In our last article, we looked at some of the options available for Mac users to convert various types of video content for the iPod, iPhone, and Apple TV. This article follows a similar format to the last one, focusing on those tools that are of interest to Windows users.
As with most software applications in general, the possible applications and options for Windows users to perform video conversion into an Apple-ready format can be somewhat staggering. In the process of reviewing the options available for this article, we looked at no less than 30 different applications that could be used for this task, and most of which were specifically designed with this purpose in mind. In reducing that to a list of our recommended options, we considered the following specific factors:
- Does the software support a wide range of Apple formats? Can it convert for iPod, iPhone and Apple TV? There are many software packages available that perform conversion for the iPod, but very few of these actually provide support for the higher resolutions and different codecs used by the Apple TV. We tried to focus on tools that are more versatile in this area, and mostly excluded single-purpose tools from consideration except in cases where there was simply no other option available for the task at hand.
- Is the software being actively maintained and updated by the developer? Since the original video-capable iPod release in the fall of 2005, there have been many tools that have become available for iPod video conversion. Many of these have not been updated since their initial release one or two years ago.
- What is the price of the software? All other things being equal, free options that can do the same job as a more expensive counterpart are definitely worth giving more consideration to.
With that in mind, we’ve tried to narrow the field down to what we consider to be the “best-of-breed” applications for video conversion in each category, and remain focuses on these. Alternative applications are made mention of in certain places, but for the sake of simplicity, we will try to remain focused on how to use the preferred tools.
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 outside of the U.S. is almost non-existent, 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 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 normal video 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.
Unfortunately, complete solutions for both ripping and converting commercial DVDs are extremely limited. Although Handbrake can handle the extraction of copy-protected DVDs on the Mac, the Windows version does not presently support DVD decryption, requiring you to first extract the DVD to an unprotected format in some way.
The good news is that there are a number of third-party tools available for Windows that can accomplish the actual DVD extraction for you. Since there are several applications available such as Handbrake that can easily convert unprotected DVDs, the real goal is to present the DVD to Handbrake in an unprotected format. A third-party tool, DVD43 (free, available through http://www.dvd43.com/) accomplishes this task very nicely by running in the background and simply handling the DVD decryption process transparently in memory as the DVD is read, presenting an underlying encrypted DVD to any application reading it as if it was not copy protected. Running this utility is simply a matter of downloading it and installing it. It will run with a happy face icon in the Windows system tray (down beside the clock), indicating that the presently-inserted DVD is being presented in non-copy-protected form:
Once this is running, simply insert your copy-protected DVD and access it normally.
For users who would like to separate the ripping process, the are a number of additional tools available that can also perform this task. The classic option for this is DVD Decrypter (free, available through various Internet sites such as http://www.dvddecrypter.org.uk/), and AnyDVD ($49, http://www.slysoft.com). For normal standard DVD to iPod conversion, AnyDVD doesn’t offer anything particularly remarkable, but it is worth mentioning that they also offer an HD-DVD and Blu-Ray option for the main AnyDVD software for an additional $30. Conversion of HD-DVD and Blu-Ray content is a more advanced task and currently beyond the scope of this article, although suffice it to say once the content has been extracted, most of the normal video conversion tools can be used on the resulting MPEG-2 or MPEG-4 video files that are contained on HD-DVD and Blu-Ray discs.
Our recommended DVD conversion solution for Windows users is actually the same tool we recommended in our last article for Mac users: Handbrake, which provides an integrated solution that performs that extraction of unprotected DVD content and handles the conversion of it into an Apple-ready format. With the addition of the DVD43 application described above, Handbrake can easily convert most commercial DVDs to an Apple-ready format as efficiently on Windows as it can on the Mac.
Handbrake has the advantage of being free, being actively developed, and supporting a wide variety of Apple-ready formats, 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 available presets use the following settings:
- iPod 1.33:1 – 1000 kbps average bitrate, 640 x 480 maximum resolution
- iPod 1.78:1 – 1000 kbps average bitrate, 640 x 352 maximum resolution
- iPod 2.35:1 – 1000 kbps average bitrate, 640 x 272 maximum resolution
- Apple TV – 3000 kbps average birate, 720 x 480 maximum native resolution, anamorphic encoding enabled
All 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 save any of the pre-sets or your customized settings as the program’s default settings.
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 ISO image that has previously been stored on your hard drive:
Click the BROWSE button to locate the DVD disc or ISO DVD image. Note that when selecting a physical DVD, you must select to the VIDEO_TS folder directly, as shown in the example below. Handbrake will then simply read the inserted DVD or DVD folder/image and you will be presented with the main settings screen:
The presets described above can be accessed from the “Presets” menu on the menu bar, which will show the available pre-sets for iPod and Apple TV encoding:
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 second drop-down list allows you to select the specific titles that you wish to extract and convert. To extract specific chapters from a given title, simply enter the chapter numbers in the “Chapters” field, using the format shown.
