As the (rather sad) transition from physical media to digital media continues, many enthusiasts are starting to convert their own physical movie collections to self-hosted digital solutions like the amazing Plex product (see my discussion of that here).
A recent article about Apple’s iTunes taking away purchased and UHD content from buyers makes this article even more timely.
If you have hundreds or even thousands of DVDs and Blu Rays in your collection and you are ready to start ripping, storing and hosting (for your own legal uses, of course) — it can be a bit overwhelming and even a bit confusing.
Unfortunately, for every disc you have in your collection — there is a software company out there that wants to sell (or give) you ripping/converting products. There are free venerable favorites and expensive commercial packages and someone could go a little mad trying to figure out the best bang for the buck (and it is important to realize that this doesn’t just mean COST IN DOLLARS — if a free product takes more of your time and resources, it may make more sense to pay for software that does things better/faster for you).
I don’t want to get super high tech in this article; I just want to go over some basics that will assist you in finding the right solution for the job based on your needs, experience, etc. However, your understanding of some technical stuff will be useful in making good choices.
I won’t be comparing ripping products or talking about specific optimization techniques for streaming solutions — but I’ll tell you what I use along the way and offer any advice I feel is software agnostic.
If you’re new to ripping, this is your first real consideration. All disc-based content has copy protection to more-or-less stop you from doing exactly what you’re trying to do. The legalities behind ripping your own movies for your own use varies from country to country and it is probably illegal to do so in yours. With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s investigate a bit.
The intricacies of copy protection are worth their own article on Medium. DVDs and Blus both have different types of protection schemes. Ultra HD (UHD) has even more protection. There is even a really creepy protection scheme called Cinavia that works off undetectable audio nonsense. New protections are added almost daily.
Regardless of the type, you need to have a way to circumvent it if you’re going to rip your discs to digital. There are two products on the leading edge of copy protection chasing (and it is ever-evolving; you need a product that keeps up with it) — and neither one of them is free (or that cheap); AnyDVD and DVDFab. Remember, there is a ton of work identifying and stripping copy protection. While some free(ish) software like MakeMKV will do it (to some extent anyway) — there isn’t as much incentive for these weekend developers to stay current. With paid products? This is their bread and butter. I use both of these as a non-compensated endorser.
Do yourself a favor. Just pay for it. Save your sanity.
Remember, circumventing copy protection is required for ripping. Some products perform multiple functions (such as de-protection AND ripping AND converting) but others do not. You can use a paid product for stripping copy protection and a free one to actually convert. The choice is yours — and the choices are many and varied.
Obviously, you need a computer equipped with a drive capable of reading the movie discs in order to rip them. You probably have one with a DVD drive in it, but you may need to invest in a Blu Ray or UHD drive if you want to rip those types of content.
Most drives are “backward compatible”; so if you get a UHD drive, it will ALSO do Blu ray and DVD as well. You can elect to go internal or external; cost is part of the factor — but understand that external drives are not just more pricey but may also not perform as fast or as quiet as their internal counterparts.
It is also useful to know you don’t need a “burner” or “writer”; just a “ROM” (read only) version of the drive; this can save you money.
As always, “more expensive” doesn’t necessarily mean “better”. You’re looking for good maximum read speeds and preferably a nice quiet drive as they can get obnoxious after hours and hours of ripping.
LG makes some good “bdrom” drives (use that to search)— check out pricing on Amazon.
You will also want to figure out what video card your chosen ripping software supports “accelerated” operations with. DVDFab, for example, can use AMD and NVidia video cards to drastically speed up the reading and compression of video.
So at this point, you have the hardware needed to read the discs and the tools necessary to remove the copy protection. Now what?
All content on discs are already somewhat compressed in order to take a full digital motion picture and reduce its size to fit on a single disc. In the case of TV series or epic six hour movies, content could be split across multiple discs.
Just for fun, let’s look at the size of storage on the discs you own so you can better appreciate the task of compressing that into a smaller package for your home media server.
DVDs come in two sizes based on the layers built into the disc itself. You may have heard the term “single layer” or “dual layer”. The former holds 4.7GB of content, while the latter holds more at about 8.5GB. The video on these discs are compressed using a compression format known as MPEG (MPG2 specifically). Video stored on DVD is considered “standard definition” (SD) and displays at 480p.
Blu rays also can have multiple layers; each one holding 25GB each; up to 50GB on a disc. These discs use newer compression standards such as H.262 and H.264 codecs which are still considered MPEG format but they offer more, better compression with higher quality and in much higher resolutions. This content can be displayed up to 1080p and is considered “high definition” (HD).
Ultra HD is still technically a Blu ray formatted disc (some Blu ray readers will actually read them — but most will not) but can have up to three layers holding a whopping 100GB of content. At the time of writing, these discs represent the highest resolution (4K aka UHD) and best quality compression algorithms (H.265) which make it hands down the best way to store and deliver content.
