Full Speed Ahead with Handbrake

See how Handbrake, a powerful and easy-to-use video conversion program, can help you enjoy your favorite TV shows or films while at your computer, whether you're at home or away from home.

As an animation and comic-book fan, I like to watch various TV shows and movies featuring my favorite characters, ranging from the Simpsons and Superman to Looney Tunes and the X-Men films. Like most such fans, I've also bought the various DVD releases of these shows. However, since I'm not always at home, I also like watching TV programs and movies on my laptop or Palm Pre smartphone. It's great to be able to watch films while on vacation and other trips, or cartoons while commuting on the bus to work. Instead of repurchasing digital download versions of these programs, however, I find it's much cheaper (and easier, when factoring in the lack of Linux-friendliness of some on-line digital video stores) to convert my DVDs into more versatile, computer-ready video files. Doing this gives me such advantages as being able to store my video collection in an easily accessible format (without having to swap DVDs from my bookshelves), being able to convert the files for playback on various devices (such as my Pre or my old iPod), and keeping a backup of my DVD collection. Although various video conversion programs are available for Linux, the most user-friendly one I've found is Handbrake.

Handbrake, a cross-platform program (with versions available for Windows and OS X along with Linux), comes in both a command-line version and a GUI version for Linux. An open-source program, Handbrake offers the ability to convert from unencrypted DVD video sources (including VIDEO_TS folders, .VOB and .TS files, and .ISO images) and most multimedia files that FFmpeg can handle, including AVI (.avi) and MPEG (.mpg) files. Output formats include the Matroska (.mkv) and MP4 (.mp4) video containers; H.264, MPEG-4 and Theora video codecs; and AAC, MP3 and Vorbis audio codecs (along with AC3 passthrough).


Installation of Handbrake itself is straightforward. If Handbrake isn't offered in your system's package manager, the Handbrake Web site's downloads section offers you the choice of installing either a command-line version or a GUI version, for either 32-bit or 64-bit systems. For the purpose of this article, I cover the GUI version, which keeps with Handbrake's emphasis on user-friendliness. If the .deb or .rpm files offered (geared toward Ubuntu and Fedora users, respectively) aren't sufficient, another option is to download the source code and compile Handbrake.

Note that Handbrake does not unencrypt encrypted DVDs on its own, which includes most commercial DVDs available. Before installing Handbrake, make sure the libdvdcss library is installed first. The legality of converting DVD video for one's personal use may vary by locality, so check with the proper authorities before proceeding.

From DVD to Laptop

To cover the basics of Handbrake, let's use it to convert to a more laptop-friendly format DVD of the hit 2000 superhero film X-Men about Marvel Comics' classic mutant-powered superhero team. After inserting the DVD into the computer (and launching Handbrake), select the Source button (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Handbrake's Default Interface, before Loading a DVD

If the DVD's directory isn't selected automatically, navigate to it; afterward, select OK, and Handbrake will read the DVD's tracks. The movie's available tracks will be displayed in the drop-down Title menu, next to the Chapters beginning and ending boxes and an Angle box. The movie itself generally will be the track with the longest time listed. Select the movie's track, then under the File destination box, type what you want to name the movie. If you don't want to convert all the chapters from the original source (say, if you just want the opening title sequence or a particular scene), type in the Chapters boxes the desired range of chapters. The Angle box can be ignored by most users (including for our purposes here), given its infrequent use on DVDs.

Figure 2. Handbrake after Loading a DVD

The next step is to decide whether you want to use Handbrake's presets or your own customized settings. One of Handbrake's strengths is its various presets, which allow you to choose a convenient high-quality setting for various conversion purposes. Previous versions of Handbrake offered myriad presets, but as shown in Figure 3, version 0.9.4 (the most-recent version, at the time of this writing) has simplified the offerings for convenience and now include Normal (the default) and High Profile (high-quality) presets; presets for the iPod, the iPhone/iPod Touch and the Apple TV; and several now deprecated legacy settings, aimed at users of previous versions of Handbrake.

For my purposes (keeping the file to play on a laptop), I usually select High Profile, a high-quality setting, though I've also found the iPhone/iPod Touch preset helpful for making files specifically for watching on my Pre, which uses the same video settings as the iPod Touch and iPhone.

Figure 3. Handbrake's Presets

If you're fine with the presets settings as is, the next step is to select Start, and Handbrake will begin converting the video. However, if you want to convert multiple DVD tracks (say, the extras on a movie DVD or all the episodes from a TV show DVD), select Add to Queue first to add the current track, then select another track as previously described, and click Add to Queue. Repeat until you've chosen all the desired tracks from the DVD, then select Start.

If you're looking for finer control over the conversion settings, you need to do more than just the above, of course. As shown in Figure 1, Handbrake offers several different tabbed panes to adjust various settings. The panes include Picture (the default displayed in Figures 1 and 2), Video, Audio, Subtitles, H.264 and Chapters. Let's look at what each pane offers.