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How to Rip DVDs for Use on Palm, Pocket PC and Smartphones (and PSP and iPod too!)

Posted September 2006 by Jacob Spindel

1. Introduction

When providing tech support, I have sometimes been surprised by the number of people who still try to copy DVDs to a Palm or PocketPC by simply inserting the DVD in their computer and performing a drag-and-drop on its icon. The idea actually does make some sense if you're not very familiar with DVDs, but of course, it doesn't really work. DVDs are highly compressed and encrypted, and few PDAs have sufficient processing power to decode them on the fly—and for that reason, there isn't yet any software for Palm OS or Windows Mobile that even attempts this feat. Besides, a commercial DVD can contain up to 8 GB of data, an amount so huge that only a few PDAs could store even one. The bottom line is that putting a DVD movie on your PDA will require some more steps, including decrypting the DVD and converting the video to a different format. Today, I look at some of the most popular methods of accomplishing this.

The purpose of this article is not to promote movie piracy. You should never rip a commercial DVD for the purpose of distributing a movie to other people - even if it is just one or two of your friends. However, you are within your rights to rip a DVD you own in order to transfer it to a device that you own. That said, thanks to DMCA laws in the US, it's still illegal to break the copy protection schemes used on commercial DVDs. Of course, you can't make a backup of your DVD or encode it for use on a mobile device without getting around its copyprotection. Make your head swim? Us too. but we're geeks not lawyers, so do as you will and we make no recommendations when it comes to the law.

2. Device Software

Normally, it frustrates me when people ask me about a wide variety of products and say, "Which is the best?" It doesn't make sense to think that a single product could be superior in all areas, and it is almost impossible to say which one would be best for a particular user if they don't know themselves what they are trying to accomplish.

Well... usually. Actually, though, for PDA video playback software, there really is one winner that has demolished the competition in just about every category. I'm talking, of course, about The Core Project Media Player (TCPMP), which is available for both Palm and Pocket PC from tcpmp.corecodec.org. Although I could go into endless detail about the features of TCPMP, let's just say that it supports the widest variety of video formats and usually achieves the best performance of all available video players. Best of all, at this writing, it is totally free. Since there is really no decision to be made here, just go download it, if you haven't already!

Important: The Pocket PC version of TCPMP has the program itself, and the program's plugins, as separate downloads. I recommend downloading the program and each of the plugins available on the site (currently there are six).

Most other mobile, movie-capable devices, such as the Sony Playstation Portable, some iPods, and some Archos devices, handle video decoding with their included firmware and do not require additional software. (In fact, in many cases, you couldn't add new software to these devices, even if you wanted to.)

If the only portable movie device you have happens to be a portable DVD player, then there is obviously no need to rip your existing DVDs; however, if you have other video content that did not come from a DVD that you want to watch on the road, you could always burn a DVD, or a video CD if you don't have a DVD burner (almost all recent DVD players can also play video CDs, even if they don't document this feature).

3. Decisions, Decisions

Rather than just jumping right into "download this software here, push this button," let's start by understanding what we're actually doing. Before you worry about which specific programs to use, here are three basic decisions to consider that will apply to any decent DVD conversion software.

i. Resolution: The height and width of the video that you will output. Since most DVDs contain a much higher-resolution video than can even be displayed on a PDA screen, keeping the native resolution for PDA playback is just a complete waste of resources.

Instead, decide on a resolution that is appropriate for your own PDA. Since TCPMP can rotate videos as needed, you can use either the height or the width of your PDA's screen, whichever is larger, to determine the width of the video you will output (since almost all DVD video is wider than it is tall).

Although this may sound a little confusing, it is actually quite simple; for example, if you have a PocketPC with a 320 x 240 screen (as are almost all Pocket PCs), or a Palm with a 320x320 screen (such as the Tungsten E, Tungsten E2, Zire 71, Zire 72, Treo 700p, etc.), choose 320 as the width of the output video, since that is the largest dimension of your screen. On the other hand, if you have a Palm with a 320 x 480 screen (like the LifeDrive or TX), you will want 480 to be the video's width, even though that is the screen's height rather than its width, because that is the largest dimension of the screen in this case.

