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Cord Cutting or How I Digitized My Media and Learned to Love iTunes

Like most folks, I love my music, movies, and television. I also grew early on to despise physical media for storing and consuming them; the sophomoric joy of illegally downloading Mp3 audio files had less to do with price than convenience. For awhile, my habit was to purchase used CDs and rip them to my computer, only the shuffle the now-useless discs off to a binder archive. That changed once DRM-free music downloads became the new normal, allowing me the device/format flexibility that early iTunes accounts didn’t.

Late 2011, I purchased an iPad 2 as part of an ill-fated year-long experiment to see if I could live with a tablet instead of a laptop as part of my semi-nomadic lifestyle. Being the nice guy that I am, I bought a second one for my wife along with a quick add-on: an Apple TV. I knew that iOS AirPlay Mirroring was a feature I wanted to toy with and I felt like it would make a better Netflix device than the Wii we had been using. Using it was generally impressive; especially once I fired up the iTunes Home Sharing feature on my wife’s Mac and started pushing music directly to it. That got me thinking: instead of using an HDMI cable to the Mac to extend the display and run movies, why don’t we just digitize all of our DVDs the same way we used to do all of our music?

Rip the system!Rip the system!

Opening the Can

It doesn’t take long on the internet to find the gold standard of video-transcoding software: Handbrake. Powerful, simple, and open-source. The catch? It doesn’t actually have the ability to decrypt DVDs on its own without the libdvdcss of another piece of DVD-reading software. Typically, installing VLC (another great piece of open-source software) and pointing handbrake to its libdvdcss file will put the last piece of the puzzle in there. Alternatively, you can download it directly from here and either run the installer (libdvdcss.pkg) or just copy the libdvdcss.2.dylib into your Mac’s /usr/lib/ directory.

At this point, Handbrake is ready to go. Just insert a DVD and select it as Handbrake’s source. Now here comes the next two big questions: What encoder and what container to use? The encoder defines how exactly the video content is compressed (standard definition DVD movies are normally 1-3 GB without this process). The container defines the file type and what kind of metadata it will carry. The best thing to do is a little research and find out what your hardware or player of preference prefers, though the iTunes standard of H.264 encoding inside of a *.mkv file is pretty universally accepted at this point without any additional plugins.

Get used to seeing this; you will be looking at it for weeks.Get used to seeing this; you will be looking at it for weeks.

The Rip and the Metadata

It takes a long time to rip and encode your library. This is a serious commitment. Hundreds of DVDs will take a few weeks unless you’re unemployed and have several DVD drives tied in with solid multi-core processors. The process seems long, but is actually pretty quick once you get used to it. Television shows take a bit more time, but only because you want to correctly identify which episode corresponds to which chapter. Here’s the process I go through in a nutshell:

  1. Insert the DVD and select it as Handbrake’s Source.

  2. Select a chapter from the Title dropdown menu. For movies, it’s usually the longest one, while television shows are normally broken into separate chapters for each episode.

  3. Click the browse button and select where you want your media saved. Name it something you’ll be able to pick out from your media directory. Remember, Handbrake doesn’t add any sort of metadata.

  4. Select one of the presets from the right. High Profile always looks good, though Normal may be better if you’re primarily watching your content on small displays like phones or tablets.

  5. If you suspect that film may have some foreign language portions (or it’s all in a foreign language), click on the Subtitles and selected Forced Only and English for English-language films. For foreign-language films, you can customize what subtitles you want and under the Audio tab, you can choose which audio track you prefer. We have two rips of some foreign films: an English dub for the kids, and an English subtitled copy for us.

  6. Hit the Start button and look at reddit for an hour or so… aaaaand it’s done!

  7. Import the newly-created file into iTunes; you’ll find it populated under Home Movies.

  8. Fill in as much data as you can! IMDB is your friend for the year, genre, and description. Don’t forget to set the Media Kind as Movie or TV Show.

  9. For television series, you should also fill in the show’s name, season number, episode number (best practice: use leading zeros on single-digit episodes, i.e. 01 instead of 1), and an episode ID (where I just put the two together into a four-digit number; it’s used by some Home Sharing apps). For descriptions, Googling “wikipedia episode list show’s name” usually gets you exactly what you want. For foreign films, using a poster from the country of origin is a nice touch.For foreign films, using a poster from the country of origin is a nice touch.

  10. Finally the Artwork. For movies, using the original movie posters instead of DVD covers looks absolutely amazing. A great repository is available at impawards.com. For television shows, the highest-resolution scan you can find of the DVD cover will work well. Google Image Searchingmovie title DVD art” and clicking Search Tools, Size, and Large with give you some good high-resolution options, though Amazon.com’s images will usually suffice.

As you can see, the movie posters look great. It keeps it from looking like you’re just at a Best Buy.

The descriptions are a nice touch, especially when you’re going through a television show looking for a particular episode.

Streaming it Everywhere!

… in the house, anyway. It’s advertised on the local area network using a protocol called Bonjour, which cannot be used over the internet. With iTunes Home Sharing turned on, you can stream any of the shows from a Mac you designate as your media center to any other computer running iTunes, iPads, iPhones, and of course, Apple TVs. Moreover, building on that same framework, you can stream audio to multiple Apple TVs, Airport Expresses (audio only), AirPlay-capable speakers, etc. This effectively makes it a much more feature-laden and cheaper alternative to other multi-room audio setups. The whole shebang can be conveniently controlled from any iOS device or the Mac hosting iTunes itself.

Unlike the DRM-laden iTunes and Amazon digital movies, you can back these up onto an external hard drive and enjoy in any of the places you travel to that have bandwidth too terrible for Netflix. For the price of a monthly cable bill, you can buy multiple television shows and movies, subscribe to Netflix, and not have to concern myself with programming a DVR or missing a show’s broadcast.

The Disclaimer

It’s worth warning that it is technically illegal to decrypt (required for virtually every DVD published) and digitize your DVD library in the U.S., according to the draconian Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA), while ripping Mp3s has long been considered “fair use.” Non-U.S. readers, please consult your nation’s applicable laws; they are all over the map. Use this information at your own risk and please do not share or pirate. While the letter of the law is crap, the intent is for the creators to get paid. Give them money for their hard work.

If you agree that it’s time for the DMCA to be revised or abolished in favor of new technology-savvy intellectual property laws that aren’t so easily abused, please visit The Electronic Frontier Foundation and consider donating.

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