How to rip DVDs on the Mac: Getting movies onto your Mac media server

Getting video from a DVD to your Mac isn't quite as easy as iTunes makes it for audio CDs, but we'll show you how

Part of setting up a Mac as your media server involves making it easy to access your media. For most of us, media includes movies and TV shows. And many of us have collected our favorites on DVDs over the years. Let's look at how to get video from the DVD to your Mac in a way that will make it much more convenient for you to access next time.

If you have a collection of DVDs, the last thing you probably want to do is swap them out every time you want to watch something. The solution, of course, is to rip them: to convert them to a digital format the same way you may have done in the past with your audio CDs.

(For the sake of simplicity, I'm going to deal with Blu-ray Discs separately, so the tips I'm giving you are mainly for DVDs specifically.)

Copy protection

Thanks to copy protection and encryption on commercially produced DVDs and Blu-ray Discs, this isn't just as easy as popping them in and hitting an "Import DVD" button in iTunes, like it is for audio CDs.

First, it's worth noting that the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and most content publishers say that you shouldn't copy, convert, or otherwise mess with the content you buy on DVDs and Blu-ray Discs for any reason.

Horse hockey, I say. You've bought it, and it should be yours to do with as you please. I've been ripping DVDs for years because I didn't want my kids scratching or damaging the discs, but they could all use a mouse just fine from an early age. I've also been careful to only rip DVDs I actually own, not ones that I've borrowed from friends, rented or borrowed from the library.

Proponents of fair use law agree with me that consumers should be able to do with media they own as they want; proponents of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) feel otherwise. So proceed as your conscience guides you.

You're going to need software to manage the process of decrypting video from your discs. There are a few different options which we'll get to, but first, let's talk about what to use to rip.


HandBrake main interface

By far, my favorite tool for converting video is an open source software application called HandBrake. HandBrake has myriad options and settings, but the developers have made it easy to use by setting up profiles for commonly used devices. Select your target device and HandBrake will re-optimize video format and settings for that system.

With HandBrake running, insert a DVD and HandBrake will begin to analyze it. HandBrake will divide up the DVD by logical groups called Titles, each representing a different block of content on the DVD.

The one that's feature-length is usually the movie you're trying to rip, though you sometimes have to experiment a bit here to get the right results. By the same token, DVDs containing several episodes of a television series will have several titles about the same length. You can group titles to rip in sequence using the Add to Queue button.

HandBrake preview window

If you're not sure if you have the right title selected, the Preview Window button on the app toolbar will let you spy on what you're about to rip prior to getting it started.

For most DVDs you shouldn't have to mess with HandBrake's settings too much. Exceptions come into play if you want to make sure a specific language track is included, or, in the case of foreign language movies or movies you're encoding for someone with hearing impairment, subtitles. Otherwise, the settings corresponding to whatever HandBrake profile you're using will usually be just fine.

Once you've got it set up the way you want, click the Start button on the toolbar. HandBrake will then begin to rip the disc. Once it's done it'll pop up an alert.

The speed of decoding will vary directly on the speed and capability of your Mac. Macs with more cores can decode and rip content from DVDs faster. HandBrake is one of the few apps I run on my Mac Pro regularly that will light up all eight cores of the CPU. It's kinda fun to watch.


HandBrake libdvdcss warning

Commercial DVDs, as I said at the outset, are encrypted. And if you try to rip them using HandBrake the first time, you'll get an error message that will give you the option of installing libdvdcss.pkg.

Don't panic — there's no need to be alarmed. All HandBrake is trying to do is simplify the process of video conversion. Libdvdcss is a library developed by VideoLAN, the makers of VLC, a popular open-source video player.

Libdvdcss is very simple — in fact, its programming interface only has seven functions at present. All Libdvdcss does is unscramble content that's been encrypted using a protocol called Content Scramble System (CSS, unrelated to Cascading Style Sheets that are used on the Web).

Libdvdcss works on most commercial DVDs. In their efforts to stop video piracy some major content publishers have complicated their encryption schemes in ways that libdvdcss won't be able to handle, though, so just be aware that this software has its limits.

Commercial decryption and ripping software

So far I've tried to save you money by suggesting open source software to do your video decrypting and ripping. If you're not comfortable using open source software, there is paid commercial software that you can use instead.

Mac DVD Ripper Pro from DVDSuki Software is one such application. It's a one stop application that lets you rip content from your DVDs, edit what's been ripped and sync it using iTunes. It has a lot of features for $24.95 and there's even a free trial version you can download (you can rip five DVDs before it demands a registration code).

RipIt main screen

RipIt from The Little App Factory is another good choice. It's extremely simple to use - rip complete archives of your DVDs, or rip and compress with a single click. It's up to you. Likewise, you can try before you buy.

The bottom line

While the movie and television industry doesn't make it easy for you to build a digital library of movies and television shows you already own on DVD, technology is available to make the process easier.

I wish it were a one-step process that was built into the OS, but alas, it isn't. Between HandBrake and the other options I've listed here, you'll be able to start importing video into your Mac media library in no time.

Note: For more on ripping and transcoding, don't miss our podcast with the legendary Don Melton - Rene