RealDVD Lets You Take Your DVDs With You

Real Networks's RealDVD software provides a way to legally transfer DVDs to a hard drive--the first mainstream app to do so.
The advantages to digitizing your DVD collection are clear: Once you've loaded your discs to a hard drive, you'll no longer have to fumble around with easily scratched discs. And it's far more convenient to put a bunch of movies on a laptop so you can have your entertainment library with you at all times. With the announcement of a new software program, RealDVD, Real Networks is providing the first mainstream means of legally transferring DVDs to a hard drive--with extras. The new $40 software is the first application to enable individuals to save DVDs on a PC hard drive without breaking copyright laws.

This isn't to say "ripping" DVDs hasn't been happening for years now: Plenty of software utilities that strip away a DVD's copy-protection scheme have made the rounds. But stripping away the copy-protection violates the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and has caused issues in the past.

As you start your collection, note that RealDVD supports only regular DVDs (no Blu-ray support yet).
RealDVD gets around this by actually preserving the copy-protection on a disc and copying a DVD's contents exactly as they are structured on the DVD itself to the hard drive. For the time being, RealDVD supports only regular DVDs--there is no Blu-ray support--and each DVD uses about 5- to 9GB of disk space (the space varies, depending upon the disc's contents), so you will need a fairly large hard drive to save more than a handful of DVDs.

RealDVD is scheduled to be available for download from Real's Web site within the month. Fees are $40 for the first activated PC and $20 for each additional activated PC, which strikes me as a little expensive. RealDVD runs on Windows XP and Vista; a Mac version is in the works. We reviewed a late beta version of the software.

Saving a DVD is simple: launch RealDVD, insert a DVD into your computer's DVD drive, and press Save. RealDVD does the rest. The time it takes to save a DVD varies depending on the DVD drive's speed, ranging from as little as ten minutes to nearly an hour. My test notebook took roughly 35 minutes to save a typical movie DVD. You can begin playing the movie while it is being saved, in case you're feeling a little impatient.

Using RealDVD is very simple--but a big caveat is that you can make only one copy on a drive.
RealDVD downloads information about each DVD from Gracenote, including cover art, a synopsis, and cast information. You can view DVDs by genre, MPAA rating, cast members, and director; so you can view only comedy films, for example, but you can't narrow it down to, say, comedy films with a PG-13 rating and starring Christopher Walken. Additionally, RealDVD includes parental controls so you can limit which DVDs can be played back on your PC based on the MPAA rating.

As enticing--and long-overdue--as all of this sounds, RealDVD carries one notable caveat: DVDs transferred to a hard drive are locked down to the specific drive you save them to. This means you can't save a DVD to your desktop's hard drive, and then copy that saved file onto your laptop's hard drive to watch on a business trip, for example. It also means that if you're using two or more hard drives striped together in a RAID configuration, and one of those drives fails, you'll lose your digitized DVD collection--a collection that will take some time recreate.

And the biggest reality of this gotcha: You cannot copy DVD titles onto another hard drive, even for backup purposes. This omission severely limits the usefulness of an otherwise well-done application. Providing a mechanism to easily back up and restore saved DVDs would, at the least, go a long way toward improving this situation. You can store DVDs across multiple external hard drives, and attach that drive to any RealDVD-activated machine, but this ability doesn't address the initial concern.

The bottom line? RealDVD is an interesting product; the idea behind it is great, and for the most part it is well-executed. But its strict copy-protection scheme dampens my enthusiasm.

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