So we now have the “whose who” of media formats and the sizes plus a lot of techie stuff. It is important to understand this tech and how it relates to your new found love of ripping video.
Compression, nearly by definition, is about trade off. Size vs quality. You need to decide what your goal is; best quality vs smallest size. The answer, of course, is “the best of both”. That, unfortunately, is not a simple answer.
If what you want is “best quality”, a direct rip using something like MakeMKV is what you want. It is fast, simple and easy. It produces “standard” .mkv files.
The problem is; for a Blu ray movie, you’re going to create a file that averages about 20GB each! Using some rough math, a 1TB hard drive will hold about 50 of these movies. I think most people aren’t looking for that level of investment.
So if you’re not interested in “direct copy” like MakeMKV does, you’re going to need to re-compress the video as part of the ripping process.
The better the quality of the source disc the more intensive it is to rip because the content is more highly compressed and requires more processing power to “decompress” prior to re-compression.
When we talk about ripping discs to digital video files we have to consider several things; file format, video bitrate and audio conversion.
If you’ve been around the block with digital video, you have seen files that end with extensions like .avi, .mpg, .mp4, .mkv and many many more. This can be very confusing — so let’s expand on this.
The extension of a file doesn’t tell the whole story. Many “formats” aren’t really formats at all. They are CONTAINERS. Within these containers are two streams; video and audio. Each of these streams can be compressed with a different compression algorithm or “codec”. This is why your Roku can play one .mkv file fine but the sound is missing from another. A third file might not play at all — even though they are all .mkvs.
Once that Roku opens the .mkv container, the video stream within may be using H.264 compressions with AAC audio. Maybe it is DTS audio with H.265 compression. You just don’t know (unless you created the .mkv file yourself).
This applies to other formats like .avi container files.
When choosing format and compression options, you need to be aware of where your files are going to be played and what devices might be playing them. Verify compatibility with these devices before you spend 1000 hours ripping all your movies to incompatible files.
You’re welcome. Many Bothans died to bring you this information.
No matter what compression method you choose (I’m an H.265 fan myself) you will have to decide how MUCH compression works for you; quality vs. size. Bitrate is the amount of content “bits” that is stored based on a rate of time passed. The higher the bitrate, the more bits are used — the better the quality of the video.
Most tools will have a simple “Low, Medium, High” type setting to handle this choice for you — but there is always a custom slider in there to let you take control of the quality vs. size; letting you see a guesstimate of the output file size.
As with so many choices with technology, the bitrate setting is completely up to the individual. Lower bitrates with decrease file size but will decrease picture quality (causing blacks to look “fuzzy” or even introducing some “blocking” of the picture in cases).
The bitrate along with the quality of the audio will end up determining the final file size.
The videos I encode end up having a bitrate of about 6100 kbps — and a typical 1080p resolution movie of about an hour and fourty-five minutes runs a file size of about 4.66GB in size — including a couple of good quality audio tracks.
Once you’ve done the deed and converted your content, you’ll undoubtedly want to play it back.
If you thought playback was the easy part — well it isn’t. The options are endless as are the solutions to compression.
Let’s cover some common scenarios and how you can maximize your experience.
If you’re into media, you probably have some sort of “streaming” device in your house already; Roku, Chromecast, Shield TV, Amazon Fire TV, Xbox One, PS4 … The choices are endless.
Now you have a giant hard drive filled with your movie rips. What now?
Local Playback (no transcoding)
If you happen to have a PC connected to your TV — you’re probably already using Kodi or similar application to playback other content. Simply adding your hard drive full of rips to that PC or to another network-shared location is a quick and easy way to get access to your rips. Some routers allow you to plug in an external hard drive and share it with your network computers. This is great because the videos you have stored are played back exactly as you ripped them without any sort of on-the-fly conversion (yes, conversion is part of playback too).
This is what I prefer; my locally stored video files playing back exactly as I encoded them.
Local Playback (transcoding)
You’ve heard of encoding and decoding — but what is this transcoding?
Remember we talked about how you should rip and encode based on the capabilities your playback devices have?
This is to avoid transcoding.
Every streaming device and box out there (other than one based on a fully fleshed out operating system with proper software) has some limitations on what file formats they will play. As a bonus, sometimes even if the format is supported it can’t handle some PROPERTY of that video file encoded with that format.
So one file encoded with H.264 may play just fine on your Roku — but another H.264 file may not. This sort of nonsense made early home streaming a real pain.
Turnkey applications such as the amazing Plex offer a solution.
This works with the server and the client as a PAIR — helping you serve your media exactly the way the device is capable of playing it.
