How-to: Convert DVDs to Video Files

I’ve spent the last few weeks talking about video player options for your kids on road trips.  However, I realized other than mentioning connected services like Netflix, I haven’t really talked about getting movies on to these tablets.  Since I previously suggested you ditch the DVD player in your car, it might be a good idea if I showed you what to do with those DVDs into which you’ve sunk so much money.

That’s why I’ve whipped up a little guide to show how to easily convert DVDs to digital media files that can be copied to any sort of tablet or media player (or a nifty wireless hard drive) to use on the go.  Before we begin I do have the following information to pass along:

I’m not a lawyer, so if you’re really concerned, you probably should consult someone who’s more familiar with the law.  Opinions vary to the legality of converting copy-protected videos, even those you’ve purchased. Making an archival copy for personal archival use seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to me.  Of course it’s pretty obvious that copying a DVD you don’t own really is against the law. I do not condone such activity, only the fair use practice of converting the medium of movies you actually own.

Ok, with that out of the way, here’s what we’re going to do: we’ll use an open source application called Handbrake to convert a DVD to a digital file that can be loaded into iTunes to transfer to an i-device or directly onto an Android tablet for use on the go.  I use a Mac so these screenshots will be based on that platform, but the steps are very similar for Windows as well.

Step 0: Download and install Handbrake (0.9.9 as of this writing) from

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Special note for Mac users: the latest versions of OS X block software that doesn’t include a certificate from the developer.  Handbrake is one of those pieces of software.  To allow installation, right click on the installer icon after its downloaded and then select Open in the dialog box.

Step 1: Insert a DVD and then launch the Handbrake application from your applications folder.  Handbrake will open a finder/explorer window asking for the source file.  Select your DVD drive and click open.

Special note: Macs require an additional component to convert copy protected DVDs. If you need this extra software, you will see a pop up with a link to download the file.  Download and install that file (you’ll have to use the right click trick again). Relaunch Handbrake when you’re done and try again.

Handbrake Show Media

Step 2: Handbrake will read the DVD and then a Disc name will show up. Handbrake will attempt to guess the main title on the DVD (DVDs often contain several “titles” which can be alternate versions of the movie, special features and so on).  Usually the software gets it right, but if not, you’ll have to try and puzzle out which is the correct version.  It can be a challenge sometimes.  I’m pretty sure the studios do that to mess with people who’re trying to backup the content they paid for.

You can also change the location and name of the completed file by hitting the browse button below the track information and selecting your destination.

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Step 3: Now it’s time to decide what format you want your digital file to be.  There are many buttons and settings on this window where you selected your filename.  Ignore all those and look to the right, you should see the presets tray.  If you don’t see it, look at the top right corner of the window to slide out the presets tray.  From there, you can pick the device you’ll use the file on the most.

If yours isn’t listed, one of the Apple TV settings will probably be the most compatible. The various settings on the main window will change according to what you selected.

Step 4: Click the start button on the upper left hand side of the window.  You can also queue up several conversions using the add to queue button.  Go get a snack and a nice drink, this takes a while.  You’ll see a progress bar at the bottom of the window.  On my aging Mac it can take hours for a conversion depending on the movie.

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Step 5: Done!  Now you can put the movie in your iTunes library or copy it over to your tablet.  Hooray, you did it!

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Bonus round for Mac users:

Here’s a little extra something I do because I use an Apple TV and I like to have the movie poster and actor information and whatnot when I browse through movies.

Go download Subler and install it.  Subler is a Mac OS X utility that lets you add data to MP4 and M4V video files.  Once subler’s installed, launch it and then browse for your newly minted movie file.

Your file will open in a new window and display some information about the video tracks and so forth.  Don’t worry about that stuff, what you want is meta data.

Click on the file menu and then Import a submenu will pop up, select the option to search for metadata online.  The Metadata search window will pop up.

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Make sure the right movie is selected, then click add.  Here’s where it gets cool:

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Yep, a gallery of movie posters pops up!  Pick your favorite and then click Set as artwork.  Once the artwork is set, select save from the file menu and close Subler.  After a minute or so, your file is ready to go.  Open it up in iTunes (or an iDevice) and behold how slick it looks!

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Ain’t technology grand?

Do you have any questions, or tips of your own?  I’d love to hear about them in the comments section.

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