Some newer Pocket PCs such as the Dell Axim X51v and HTC Universal have a 640 x 480 screen, in which case you can feel free to use an output width of 640 pixels, if you have lots of storage space, but if your storage cards are a bit smaller in capacity or fewer in number, you may want to stick with 320 anyway (you can still view it in full screen, though it won't be quite as sharp as VGA). Note that the higher the resolution, the greater the demands on the CPU, so don't encode at high bitrates if you're creating a 640 x 460 movie. Also, the Treo 700w, Treo 700wx HP iPAQ hw6515 and hw6915 have a 240x240 screen, so a width of 240 pixels is really the best you can do for these devices, though you can still play videos made at resolutions higher than 240 x 240.

If you have an older Palm whose screen is only 160 x 160, chances are your processor just isn't fast enough to play back movies anyway. It might be worth a try on a few of these models (like the Treo 600), but keep in mind that you will have to shrink the width all the way to 160, which will certainly be difficult to see.

So what about the height of the output? That's an easy one—let your DVD software decide for you based on your choice of width. Although it is possible to stretch a movie so that it is anywhere from squished to super-tall, this is rarely useful and mostly just makes the picture look ridiculous. Instead, you'll want to maintain the same proportions between the two dimensions that the original video uses. This is called maintaining the aspect ratio, and most DVD ripping software can do this automatically if it has been configured appropriately.

Again, at this point, you just need to decide on a width for your output video, such as "320" - we can worry about how to use that number a bit later.

ii. Frame Rate: Most DVDs are encoded to produce somewhere between 24-30 frames per second. However, if you need to produce a smaller output file, you can choose to drop some of these frames, at the cost of having an output video that is somewhat less smooth in its movement.

If you decided in (1) to scale down the resolution to PDA-size, you'll find that this smaller resolution enables even a modest PDA like an iPaq running at 266 MHz to display frame rates up to, and including, the frame rate of the original. However, if you re-encode the movies with the original frame rate, you should expect each two-hour movie to be at least 700 MB. If this is too much for you, or if your PDA is so slow that it cannot handle the original frame rate even at a low resolution, you'll want to decrease the frame rate of your output. Most people perceive 15 frames per second to be acceptable, or if you're really desperate you might try 10 fps if you have to. Anything below that will just be a "slide show."

iii. Container/Video Codec/Audio Codec: Since PDAs cannot handle DVD data in its native format, we'll have to convert it to something else. To decide on an output format, we'll have to choose a "container type" (the basic type of output file, such as AVI or QuickTime), a video codec, and an audio codec. A codec is simply a method of efficiently storing audio or video data to minimize storage space while maintaining a high level of output quality; however, there are many different standards available for doing this. Ultimately, there are virtually unlimited possible combinations of these three items, but here I will focus on the two that I think are the most important.

AVI Container, DivX video, MP3 audio. This is my preferred format for using DVDs, and other video, on a PDA. Files in this format have the advantage of having a fairly small file size while still having very high quality. This is also a very popular way of encoding files, which means that almost any type of computer or PDA should be able to play files in this format, since it is supported by many different software programs (including TCPMP).

MP4 container, H.264 video, AAC audio. This newer standard is considered the proper encoding method for using a video with an iPod Video 5G or a Sony Playstation Portable. It provides even higher levels of compression than the AVI format described above, meaning that it can maintain higher quality with an even smaller file. However, if you have a PDA and not an iPod or PSP, I would not recommend using this format just yet, because many PDAs just aren't fast enough to decode this format. Moreover, due to a variety of legal issues, it can sometimes be difficult to find PDA software that can decode AAC audio.

In short, unless you have a specific reason for choosing something else, it is probably a good idea to choose the first option for PDAs, and the second option for iPod or Sony PSP.

