of whether you’re using MPEG-4 or H.264. If you’re encoding from virtually any DVD on the planet, you can use “Same as source.”

“Encoder” must be “x264 (Baseline profile)” if you’re using the H.264 codec. The technical meaning of “profile” is beyond the scope of this tutorial, but trust us, or your converted video won’t work. When using MPEG-4, choose FFmpeg.

“Average bitrate (kbps)” needs to be below 768 for H.264, and below 2500 for MPEG-4. However, since this is average, it doesn’t guarantee that the peak bitrates stay below these levels. iLounge recommends using lower-than-maximum numbers here, just for safety. If you’re really picky about video quality, you’ll need to test some clips to determine what looks best (and still works) here.

The only other relevant option in this box is “2-pass encoding.” When this option is selected, the video will look better (even at the same bitrate), but the conversion process will take up to twice as much time to complete. Again, try several clips to determine if this extra conversion time is worth it to you. We primarily recommend this for videos that you plan to display off of the iPod’s screen, on a television or computer monitor.

The final relevant options panel on HandBrake’s main window is the “Audio” panel.

 

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These options are simple and generally foolproof, as anything you select will likely work with the iPod.

For “Language,” you may find that there are several with “English.” Generally, you can leave this alone. Any of the audio tracks will convert properly, but if you’ve played with this, make sure you’re not using a track that has Director/Actor commentary. Again, test a small clip to make sure.

For “Sampling Rate,” the iPod is compatible with any of the options. iLounge uses the default 44100 Hz. Generally speaking, higher is better, but requires more space.

For “Bitrate,” iLounge recommends the default 128 kbps. Sure, higher audio bitrates will sound better, but keep in mind that this data will reduce the portion of your previously-selected total bitrate available for the video stream.

Since we’re done exploring HandBrake’s main window, it would appear that we’re finally done selecting all the relevant options, but there’s one more thing to do:

Click on the “Picture Settings” button near the lower right corner of HandBrake’s window. Here, we’ll need to select an image dimension compatible with the iPod. From what we noted in our separate tutorial on the iPod’s resolution capabilities: for H.264, make sure that the product of height and width is less than 76,800 pixels, and that it’s less than 230,400 when using MPEG-4.

 

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Adjust the resolutions accordingly, click “Close” to leave the Picture Settings window, and we’re finally ready to click “Start” to begin the encoding.

Depending on the length of your video clip, your conversion options, and your Mac’s processor speed, this process will take a long time. For a full DVD, in fact, be prepared to wait overnight, at the very least. We frequently left a 1.25GHz Mac mini encoding for an entire weekend, and a 1.42GHz Mac mini going for a day.

When it finishes, add the file to your iTunes library by simply dragging it onto the iTunes icon in your Dock. Be aware that just because a video file is accepted by iTunes does not mean that it’s compatible with the iPod; this won’t become apparent until you synchronize the iPod.

HandBrake initially looks daunting, but now that we know the allowable combinations of settings for iPod-ready video, all that remains is a lot of waiting time! Your patience will be rewarded, however, with lots of iPod-ready video content for you to enjoy on the go!

iLounge urges you to continue testing your video files with various video formats and settings so that you can settle on a combination that works best for your setup. Good luck, and please post your experiences in the comments section below for the benefit of your peers!

Additional Resources for iPod Video Encoding Information

iLounge Forums video encoding tutorial for Windows Users
iLounge Forums video encoding tutorial for Mac Users