Ripping a DVD is pretty straightforward, if a little dull. You stick a DVD into the drive, hit 'go' on whatever piece of software you are using, and save the output file where you want it. Slightly less straightforward than ripping a CD – you probably don't have a piece of software that came with your computer (ie. iTunes/Windows Media Player) that will do it for you, and your DVD ripper probably isn't also managing your video library.

Ripping a DVD collection is a bit different; because instead of just doing one, you're doing dozens. Instead of doing something in the background for half an hour or so, you're looking at an ongoing job (or collection of small jobs) that will probably last for weeks. You want to have a process in place to keep the 'work' you have to do to an absolute minimum, and most likely, the amount of work that your computer has to do while you're actually using it to a minimum too.

So, you probably can't be bothered to do this yourself. But if you like the idea of your DVD library being stuff you could play on your phone/tablet/laptop on the go, then this post is about the sort of things that you will want to consider in advance before you get started. (Note – I'm using a Mac, but Handbrake is also available for Windows. I assume that the UI is the same, and therefore this guide will, for the most part, still be useful for those living in a Microsoft world…)

What is on a DVD?

First, a very basic overview of what is on a DVD. Usually, you navigate a DVD through a menu system (unlike a CD, for example, where you just have a number of tracks.) What you don't usually see is how the information on a DVD is structured.

Titles: Like CDs, DVDs have a number of tracks. A film will usually be one track of a DVD; extra features (trailers, outtakes, deleted scenes etc.) will usually be on separate tracks. DVD box sets of TV shows will usually have each episode as a separate track.

Chapters: Tracks can be split up into chapters. This might be scenes of a film. (Sometimes, TV shows might use chapters to break up individual episodes.

Audio: Tracks often have more than one soundtrack which you can switch between. This might be different mixes (two channel stereo, 5.1 surround sound) or commentary tracks.

Angles: Sometimes, DVDs offer different angles - the original idea seems to have been that you could have a number of different camera angles that you could switch between. In practice, the only times I've personally seen Angles being used has been for 'behind the scenes' breakdowns of special effects (eg. one angle for animatics or storyboards, another for raw camera footage, and other angles for visual effects like CGI, and a final angle for the finished footage.) Sometimes, these are used for internationalisation (eg. if the main video includes subtitles or other on-screen text, different Angles might contain the same text in different languages – for example, the opening crawl of the Star Wars films.)

Subtitles: Subtitle tracks might include subtitles in different languages, commentary for the hard of hearing.

So - now you have a basic idea of whats on a DVD. Now, how do you get them onto your computer?

Software & Process

Ripping a DVD involves a few steps;
  1. Put DVD into drive
  2. Rip DVD
  3. Compress video file(s) and save
  4. Eject DVD
  5. Start again with the next one

Sometimes you might just want to pull the video straight off the DVD, so step 2 is kind of optional. But its step 3 that takes time – although its time that you aren't spending actually doing anything, its time that you don't want to be spending doing the same thing twice.

I started out using an app for the Mac called RipIt. Its very straightforward; insert a disc, click Rip to rip the DVD image or Compress to also make a compressed video file and automatically import it into iTunes. Great for ripping a single disc.

But when doing a lot, I started using Handbrake as well. Why? Well, firstly, it means that I can rip one disc with RipIt, then move onto ripping the next disc while compressing the first one with Handbrake. (RipIt can only rip or compress one disc at a time.) This is exactly the kind of thing that isn't an issue when ripping one disc, but can help to speed things up when doing an entire collection.

Ripping a disc is pretty straightforward, but compressing the video is a CPU-intensive task – not great to do if you want to use your computer for anything else at the same time. So instead, I found a routine where I would rip a bunch of discs in the background with RipIt while using the computer, then queue up the compression jobs in Handbrake to run overnight (ie. when I'm not using the machine, and I'm not bothered about the job using up 100% CPU.)

(Tip: if you're using a laptop, make doubly sure that you've plugged it in before leaving it to run.)

Also, RipIt has a number of 'targets' for compressed video (eg. iPad, iPhone etc.), but no real detail about what they mean. Handbrake is a lot clearer about what you are doing with compressed files, and a lot more flexible if you want to do something other than rip the main feature – very handy for TV box sets. I found it useful to compress 'special features' stuff at lower quality settings – that means I'm more likely to put them on my iPad, which is where I think I'm more likely to actually 'watch' them. (Because actually, I'm probably not going to be watching them, so much as listening and staring out of the window of a train.)

Interlaced video

I didn't find out about this until it was too late to really make the most of it. You might know about interlaced video if you're familiar with 1080p/1080i and HD resolutions; interlacing is a technique used to put better quality video onto CRT monitors (ie. old TVs) by drawing alternate rows of pixels. Each row stays on the CRT screen while the next row is being drawn, meaning that you get something that looks like double the resolution, but only taking up half of the bandwidth.