4. Additional Considerations

Titles and Chapters
DVDs are divided into subsections called titles, which are themselves divided into sub-subsections called chapters. In general, you will only want one of the titles and some or all of that title's chapters - this usually corresponds to the main movie, but not bonus features or other extra material. So you will need to instruct your DVD-ripping software to rip a specific title, and to rip either all or some of the chapters from this title.

So how do you know which ones to choose? Unfortunately, there isn't really any standard way of organizing a DVD, so to some extent, you'll just have to guess. Most DVD rippers give you either the duration of the video section you have currently specified, or a screenshot from this section (some programs even do both), so this can give you a hint, but there may still be some trial and error involved. If you find one title that is about 2 hours long (or, more precisely, corresponds to the length of the movie you are looking for), then you should probably rip all the chapters from that title. If you have a DVD with multiple episodes of a TV show, or one that is organized in some other way, you may just have to experiment. Although there is no single answer that applies to all DVDs, it is usually not very difficult to figure out any single DVD.

Subtitles
Despite the similar name, subtitles actually have almost nothing to do with titles - I'm really just talking about the actual text that appears on-screen when characters are speaking. Since you can probably speak English if you're reading this, and you may have only English movies, you may be wondering why you'd ever need subtitles.

Although you may not need them, there are a few extra complications to consider. Obviously, if you have a foreign-language film, you will probably want to insert subtitles in your own language (if present on the DVD) into the output video. Another, more difficult case involves my personal favorite movies, the Star Wars saga. Except for episodes III and V, the movies use subtitles for alien languages, and it would be nice to have these subtitles without having to put subtitles over the entire movie - this is how the Star Wars movies are generally presented in theaters and on VHS. With most Star Wars DVDs, you're in luck; one of the "English" subtitle tracks will contain exactly what you want, that is, subtitles only for the alien languages. Selecting this is usually all you have to do. However, The Phantom Menace DVD is known to have some bizarre issues with its subtitles, and although I was able to extract the subtitles after much effort, it required some very complex techniques that were beyond the scope of this article. If you always keep subtitles off without taking these sorts of things into account, you may end up being unable to understand some of the dialog of some movies.

Please Wait...
Ripping a DVD will take a very, very, VERY long time. If you are going to need your DVD drive for anything else in the next hour (assuming a recent and fast computer, otherwise it might take longer), now is not the time to rip a DVD. Although you can work on other programs while DVDs are being ripped in the background, this can severely slow down the DVD ripping process, the program you are working on in the foreground, or both, especially on older computers. In fact, it might be a good idea to let your computer rip a DVD overnight - most computers allow you to turn off the monitor or put the monitor into a standby mode.

Now that you've made all the necessary decisions, it's time to start putting them into practice.

5. Mac Software

There are a few different choices for DVD-ripping software on a Mac, but there is one free option that works about as well as the high-end options, so this is the one I am recommending: HandBrake by Eric Petit, which is available for free from handbrake.m0k.org as a Universal Binary (so it runs natively on both PowerPC and Intel Macs).

Using HandBrake is quite simple. Insert your DVD into your Mac's drive and launch the program, and you will be prompted to choose a disc. Choose the first option, which starts with "Detected volume," and the dialog will close. You will then be presented with a variety of options. First, in the "Source" section, select a title from the pop-up menu, and then select some or all chapters from this title (titles and chapters are discussed in the previous section). HandBrake will tell you what length of video you've selected (in hours:minutes:seconds format), which is a useful hint.

Next, in the "Video" section, choose the frame rate you decided on previously. The pop-up menu contains a "Same as source" option, as well as several specific numerical choices. Leave the encoder on FFmpeg. If you wish, you can set a target size for the completed file by clicking the appropriate radio button, but if you aren't going to do that, I would recommend leaving everything below "Quality:" alone. For good quality video, don't go lower than about 700 MB as your target for a movie that is 2.5 hours or less; longer movies will, of course, require even more space.