So if you’re using the Plex client on your Roku and it can’t handle the amazingly compressed H.265 files you have meticulously ripped and stored on your network? The server part of Plex will automatically convert the video and/or audio on the fly to make sure that Roku plays back the video as best as humanly possible.
Right, that’s why Plex lives everywhere — your tablet, your phone, your smart TV, your set top box, your game console … when paired with a Plex server, no matter how your media library is ripped, encoded and stored — you always get the content in a watchable format.
What was that? You clever people realized I said that transcoding was not desired and I preferred to do direct playback. Why would that be if this transcoding thing was so wonderful.
Transcoding requires heavy lifting. In order for Plex to transcode a movie on the fly and deliver it to you fast enough to watch without interruption? This requires a good deal of horsepower and resources on your Plex server. Every single “connection” to your Plex server may require its own transcoding session. If there is just one or two connections, no big deal (depending on how great your Plex server hardware is).
This isn’t just “remote” connections to your Plex server. Every player in the house is PROBABLY requiring the video its playing to be transcoded.
Therefore, transcoding takes memory, CPU and fast hard drives to do this heavy lifting.
The other downside of transcoding is that you’re most likely not seeing the content as you intended to. Video quality, audio quality, resolution and more could be hampered by the transcoding process.
Direct playback is always the best — if your network is fast enough to keep up and your devices can handle the formats of your content.
Let’s get something straight. You’re not likely to get remote playback of your video without transcoding.
Yes, there are apps out there that let access your files remotely with your phone or tablet. Your 8GB video files aren’t going to stream smoothly across 4G to your phone or even that terrible hotel wifi you paid $9.95 a night for.
This has been the Achilles’ Heel of self-hosted content.
As with local viewing on disparate devices, the transcoding process lets not just local devices stream your content properly to the device at hand — but your remote devices as well.
Right. So if remote playback is a big selling point for you with self-hosted media, you need not just a good app/client on your remote device — you need a smart server that can talk to it.
This is why Plex is so popular. The client and server work together to transcode and deliver the best quality stream possible to every device (and configuration of those devices).
When all is said and done, I use KODI for local playback without transcoding. For remote playback (which is almost always transcoding) I use Plex server.
You have a drive full of movies. You can connect it to your network by plugging it into your router, maybe. Or plug it directly into some device like a Shield TV.
But, if remote playback is your game — or you’re planning on streaming the content to various devices around the house? You’ll need a server.
What does that mean?
It can mean a lot of things. I could write five articles on “what kind of server do I need?” but we’re going to keep it cheap, simple and common.
A server is usually just a computer that has specialized internals to match the needs of a specific task — which has high availability and uptime. Big companies have server computers that run up to hundreds of thousands of dollars — and often people “over purchase” for home servers for these sorts of tasks.
Since the configuration possibilities are endless, we’re going to pick a direction and flush it out.
Windows is the popular operating system. We’ll assume Windows 10 Pro for an operating system. You could probably get by with a cheaper version but you could run into trouble down the road.
As for hardware — that depends on you and your needs. For the sake of argument, we’re going to assume a mixed bag of needs:
- A couple of local streams (direct play and transcoded)
- A couple of remote streams (your family is at home watching your content; you’re watching it from a hotel in Yuma, Arizona — maybe your mom is watching last night’s The Voice from Washington)
So let’s say 3–5 streams at any given time.
You will want a super fast hard drive (SSD) to handle your transcoding tasks. Get a small 128GB for the operating system and for the transcoding “scratch” drive.
You could probably get away with 8GB of RAM — but if 12GB is affordable (often is) or even 16GB, you’re better served.
As for processor class? Look for a later generation i5 or better. When shopping, make sure the CPU supports Intel’s QuickSync technology if Plex is going to be your software of choice.
For bargain shoppers, be sure you have at least a couple of USB 3.0 ports for external storage options. Self-hosting media tends to get addictive — and you will want future expansion space.
If your server is also going to be your ripping box, you’ll want a decent video card to allow for accelerated reading/encoding. Support for AMD, NVidia and Intel vary from software package to software package. Most seem good with NVidia’s CUDA technology which is available affordably with say a GTX-1050 or better graphics card. Most basic PCs won’t come with this technology — you’ll need to add the card separately.
If you have a decent gaming PC already, you might just want to rip there and transfer the final files to your storage device for subsequent reading from your server.
In summary: i5, 12GB of RAM, SSD drive, USB 3.0 ports — maybe a supported video card. At the time of writing, you can find a nice off-lease or refurbished PC of this nature for a few hundreds bucks.
The journey has been long — but I hope by now you’re well-armed to take up the hobby of ripping your own content.
There are many virtues to owning physical media. Using these techniques, you can get the best of both worlds without paying for yet another service every month.
Got questions? Need advice? Leave your comments below!