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 first field simply specifies the target filename, which can be typed in manually, or selected using the “Browse” button. From here the video and audio encoder is also selected. The presets will normally take care of this, but as a rule the following encoders should be used to encode for Apple devices:
- Mpeg 4 – To encode for any device using the MPEG-4 codec instead of the H.264 codec.
- H.264 – For Apple TV encoding. Videos encoded using this codec will not play on the iPod or iPhone.
- H.264 (iPod) – For Apple TV, iPod and iPhone encoding using the Baseline 3 Low Complexity profile, suitable for 640×480 encodes.
- H.264 Baseline 1.3 – For iPod and iPhone encoding using the older Baseline 1.3 profile—320×240 maximum resolution at 768kbps.
The preferred general 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 list above, but 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.
For audio encoder, AAC should always be chosen when encoding for an Apple device.
The width and height will normally be filled in automatically if using a pre-set, but can also be specified manually in the appropriate fields. Ideally, the width and height should always be divisible by 16, and the width and height fields will turn green or red depending on whether an optimal value is entered. The Aspect ratio of the current title is also shown to help determine the correct resolution.
The next section of the Handbrake screen provides tabs for Picture, Video, and Audio Settings, as well as some other tabs for more advanced encoding options.
The Picture Settings tab allow you to specify whether or not you want to crop the video, either automatically or manually, and whether you want to embed a subtitle track into the video.
For cropping, the default of “automatic” should suffice for most purposes, and will even support most “Hard Letterboxed” content (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 “Manual” 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 maximize the vertical resolution for standard iPod and TV output.
The “Subtitles” option on the right allows you to choose on of the specific subtitle tracks from the source DVD. As the warning note indicates, 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.
The next tab, “Video Settings” allows you to specify the bitrate or quality settings for the output, advanced output settings, and the framerate of the resulting video.
The “Quality” can be specified in one of three ways: The average birate in kilobits per second, the desired size of the target file in megabytes, 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 “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 having to 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.
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:
Chapter Markers from Handbrake Chapter Markers from the iTunes Store
Framerate can normally be left to “Automatic” 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.
Lastly, the Audio settings can be used to specify more advanced audio conversion options. 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.
From here you can also enable the audio mixdown feature to convert a 5.1-channel audio track down to a Dolby Pro Logic II track. Simply check “Enable” beside “Audio MixDown” and select the appropriate source track and output setting.
Once you have chosen the desired source, destination, and output settings, you can either click the “Encode Video” button to start encoding the current selection immediately, or “Add to Queue” to add the current selection to the queue for later encoding. Note that even if there are items in the queue, the “Encode Video” button will only begin encoding the current selection.
Adding an item to the queue will display the content of the queue, and provide an “Encode Video” option to begin encoding content from the queue. The queue window will remain open, and items will disappear from the list as they are submitted for encoding.
To access the queue list without adding a new item to it, you can choose “Encode Queue” from the “Tools” menu. Entries can be removed from the queue simply by highlighting the item and choosing the “Delete Item” button from the bottom of the queue window.
As the Windows Handbrake client is actually merely a graphical user interface for the Handbrake command-line tool, the queue actually just shows the command-line that will be passed to the underlying encoding application. Further, when encoding begins a Windows Command Prompt dialog will open to show the encoding progress:
To abort the encoding process, simply highlight the command prompt window that is opened, and press CTRL-C.
When encoding completes, the window will be automatically closed, and the Handbrake GUI will place the resulting converted file in the destination specified.
Other DVD Conversion Tools
While Handbrake has the advantage of being completely free, there are other commercial tools available that will convert non-copy-protected DVDs to an Apple-ready format that provide a slightly more user-friendly approach and a packaged solution. These include tools such as Nero Recode (available only as part of Nero Ultra Edition, $80, http://www.nero.com), and Roxio Crunch ($40, http://www.roxio.com).
The great advantage of the DVD43 tool described above in this case is that it will basically allow most of these tools to also convert copy-protected DVDs, since the DVD43 tool will simply make these DVDs appear unprotected to any high-layer application. Applications like Recode can therefore simply see an unprotected DVD and deal with it accordingly (for some reason, this does not work with Roxio Crunch, which reads the content protection flags directly and therefore requires that the DVD be actually extracted manually using a third-party tool before it will be able to read the content)
These tools don’t necessarily accomplish anything more than Handbrake does, but their level of user-friendliness and polish combined with the fact that they provide a more comprehensive video conversion solution may make them a more attractive option for some. Nero Recode is part of an entire suite of tools that focuses on various aspects of CD and DVD ripping, burning and other conversion tasks. Roxio Crunch provides video conversion for normal standard source formats, in addition to reading in DVDs directly.
- What is the price of the software? All other things being equal, free options that can do the same job as a more expensive counterpart are definitely worth giving more consideration to.