In the "Destination" section, choose the output format and codecs you decided on above - most likely, these will be AVI and DiVX video/MP3 audio. (The item in the pop-up menu is called "MP4 video/MP3 Audio," but when using AVI mode, this does represent the DiVX codec with MP3 audio.) You can also choose where to save the output file, and what it should be named, in this tab.

Handbrake screen shot

Warning: If you specify a destination that matches the name and location of file that already exists, HandBrake may overwrite that file without any warning. This is an especially easy mistake to make when using HandBrake's queue feature, if you forget to give distinct names to each output file. Be careful!

Under the "Subtitles" section, each set of subtitles on a DVD should be clearly named ("English," "Spanish," etc.), so it's usually pretty self-explanatory. However, there is likely to be more than one English subtitle track (for example, one that subtitles everything, one that does just the aliens, one that pertains to the audio commentary, etc.) on many discs, and if you need one of these, you are pretty much stuck using trial and error to figure out which is which.

Hint: Any time you are stuck in a trial-and-error situation, try encoding just one short chapter to see if it works, rather than redoing the whole movie several times.

In the "Audio" tab, just leave "Language 1" and "Language 2" on their default settings, unless you don't want the audio to be in the disc's default language (which is probably English if you bought the DVD in the U.S.). The sample rate and bit rate for the audio default to 44 kHz and 128 kbps, and I would not recommend changing them.

The last step in configuring HandBrake is the "Picture Settings..." button. In the window that appears when you click this button, leave "Keep aspect ratio" checked, and then adjust the Width setting to the output width you chose above. The height will automatically adjust correspondingly. It is not generally necessarily to alter the other settings in the Picture Settings window. After you have configured the output resolution, click the Close button.

If you have several tasks that you need to perform on a single disc, HandBrake has a queue option. Simply click the check box marked "Enable queue" at the bottom of the window, and additional buttons will appear allowing you to add a task to the queue instead of starting it immediately.

Once you have input all the tasks you want to perform (which will be just one if you're not using the queue), hit the "Rip" or "Start" button. Let HandBrake complete its tasks, and when it finishes, you're done!

When Things Go Wrong

It's been said that "you get what you pay for," and since HandBrake is free, it already provides a lot more than that... but still, it does have bugs sometimes, and your output may be incorrect, or the program can sometimes even crash without producing any output. Here are two additional tools for Mac users to try to work around problems.

MacTheRipper (www.mactheripper.org)

HandBrake actually does two different things at once: it decrypts a DVD, and it transcodes the video into a different format. However, if HandBrake is having difficulties with a specific disc, then you can try using a separate program to do the decryption step. MacTheRipper is a free program that does exactly that, producing an output that you can then give to HandBrake by choosing the "DVD Folder/Image" option in HandBrake's opening dialog instead of "Detected Volume." Usually, the correct folder to use is the VIDEO_TS folder within the extracted DVD created by MacTheRipper. Be forewarned that temporarily storing this intermediate DVD rip on your hard disc can require over 8 GB.

Note: MacTheRipper does not have transcoding capabilities, so by itself it is not enough to transfer a DVD to a PDA.

ffMpegX (www.ffmpegx.com)

ffMpegX for Mac OS X is basically the Swiss Army Knife of Mac video conversion. It has so many different options for transcoding and altering video files that I could not possibly cover all of them here. It can convert many popular formats, including some types of DVD data, to any of a variety of possible outputs. It also has tools to add subtitles to a file, to change the resolution of a video, and much, much more.

Still, ffMpegX may not be a good idea for novices. The fact is that many combinations just don't work, and don't give you any real explanation why. Also, I have mixed feelings about paying $15 for a product that is actually just a front-end to freeware command-line tools that do the "hard part." (These command-line tools must be downloaded separately; instructions are included.) Nonetheless, ffMpegX is VERY powerful, and for many types of transcoding, it is simply the only game in town on Mac OS X. I'm also glad to see that it's already a Universal Binary. It's also handy that ffMpegX has a progress indicator that can enqueue multiple tasks. Sometimes if you have a video file and you just have no idea what you need to do in order to make it playable, ffMpegX is a great place to start. Ultimately, ffMpegX has rescued my video files in situations where nothing else could, so ultimately it is worth the $15 unless you want to figure out the command line options yourself.

ffmpegX screen shot

Bonus hint: If you ever try to transcode a WMV or ASF file to something else using ffMpegX and get a video with correct visuals, but no audio, as output, try looking under ffMpegX's Audio tab and changing the audio channel from 0 to 1.

