I have a huge movie collection. It used to all be on VHS tapes, then I moved to DVDs, and now I'm slowly moving to Blu-Ray. That's all well and good, but along the way I decided I liked the convenience of making my hundreds of movies accessible from a single hard drive instead. Does this sound good to you? Here's how you, too, can put twenty boxes of DVDs into a single 2TB hard drive.
Note: Before you go any farther, you should know that most movies comes with some kind of Digital Rights Management (DRM) encryption. I feel that since I bought these videos I should have the right to do with them what I want -- so long as I don't try to sell or distribute their contents to others. I am not a lawyer though and this is a legal gray area. If you decide to follow a similar course, you should be fine, but neither I nor ITworld can be responsible for any legal damages that may result from this how-to article. Got that? OK then.
The media server and extender
Before you start any of this you need a media server and a media extender. A media server is a program, such as iTunes, MythTV, or Windows Media Center, that enables you to "broadcast" your videos to other computers and media extenders. A media extender, in turn, is just a device, like an Apple TV, the Xbox 360 and most 2011 and newer Blu-Ray DVD players, such as a Sony BDP-S580, that lets you view video from your media server on your TV.
Most, but not all, of these programs and devices support one version or another of the Universal Plug and Play Forum's (UPnP) Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA). In theory any DLNA server can transmit to any DLNA media extender.
Yeah. Right. It's a nice idea, but in my years of experience with these things the only way you can be sure that a media server and extender will actually agree to work with each other is if you get them from the same vendor and they're from the same generation of technology.
After far too much time fooling with these devices I finally settled on using iTunes for my media server and Apple TV for my TV connection. It's not ideal. Neither are DLNA compatible -- whatever that means. In addition, while the Apple TV is a good device -- and now with AirPlay Mirroring you can actually use it to display video from your new Mac, iPhone, or iPad -- iTunes is... annoying.
Still, while iTunes is slow and its library management has always been a pain, it does work well with Apple TV -- most of the time -- and that makes it more reliable than any of the other combinations I've tried. So, for my purposes, I'm going to be using iTunes as my server and the Apple TV as my target device in this tale. Don't worry, the steps are pretty much the same for whatever device you choose to use.
The software tools
Handbrake is a free open-source front-end to libavcodec, the leading audio/video codec library. Libavcodec, in turn is part of the FFmpeg project, a complete, cross-platform solution to record, convert and stream audio and video. FFmpeg is a tool best used by video-professionals. Handbrake, which is available for Linux, Mac, and Windows, gives you access to some of FFmpeg's power but it's much more suited for use by people who just want to easily and quickly convert their videos into formats they can watch on their TVs.
Specifically, Handbrake can import most video formats and transform them into the MP4 and MKV (Matroska video format) containers. Most, but not all media servers and extenders support MP4. Fewer still support MKV.
Handbrake does not, however, include software to decrypt the video and audio on a DVD into a format it can then translate into a format you can stream. For that you'll need another program, such as DVD43, DVD Decrypter, and MakeMKV. The last program, MakeMKV, which is shareware, is the only program I trust to decrypt Blu-Ray disks.
Of course you won't need a DVD decryption program if you're converting DVDs that don't come with it. You can also convert some of the few older movies, such as the classic screwball comedy, My Man Godfrey, which have fallen out of copyright, and thus can legally be downloaded.
Buyer beware: There are a lot of programs out there that promise that they'll do it all for you. They'll both decrypt DVDs and translate them into formats that your media server and extender can handle for under $50. Don't believe them. Many of them don't work worth a darn, and those that do are built on top of the open source and free or shareware programs that do work.
From DVD to media server
Once you have your programs at hand, it's time to start converting. I handle this in two separate jobs since I've found that Handbrake doesn't always integrate well with the decryption programs.
First, you put the DVD in your computer. Then, instead of letting your DVD software play the movie, you hop out of your player and open your DVD decryption program. Using these programs requires you to little more than press an icon and off it will go. Do pay attention to where you're placing the files. You'll need that information for the next step. If you're trying to convert a Blu-Ray disk make sure you have lots of room, the unencrypted files can take up to 60GBs of space.
Decryption programs place the files in different places and in different ways. DVD43 and DVD Decrypter places the DVD's actual files in a directory under a version of the name of the movie. MakeMKV actually converts the DVD's files into MKV.
Next, you start up HandBrake and choose whether to convert the video from a folder or from files. If you've used DVD43, DVD Decrypter, or a similar decryption program you should choose to convert the folder -- not the files -- where the videos are now stored. You can go in and cherry-pick the files you want to convert, but I've found this to be a waste of time. HandBrake does a better job than you can of picking and choosing what files you'll need to convert to produce a watchable video.
If you're converting a video file from the Internet or an MKV movie into MP4 you do want to pick out the file. That shouldn't be a problem since the audio and video content will almost certainly be in a single file.
Now, you need to select which format you'll be translating your movie to from HandBrake's preset menu. Most of its preset outputs are for Apple devices. If you don't use any of those, I always choose the Normal profile.
If you're a read video expert, or want to be one, you can manually adjust how the conversion happens. For guidelines on how to do this, the best place to start is this work-in-progress guide: x264 presets/tunes; H.264 profiles & levels.
You can play with these on the Video and Audio tabs, if you want, but the defaults work fine for me ninety-nine times out of a hundred. I've known some people to be tempted to try to make a movie higher definition than its source material. That doesn't work. You can downgrade its quality, from say 1080p to 720p to save space, but you can't make a video better than its source material.
HandBrake allows you to select multiple movies for conversion at once. To do this, you add your selection to the queue. Then, when you're done selecting your films, just hit the start button... and get ready to wait.
On my video conversion system, a Gateway computer with 64-bit Windows 7 Ultimate, 6GBs of RAM, and a 2.5GHz E5200 Pentium Dual Core processor, I convert movies in about the same time it would take to play them. That is a 90-minute movie takes about 90-minutes to turn into a media center friendly video file.
Once the videos are converted you can then add them to your media server's library. With some DLNA servers that's as easy as placing them in a specific directory. With iTunes, you need to add them to the library. I highly recommend that if you use iTunes you head over to the iTunes Advanced Preferences and choose to "Keep ITunes Media folders organized" and to "Copy file to iTunes Media folder when adding to library." This will make managing your video library a lot easier.
In either case, place your video library on a very large drive. Video files are big. The average standard definition movie in my library is almost 2GBs in size and my 720p HD movies clock in at abut 7GBs. Even a TB drive starts to look small with these files!
Once loaded into your media server, you should be ready to watch your own private movie collection on your TV whenever you want. Enjoy!