Convert Video for Your iPod

With its ever expanding catalog of movies and TV shows, the iTunes Store is a great place to stock up on video content for an iPod. But why spend your hard-earned money there when you already have a vast collection of DVDs, iMovies, and other video files at your fingertips? With the help of some free software, you can convert these videos into iPod-compatible files.

Let's say that you purchased a movie on DVD, and that you want to convert it to watch on your iPod. Because ripping commercial DVDs circumvents the copy-protection system employed on these discs, the legality of the process is questionable--even if you own the DVD and are ripping it only to watch it in another form. You'll have to assess these risks for yourself. If you decide to take the plunge, read on.

Scanning the disc

If you intend to watch the video solely on your iPod, download Tyler Loch's free HandBrake Lite 1.1 ( HandBrake Lite 0.7.0 , ), a simplified ver-sion of the full HandBrake software (discussed later). To rip a DVD, pop the disc into your drive and launch HandBrake Lite. Click on the Open button, and the program will scan the disc for video data.

HandBrake Lite might not be able to read the disc (this sometimes occurs with recent DVDs that have special copy protection). If you see the message "No Valid Title Found," download a copy of MacTheRipper, a utility that is more adept than HandBrake Lite at bypassing DVD copy protection (its Web site has moved several times, so do a Google search if you need it). Once you've used MacTheRipper to create an unencrypted version of your DVD on your hard drive, launch HandBrake Lite. In the sheet that appears, choose the VIDEO_TS Folder Or Disc Image option. Navigate to the VIDEO_TS folder of the disc you've extracted.

Start ripping

Once HandBrake Lite has scanned the disc (or the VIDEO_TS folder if you've used MacTheRipper), it presents you with a list of items in the Title pop-up menu (see "HandBrake Lite"). The titles will appear as digits and times that correspond to discrete elements such as the movie, bonus interviews, the making-of documentary, and so on. Pick the title you want to convert--the movie is the item with the longest duration. In the File window on the right side of the interface, give your file a name and specify a location in which to save it. Click on the Rip button and go for a walk--the process can take a while, depending on the length of the video and the speed of your Mac. The resulting file will be formatted perfectly for your iPod's screen.

If you're unhappy with the way your finished movie looks when you use the default conversion settings--or if you'd like a little more control over encoding the disc--check out HandBrake Lite's advanced options (to expose them, click on the green maximize button in the upper left corner of the window).

If you're ripping a DVD that contains an entire season of TV shows, your best bet is to use the free application Instant HandBrake . Don't let its generic icon fool you--Instant HandBrake is the easiest way to convert multiple files from a DVD (you can also use it for movies, although it tends to produce larger files than HandBrake Lite).

Insert a DVD, open it in Instant HandBrake, and wait for the application to detect the various titles on the disc. To rip all the episodes, find all the titles that are similar in length (around 22 minutes for a half-hour show and 43 minutes for a one-hour show); then click on their check boxes (see "Instant HandBrake").

Under the titles is a list of settings. The File Format pop-up menu features two iPod presets: iPod 5G (H.264) and iPod 5G (MPEG-4). Stick with H.264, as choosing MPEG-4 will result in a larger file. From the Picture Format pop-up menu, choose Original to maintain the video's aspect ratio. Finally, make sure to pick your language from the Preferred Audio pop-up menu (it may not always default to English, so pay close attention). Click on Convert, and then sit back and relax while Instant HandBrake does its thing.

Video iPods support higher-resolution files than you see on their screens, so you can encode videos that will also look great when played back on a TV (via the iPod or the Apple TV, for example).

The aforementioned ways of ripping a DVD won't give you the best results on a large screen; however, with a little tinkering, you can create video files that look great on both your iPod and your TV.

Pick settings

Start by downloading HandBrake 0.7.1 . Insert the DVD, wait for HandBrake to scan it, and then choose the longest title on the disc from the Title pop-up menu.

Set HandBrake's File Format pop-up menu to MP4 File and its Codecs menu to MPEG-4 Video/AAC Audio if these options aren't already selected. In the Encoder pop-up menu, leave the FFmpeg setting and enter 2,200 in the Average Bitrate field. Select your language from the Language 1 pop-up menu. To improve video quality, you can enable 2-Pass Encoding, which analyzes the video and adjusts data rates according to the complexity of particular scenes.

Maximize video dimensions

According to Apple's specifications, iPod-compatible MPEG-4 movies can have a maximum resolution of 640 by 480 pixels and a maximum bit rate of 2,500 Kbps--but the iPod can actually play movies with higher resolutions than Apple lets on. That's because it limits movies not by frame size but by 16-by-16-pixel blocks called macroblocks. MPEG-4 movies can contain as many as 1,200 macroblocks (307,200 pixels). To calculate the maximum resolution for your movie, divide the pixel height by 16, divide the pixel width by 16, and then multiply those two numbers. If the final result is less than 1,200, you're in business.

Now you can click on the Picture Settings button, make sure the Keep Aspect Ratio option is selected, and adjust the number in the Width field (the program will fill in the height for you) until your resolution is just under 1,200 macroblocks. When you're done, click on Close. Go to the main HandBrake window, name the movie in the File field, and choose the location you'll save it in by clicking on the Browse button. Click on the Rip button to encode your movie.

Set up TV DVDs

If you're ripping TV shows, you'll need to perform a few extra steps. First, select Enable Queue at the bottom of the HandBrake window. Then, for each episode, select its title, give the file a name, adjust the settings as described previously (for standard shows, you shouldn't need to make any Picture Settings adjustments, but for wide-screen programs, you might), and click on the Add To Queue button. When you've finished, click on Start to begin encoding all the files in your queue.

Of course, videos are not limited to DVDs. Your Mac's hard drive is probably brimming with video files you would like to have on your iPod. For quick and easy conversions, check out Techspansion's free iSquint 1.5 . It's fast, it handles most file types with ease, and the videos it produces don't hog precious iPod space (these are problems you can encounter when you use QuickTime to export files to an iPod format). If you're going to view the videos only on your iPod's screen, use iSquint's Optimize For iPod setting and leave the Quality setting at Standard. Drag the video you want to convert to the iSquint window, and click on the Start button.

If you want video that will also look good on a television screen, select the Optimize For TV option. This will create a file with the largest frame size possible within the iPod's playback limitations. If you're not happy with the results, you can always increase the Quality setting, or click on the Advanced button and tweak the frame size, bit rate, and so on.

Once you've encoded your files, it'd be nice if they showed up on your iPod as nicely organized as if you'd purchased them from the iTunes Store. But they're not going to unless you tag each file. You could use iTunes to add tag information like season, episode name, and number, but its interface for this job isn't great.

A better solution is to use a program to tag files before you import them into iTunes. My favorite application for this purpose is Parsley is Atomically Delicious 1.5 (Parsley is Atomically Delicious 1.3.3 , ), James Huston's free graphical interface for the command-line MP4 metadata editor AtomicParsley. Use Parsley to tag TV shows, movies, and music videos with all the necessary info so they show up in the right place on your iPod.

[Jonathan Seff is Macworld's senior news editor.]

This story, "Convert Video for Your iPod" was originally published by Playlist.

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