Unfortunately, it is also a way of making video on a computer/phone/laptop screen look bad whenever anything moves. So; interlaced video looks bad, is worth keeping an eye out for (especially on older TV programmes) and you should try to get rid of it if you can.

Fortunately, Handbrake lets you do this. But it isn't immediately apparent how; ignore the "Video" and "Advanced" settings in the main window, and click on the "Picture Settings" button at the top of the main window. Under "Filters", select the "Decomb" menu. (I haven't played around with the settings, but you should probably be able to guess whether you want "Default" or "Fast", depending on the process that you decide on for your own DVD ripping workflow and how important fast compression is to you.)

DVD images and compressed video

Saving the DVD image means you're getting everything on the disc, whatever the frame size and frame rate (usually 720x576 or 720x480), plus every menu, extra feature, soundtrack (stereo, 5.1 surround, commentary tracks), subtitle track etc.

That will tend to work out at around 6-7 gigabytes per DVD.

But you probably don't want to be taking up 7 gigabytes of space on a portable device (phone, tablet — even a laptop with an SSD) for a single film when you could have a compressed video of the whole film (at the same resolution) taking up about 1.5 gigabyte. Depending on your personal preferences, you might be happy to sacrifice image quality/resolution some more for an even smaller file size.

My approach was (and still is) to rip the entire DVD to my desktop. Once ripped, they then get the main features compressed and put into iTunes. Because I don't really know if I'm going to end up watching them on my TV or my iPad (or my phone — or something else), I keep the quality as high as possible. These compressed files then also go onto a portable drive, so I know I can happily wipe out some from iTunes, knowing that I've got them all a) backed up, b) on something I can happily take away with me.

Then, when I've finished with them, I save the DVD images onto a large (2 terabyte) desktop drive — the one that sits at home with Time Machine backups of my laptop. (I have Time Machine on a 1 TB partition, and a second partition for storing DVDs.)

The idea is not just that I can box up my DVDs (most of which are just gathering dust) and put them somewhere out of the way, but that I will be able to go somewhere with my laptop, maybe a portable drive, and my Apple TV in a bag and then I'm able to watch any of my 'DVDs' on any TV that I can plug either my laptop directly into, or use my Apple TV to connect — say, on a long weekend away, or a holiday.

If I realise that I want some extra feature or other, I won't need to dig out the original DVD— it will all be there in a little black box on my desktop.

Hard drive space

So, right now, I have about 700 gigabytes of DVD images on one external drive (desktop), and another 250 gigabytes or so of compressed video files on another (portable — actually an old laptop hard drive in a USB caddy). I'm about half way through ripping my collection – although I've focussed on the ones that I am more likely to want first, and might not bother getting around to every single disc in my collection.

I would strongly recommend that *anyone* who owns a computer makes sure that they have an external hard drive and a backup plan. All of your music, personal files, photos etc. would be a painful thing to lose if your computer got lost, stolen, broken — or even if your hard drive failed.

Right now, a sensible size to buy seems to be about 2 terabytes (two thousand gigabytes.) As far as I can tell, that is roughly the point where buying half the size costs more than half the price, but buying something larger means paying more per gigabyte. The hard drive industry is going through a few unusual times right now – flooded factories in the far east, the growth of solid state drives for high-end laptops, and the growth of laptops – usually, technology gets either twice as big or half the price every 18 months or so, but this price/size balance point seems to have been more or less consistent for at least a couple of years now.

It should cost less than £100 (at the time of writing, this 2 terabyte USB drive on Amazon has been bouncing around between about £65 and £71 (it is an affiliate link, meaning if you click it to buy the drive, I get a percentage), and it should let you keep backups for a while. Having one backup is one thing — but having several, letting you recover something you discover that you accidentally deleted a few weeks ago is something else. And – to get back to the point – it should also ensure that you have enough space for a pretty decent collection of ripped DVDs, not to mention all of your baby photos and home videos, a decent music library — even all of the podcasts you might want to go back to one day.

Different video types

Films are generally straightforward; you want a compressed copy of the film, which will (usually) be the biggest single track on the disc. Perhaps you'll want a copy of the film with commentary track(s) too – it might be worth thinking about ripping these at lower quality video, as you probably won't be paying as much attention to the visuals if you're following the commentary track.

TV programmes sometimes introduce a choice; do you want each episode as a separate video file, or the whole lot in one chunk? What about extra features? Deleted scenes, gag reels, 'making of' featurettes and so on – chances are, you either love them or hate them. (Like you are supposed to either love or hate Marmite – disinterested indifference is not what the brand wants you to feel…)

Once you have your DVD image ripped (you can do this from the DVD itself if you prefer), open it as a source in Handbrake and scan it, and also open it using the DVD Player app. Click the Episode/Chapter part of the interface (just below the time counter), and you will be able to see the Title that is currently playing.

Finally, put them into iTunes and file them away. I haven't yet got my head around the best way of labelling, tagging and categorising videos in iTunes beyond fumbling my way around some Applescript (or even if there is a better app for managing a video library), but once I do I will be sure to share it here.

Happy ripping…