The Complete Guide to iPod, iPhone and Apple TV Video Conversion (Mac)

Jesse Hollington
By Jesse Hollington  - Senior Editor
The Complete Guide to iPod, iPhone and Apple TV Video Conversion (Mac)

In our last article, we discussed the various video formats and display resolutions for the iPod, iPhone and Apple TV, and provided some guidelines and recommendations on the best formats and resolutions to use for the various devices.

With this information in mind, we now continue our series with some specific tutorials and guidelines on converting video content into an Apple-ready format using the tools available on Mac OS X. In a future article, we will be doing the same thing for users of the Windows platform.

The Complete Guide to iPod, iPhone and Apple TV Video Conversion (Mac)

Since the initial introduction of video capabilities on the fifth-generation iPod in 2005, the software landscape has changed dramatically.  A number of tools that were previously popular options are no longer actively updated or maintained, and some have dropped off the radar entirely. This article is intended to cover some of the more popular tools available, and stay focused on those tools that are currently and actively being maintained by their developers.

Types of Content

There are several possible sources of content that most people will want to convert for viewing on their Apple devices, and the best tools to use for the job will often be determined by the type and source of that content.

The most common types of content include DVDs, downloaded digital video content (such as that downloaded from the web), content recorded from a TV using a digital video recorder (DVR), and your own home video content. We will be discussing each of these content types in turn, and our recommended tools for each.

Converting DVDs

One of the most common sources of iPod content for users outside of the U.S. will be DVDs. Since the availability of Apple-ready movie and TV content for the iPod outside of the U.S. is extremely limited, the easiest way for international users to actually get commercial content onto their Apple devices is to encode it themselves from DVDs that they already own.

Although the legality of ripping the content from DVDs varies in different jurisdictions, many countries outside of the U.S. have no specific restrictions on the conversion of DVDs that you already own into other viewable formats. That having been said, it is always recommended that you confirm and comply with the laws of your particular jurisdiction concerning the copying of DVD material and the circumventing of the copy protection found on commercial DVDs.

The converting or “ripping” of commercial DVDs creates an additional task in the conversion process, and that is the extraction of the actual DVD content. Since most DVDs are copy-protected, special software tools are required to extract this content. It is actually this process of circumventing the copy protection that makes the “ripping” of DVDs illegal in the U.S. and some other jurisdictions, rather than the copying of the content itself.

To convert a commercial copy-protected DVD, you must first extract the video content into a non-protected format. Once this has been accomplished, the remainder of the conversion process works in much the same way as for any other type of video content, as the extracted DVD content will simply be an MPEG-2 format video file.

On the Mac platform, the two most commonly used tools for DVD extraction are Handbrake and MacTheRipper. Handbrake provides an integrated solution to preform the extraction of DVD content and conversion to an Apple-ready format, while MacTheRipper simply performs the task of extracting the DVD content to an unprotected VOB (MPEG-2) file that can then be subsequently converted with another third-party conversion tool.

Handbrake 0.8.5b1
Mac/Windows/Linux, Free

After something of a rocky development cycle, and some changes in the development team, Handbrake has returned to become pretty much the standard in one-stop DVD conversion. In addition to the ability to take content from a DVD directly to an Apple-ready format, including the higher resolutions offered by the Apple TV, Handbrake also offers anamorphic encoding, the ability to queue up multiple tracks from a DVD (particularly useful for TV shows on DVD), support for the conversion of chapter markers from a DVD and the ability to downmix a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound track into a Dolby Pro-Logic II Surround track compatible with the Apple TV.

Using Handbrake is relatively straightforward, with built-in presets included for the iPod and the Apple TV. The default presets use the following settings:

  • iPod – 1500 kbps average bitrate, 640 x 480 maximum resolution, aspect ratio maintained
  • Apple TV – 2500 kbps average birate, 720 x 480 maximum native resolution, anamorphic encoding enabled

Both presets also provide the encoding of chapter markers, 160kbps AAC audio and the downconversion of 5.1 Dolby Digital (AC3) audio tracks to Dolby Pro Logic II. These presets can of course be further customized, and you can also save your own presets.

Handbrake has a number of advanced features, and settings that can be customized and tweaked to create content for different uses.

However, for the purpose of this article, we will be focusing only on those features that are directly relevant to converting videos for the iPod, iPhone or Apple TV.

