There was a time when DVDs reigned supreme as the ultimate way to store your home movies in a way that would not degrade over time. Sadly, the quality of DVDs, especially those used for burning, can vary substantially and often a DVD you created and stored away can end up being unreadable once retrieved. Furthermore, with the never ending push to digital distribution (renting or buying movies from the internet) more and more households are either using their gaming consoles (xbox 360 or PS/3) or investing in a dedicated media player capable of playing back these files on their TV.

It does beg the question though, once you have experienced the joys of having a nice large catalogue at your finger tips, why would you want to scrounge around for a physical DVD anymore?

It’s also not uncommon to have video recorded on modern day cameras, be it a dedicated digital camera or even a smartphone and want to see this back on your TV. Converting the files into an appropriate format that your media player can understand is important and absolves you of having to create a DVD in the first place. It is also common these days to shoot video in a higher quality format than DVD is currently capable of producing.

For this article, we will be looking at a free piece of software called Handbrake.

Handbrake can be downloaded from here and it is available for Windows, Mac and Linux.

For video preview capability, you will also need to install VLC media player http://www.videolan.org/vlc/

This tutorial will focus on the Windows version of handbrake however; most of the settings will be the same even if the program looks a little different.

Converting a DVD

Open Handbrake and insert the DVD you wish to convert. For this example, I am using a DVD I created which contains footage of my son aged 0-6 months. Click on the DVD listed.

Handbrake will commence scanning the DVD and you will notice next to “Source:” the term “Processing Title x of x” can be seen.

The “Title” section allows you to select which video stream to convert.

A Title is essentially a movie or track contained on the DVD. Depending on the DVD you have, you may see only one Title or multiple Titles. You will notice the time (or length) related to each Title. If you are not sure which one to select, don’t worry. Using preview (which we go into shortly) will help.

One of the great things about handbrake is its Presets. A Preset is a shortcut the settings (Picture, Video, Audio …) that your DVD will convert to. For the most part, selecting a Preset is all you would need to do to set the output however, there are times where tweaking is required.

Once selected, have a look at the “Picture” tab, you will now see some settings relating to your movie. Fiddling with these can produce better quality results or can completely distort your video. Anamorphic is one setting you may want to consider playing with. Generally, leaving this setting to “loose” should give you good results. If you notice that your video ends up looking distorted (too stretched or too tall) you can play with the settings here to get it right. If you find yourself in trouble and need to adjust, a good guide on anamorphic settings can be found here.

For this video, I am going to:

  • select High Profile
  • set the destination to where I want the final file stored and give it a name
  • Select the Container type (MP4 or MKV)
  • Hit the Preview button at the top of the screen.

What is the difference between .MP4 and .MKV I hear you ask? MP4 and MKv are different types of containers. They store video, audio and subtitles. Without going into specifics, MKV has more options than MP4 however, make sure your media player can play it back.

On the topic of what your media player can playback, the High Profile setting will also select the video codec H.264. This is a compression standard which has been widely spread and most modern media players are capable of playing it back. Many older media players however cannot. About the only Preset that doesn’t use H.264 is the “Classic” Preset.

Previewing your clip allows you to check that the preset settings were correct and that your “title” you selected was the right one.

The preview window will allow you to select a chapter on your DVD as well as how long you want the preview to go for. Preview will then encode a small portion of your DVD and play it back for you to look at. Clicking the Play with VLC (which should already be installed as mentioned earlier) will start the process. It should be worth noting that the longer you set the duration, the more time it takes to start playback.

The main thing I have found worth looking out for is “Interlacing”. This is an effect where the picture looks like it “tearing”. A good explanation of what it is and what do about it can be found here. Decomb or Deinterlace settings can be found in the “Video Filters” Tab (next to “Picture”). If you find your video is interlaced, set your video filter and preview it again to see if it’s fixed.

Once you are happy with your video file, it is time to either select Start or Add to Queue.

If you are only converting one Title, pressing start is the simplest way to begin. If you want to convert more than one “Title” on the DVD, select Add to Queue and, Select the next title you want to convert and go through the whole process above again. Add this file to the Queue too.  Press the show queue button and then encode.

Now it’s time to sit back and relax, make a coffee, do some ironing or go do some shopping as your computer goes through the conversion process. The time this takes is really dependant on the speed of your computer, the size of the video file and the quality you have selected to convert to. An old Pentium computer with a single core processor can take hours to convert a video where a new Intel Core i7 quad core CPU can do it within an hour. Even the speed of your DVD drive, its current condition (how it’s reading your DVD) and the condition of the actual DVD will impact the time it takes.

While having your DVD converted to a file has its advantages, like any of your files backups should exist to ensure hard drive failure doesn’t result in losing your memories. Perhaps it’s worth backing up to archival quality DVDs and storing them at a friend or relative’s place. I guess DVDs may still have a use after all.