Despite all the advances in home technology, protecting your digital media is more difficult today than ever. Some of you may recall how easy it was to make backup copies of your VHS movies in the 90s – all you needed was a dual-deck VCR. Today, sophisticated DRM (Digital Rights Management) protection is embedded into most DVD and Blu-Ray video disks. While the original purpose behind DRM was to curb the illegal sharing of copyrighted material, as a side effect it prevents rightful owners from making backup copies of the movies they have legally purchased. DRM also prevents legitimate owners from converting those movies to digital formats they can watch on their tablets, phones and computers without a DVD player.
Luckily, with the help of the right (and totally free) tools, you can convert your DVDs and Blu-Ray discs to digital files that can be backed up like all your other files and can also be played on your other devices. It goes without saying that I don’t advocate sharing copyrighted content outside of your household or making copies of DVDs you don’t legally own.
- Mac or Windows computer running Windows Vista or newer or Mac OS X 10.6 or newer. Newer computers with 16GB or more RAM will convert the movies faster.
- Internal or external DVD or Blu-Ray drive. If you don’t have one, here is a good selection of USB Blu-Ray drives
- MakeMKV software (free)
- Handbrake software (free)
Step 1: Rip the DVD
First we need to get the digital movie file off the DVD, so we can later convert it to the desired format. Modern DVDs come packed with a lot of extra data including additional languages, previews and commentary. All this stuff takes up a lot of space, and if you just want to back up or convert the movie itself, you can greatly reduce the file size by leaving all that stuff behind.
At this stage we need a tool that will allow us to the select the right audio and video files from the DVD and copy them to our computer in a format we can work with. One great and freely available tool for this is MakeMKV. This program is available for both Windows and Mac computers. Simply download the application from the developer’s website and activate it with the posted key.
MakeMKV will automatically detect your DVD and open its contents so you can select which video and audio track you want to extract. Blu-Rays tend to have a lot of options, so be sure to select the tracks you need and uncheck everything else. For video, the largest size Title is typically the movie itself, and for audio, I usually select the most advanced audio track option available (you can always change it at the next step).
MakeMKV will spend a few minutes extracting the movie from the disk and will save it as an MKV file. MKV is an open-standard video file not limited by patents, regions or licenses. Many devices can’t natively play MKV files, but if you’d like to view this file on your computer, you can download the free VLC player.
The MKV files are not compressed, and are quite large in size, with files from Blu-Ray discs reaching into 30-40GB per file. If you have plenty of storage and network bandwidth at home, you can stop here and simply convert all your movies to MKV files. However, if you’d like to make the video files smaller and more practical to use, read on to the next step.
Step 2: Convert the MKV file
Now we need to convert the MKV file to a smaller file format we can use on our home devices. Handbrake is a free program that allows you to convert the MKV file into a wide range of formats. Since most households have a variety of Apple, Android and Windows devices, I recommend setting the output file format to mp4, which is compatible with a very broad range of computers, tablets, smart phones and TVs.
Next, you need to decide on the right balance of quality and file size. Generally, the higher the quality of the video, the larger the file size and the longer the time it takes to convert the file. Picking the Normal preset will result in decent video quality and file size. Try this setting first and then test the resulting file on your TV or tablet. If you decide that you need your video to be of higher quality, you can try the High quality preset. This will result in a larger file and a longer encoding time.
If you are not satisfied with the presets, Handbrake has dozens of settings you can manually adjust. The settings you pick can affect the resulting file size and encoding time – for example, depending on the settings, the same DVD can be compressed to 600MB or 30GB, and may take 2 hours or 22 hours to encode.