In terms of actual use, simply insert a DVD and start Handbrake. You will be prompted to either choose a physical DVD or point Handbrake to a DVD folder or image that has previously been stored on your hard drive:


The Complete Guide to iPod, iPhone and Apple TV Video Conversion (Mac)

Handbrake will then simply read the inserted DVD or DVD folder/image and you will be presented with the main settings screen:


The Complete Guide to iPod, iPhone and Apple TV Video Conversion (Mac)

The presets described above can be accessed from the “Presets” button in the top-right corner, which will open a drawer listing the available presets:


The Complete Guide to iPod, iPhone and Apple TV Video Conversion (Mac)

The top portion of the Handbrake screen allows you to select the specific source tracks that you wish to encode. The “Browse” button will allow you to select a different DVD disc or folder/image, much like the initial screen shown when you first run Handbrake.


The Complete Guide to iPod, iPhone and Apple TV Video Conversion (Mac)

The remaining drop-down lists allow you to select specific titles and chapters that you wish to extract and convert:


The Complete Guide to iPod, iPhone and Apple TV Video Conversion (Mac)

Note that it’s important to select the correct title, as most DVDs will have more than one. For movies, the main feature is not necessarily the first title, but will generally be the longest title. The length of each title in hours, minutes, and seconds is shown to help you determine which ones you want to encode. By default, all chapters of the current title will be encoded, but you can use the “Chapters” drop-down entries to limit these if you only want to encode part of a given title for whatever reason.

Note that if you want to encode more than one title from a DVD, you will need to either do them manually one at a time, or use the Handbrake “Queue” system, which we will discuss further on.

Once you have selected the source DVD and title that you wish to encode, you can then move on to the “Destination” settings:


The Complete Guide to iPod, iPhone and Apple TV Video Conversion (Mac)

The first field simply specifies the target filename, which by default will be the DVD disc name followed by the title number. The current preset is also shown, or the word “Custom” if you are using customized settings.

For output file format, MP4 file should always be chosen for encoding for an Apple device. Likewise, the default codec is normally H.264, which is suitable for the majority of users. If you would prefer to use MPEG-4 for whatever reason, you can choose this instead from the “Codecs” drop-down list. As a rule, H.264 will offer better quality at a given file size, and is definitely the preferred format for Apple TV encoding. For iPod and iPhone encoding, MPEG-4 does allow you to use a higher bit-rate at the cost of a larger file size, however.

The “Create Chapter Markers” checkbox will copy the chapter markers from the original source DVD title into the resulting MP4 file. This will allow you to use the previous/next buttons to skip between chapters when playing the movie back on your device, as well as enabling the chapters pop-up menu when playing the video in iTunes or Quicktime on your computer. Note that unlike movies purchased from the iTunes Store, the chapter markers will simply be numbered as “Chapter 001, Chapter 002, etc” rather than given specific names and thumbnails:


The Complete Guide to iPod, iPhone and Apple TV Video Conversion (Mac)The Complete Guide to iPod, iPhone and Apple TV Video Conversion (Mac)
Chapter Markers from HandbrakeChapter Markers from the iTunes Store

The next section of the Handbrake screen provides two tabs for “Video” and “Audio & Subtitles.”  The “Video” tab allows you to specify the framerate, the specific encoder to be used, and the quality settings of the output.


The Complete Guide to iPod, iPhone and Apple TV Video Conversion (Mac)

Framerate can normally be left to “Same as source” which will produce a 24fps framerate for NTSC (North American) DVDs and a 25 fps framerate for PAL (European) DVDs. Most theatrical DVD releases are 24fps, although if you’re encoding an NTSC TV show from DVD, the 29.97fps setting should be specified manually to match the video content. Handbrake unfortunately has no way of making the distinction between the different types of content on a DVD, since the DVD itself will generally always specify a 30fps framerate. For European users, most PAL DVDs should be 25fps regardless of whether they are movie or TV content.

The “Encoder” should be left at its default setting if using one of the presets. If you are specifying your own settings, keep in mind that you should use the “x264 (h.264 Main)” setting if you’re encoding exclusively for Apple TV use, or the “x264 (h.264 iPod)” setting if you’re encoding content to also be played on the iPod or iPhone.