6. Windows Software

For ripping DVDs under Windows XP, I am recommending the program FairUse Wizard, which is available for free from www.fairusewizard.com.

After downloading, installing, and launching FairUse, you will be presented with a window that prompts you to create a new project for the DVD you wish to rip. In this window, choose a name and save location for the new project (or open an existing project, if you have already created one) and choose "Codec settings" from the pop-up menu near the bottom. Leave "Full auto mode" disabled. If you wish to create a queue of tasks to work on like the one in HandBrake, you can use the "Batch Processing" section to add a list of projects you have created, but otherwise, after configuring the project file and choosing "Codec settings," you are ready to hit "Next."

The software will prompt you to choose your DVD drive from a pop-up menu. On many Windows-based computers, this is the D: or E: drive, although your setup may vary. On the next screen, choose "Cache the selected program chains (multisession)" and hit "Next" again.

On the next screen, choose the "Create a new session" radio button and click "Next." You can also resume an existing session if you have made one, although you must be sure to select the one you wish to use with the mouse - it is not automatically selected by default.

After a delay, another screen will appear. In the "Frame range" area, choose the chapter you wish to use as a starting point from the pop-up menu at the bottom of this area, and click the down arrow next to the Start field to copy over the appropriate frame value automatically. Now do the same for the ending chapter. (You may have to upgrade to the paid version of the program to select custom start and end points.) FairUse gives you a screenshot of the chapter you have selected, as well as indicators of the length of each chapter, to help you figure out the right choice for your goals.

FairUse screenshot

This is also the screen where you can enable subtitles, if needed. Under "Subpicture options," you can turn subtitles on by checking "Include subpictures" and choosing the desired subtitle track from the pop-up menu.

Hit "Next" again. Click the "Native mode" radio button, and then press "Next" once more.

Here, you will want to select DivX under "Video encodings," unless you are planning to use the video with an iPod or PSP, in which case the x264 choice would be more appropriate (iPod encoding also requires the paid version of the program). If the DivX option is disabled on your computer, the XviD codec is fairly similar in terms of efficiency and compatibility. Leave the audio as a 128 Kbps MP3, and then select the resolution, by locating the option with the width that is closest to the width you chose earlier, from the list in the "Resolution" section (you may have to uncheck "Show only preferred resolutions" to find it).

If you wish to change the frame rate, click the "Codec Settings" button in the upper-right area of this screen and then click "calc..." in the window that appears. You are now ready to click Next, which will cause the encoding process to begin. As even the program itself notes, it may take a long time for it to finish.

7. Conclusion

In today's world, it seems that we are expected to work harder and faster every day, even though sometimes the only result of our efforts is that we spend more time waiting for other people. If you spend as much time on "hurry up and wait" as I do, you would probably enjoy the ability to bring some DVD content along with you on a PDA or other mobile device. With this guide, you can achieve this while also optimizing the results to maintain high quality while conserving the required space and CPU power for the output.

Summary of Products Used in This Guide:

HandBrake
Platform: Mac OS X Universal
Price: Free
Web site: http://handbrake.m0k.org

ffMpegX
Platform: Mac OS X Universal
Price: $15
Web site: http://www.ffmpegx.com

MacTheRipper
Platform: Mac OS X PowerPC
Price: Free
Web site: http://www.mactheripper.org

FairUse Wizard
Platform: Windows XP
Price: Free (Lite edition) / $19.99 Full Edition
Web site: http://www.fairusewizard.com

TCPMP
Platform: Palm OS 5; Windows Mobile
Price: Free
Web site: http://tcpmp.corecodec.org

 



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