The “Quality” can be specified in one of three ways:  The desired size of the target file, the average bitrate, or a constant quality specified as a percentage. Most users should simply use an average bitrate of 1500 kbps for iPod/iPhone encoding, or an average bitrate of between 2500-4000 kbps when encoding for the Apple TV. Keep in mind that this is the average bitrate, so some segments of your video may actually be encoded at higher than normal bitrates. As a result, this setting should always be set slightly on the conservative side to avoid exceeding the maximum settings.

The “2-pass encoding” checkbox can be selected to improve quality at the expense of encoding time. This option will instruct Handbrake to perform a separate analysis pass through the video before doing the actual encoding. This helps Handbrake to determine the best possible bitrate to encode for any given section of the video, and will generally result in better overall quality and the reduction of artifacts in the resulting video stream. The downside to this is that it will double the required time for conversion.

The lower part of the video settings shows the resolution of the video source (normally 720×480 for an NTSC DVD or 720×576 for a PAL DVD) and the resolution of the output, as well as the status of other settings such as Deinterlacing and Anamorphic output. These can be modified by clicking the “Picture Settings” button, which will present a preview of a frame of the video source and the settings for the desired output resolution:


The Complete Guide to iPod, iPhone and Apple TV Video Conversion (Mac)

“Size” simply specifies the desired output resolution. For iPod or iPhone encoding, the width and height must be less than 640 and 480, respectively. As discussed in our previous article, this may result in videos that are considerably less than a full 640×480 when dealing with high-definition and cinematic aspect ratios.

The “Keep Aspect Ratio” checkbox ensures that the proper aspect ratio is maintained when adjusting the width and height settings. Disabling this checkbox will allow you to create a stretched or distorted image. This can sometimes be useful if encoding exclusively for iPod output to a 16:9 TV or portable widescreen device like the Sonic Impact Video 55, however this will result in these videos looking abnormal on the iPod screen itself.

The “Anamorphic (PAR)” checkbox allows for anamorphic video output. This is primarily useful for Apple TV encoding to allow a native 720×480 video to be properly stretched to a 16:9 screen without actually having to actually add unnecessary pixels. It will essentially encode the video in its native 720×480 resolution while telling the output device (ie, Apple TV) to play the video back at 854×480 in order to display a proper aspect ratio. See the “Anamorphic Encoding” section in our Video Formats article for a more detailed description of this concept.

This dialog also provides settings that you can use to crop the image if necessary. The default of “automatic” should suffice for most purposes, and will even support most “Hard Letterboxed” content (again, see our Video Formats Guide for a more detailed description of this). In the event that the “automatic” setting does not properly crop off unnecessary space, you can choose the “Custom” setting and specify the number of pixels to be cropped from each side of the video image.

This feature can also be used if you want to format a video to a different aspect ratio via cropping—for example, permanently turning a 16:9 movie into a 4:3 version to maximum the vertical resolution for standard iPod and TV output.

As each of these settings are changed, the preview image in the main window will update to reflect these changes. The “Previous” and “Next” buttons can also be used to view different frames in the video (there will be 10 different frames available, evenly spaced throughout the video).

Lastly, the Audio settings can be used to specify more advanced audio conversion options and to include a subtitle track from the original DVD if so desired. There is seldom a need to change anything here for basic DVD conversion, but the options are provided to encode different audio tracks (if you wanted to select a different language or director commentary track, for instance), and to select a different output quality.


The Complete Guide to iPod, iPhone and Apple TV Video Conversion (Mac)

By default, two-channel audio tracks will be mixed to standard stereo, and 5.1-channel audio tracks will be mixed to Dolby Pro Logic II.

Note that if subtitles are chosen here, they will be permanently encoded into the resulting video, and cannot be disabled during playback. The Apple video devices do not presently support separate subtitle tracks.

At the very bottom of the Handbrake screen is a checkbox labeled “Enable Queue.”  As the name implies, this will enable the conversion of multiple tracks in a single session, useful for encoding a movie along with its special feature tracks, or several episodes from a TV show DVD. Selecting this checkbox will present two additional buttons to manage the queue.


The Complete Guide to iPod, iPhone and Apple TV Video Conversion (Mac)

To queue up multiple items, simply select the title, chapters, and other encoding settings as described above, and press the “Add to queue” button.

By Jesse Hollington Senior Editor
Jesse Hollington was a Senior Editor at iLounge. He's written about Apple technology for nearly a decade and had been covering the industry since the early days of iLounge. In his role at iLounge, he provided daily news coverage, wrote and edited features and reviews, and was responsible for the overall quality of the site's content.