Review : HandBrake

peteFor a long time, I’ve been looking for something that will take media from a DVD and put it in a suitable format for watching on [insert media device here]. It’s an age old problem, you want your media on a different device, but often getting it there is a problem, especially in the open source world. Sure there are tens if not hundreds of converters, transcoders, encoders and compressors out there, but few have the actual finesse to complete the task. Most seem to use the same framework under the hood too, which often leads me to wonder how one can get it so right, and another can get it so wrong. Having played with ffmpeg and mencoder myself, whilst both are fantastic products, using them can be a little bit of a black art. You have to really understand what you’re doing with video file formats and audio bit rates to make anything decent enough to play on another medium. I have spent many an hour encoding up bits of video and comparing them for quality, with the biggest problem of all being the audio sync.

Enter HandBrake, a fairly new offering to the encoding market. Cross platform on the Windows/Linux/Mac trio, HandBrake offers not only a wide range of features, but probably the easiest and most intuitive interface out there. I’ve tried several other rippers in the past, my previous favorite being dvd::rip, however I could never get a good solid video out of it, plus the interface was exceedingly complex. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m the kind of guy that loves to be able to change every conceivable option, but I also tend to like having a simple interface that can also be used if all I want to do is click-and-go. HandBrake seems to offer the above, and then some. The finer grain controls may not be quite as fine as something like dvd::rip, but it is still perfectly adequate for the task.

I took a reference video that I generally use for testing out new encoders and tried it out. HandBrake claims to be able to take almost any video file, and convert it to a format of your choosing. However, I found difficulty getting videos that it would actually work with it. Maybe it was because I had some videos with funky formats, I don’t know, what I do know is I successfully managed to crash HandBrake several times when giving it one of these videos. The job I really wanted HandBrake for, was taking some videos from an old DVD I had, and converting them to be able to play on my PSP. Thankfully HandBrake actually did a really, really good job at this.

Inserting a DVD and choosing it from the file menu, HandBrake will first scan it for titles before adding them to a drop down box in the interface. The HandBrake screen is split into three sections; The top left rectangle giving a very simple source/destination box, below this is another rectangle of roughly the same size which gives more options for encoding. On the far right is something I call a recipe list, where you can choose your output medium. HandBrake offers four main video formats, H.264, MPEG-4 (ffmpeg), MPEG-4 (XviD) and Theora, and these are customised by selecting one of the recipes. For example, choosing PSP as the output device, will change the video type to MPEG-4 (ffmpeg) and will change the bitrate to 1024. Changing this to the PS3 makes a few modifications, the most noticeable being substituting MPEG-4 for H.264 and upping the bitrate to 2500. The only thing which is a little disappointing is the inability to change the resolution of the resulting video easily, more on this later.

As with many rippers you have the ability to decide what is most important to you and HandBrake is no different here, giving you the option to choose from, Quality, BitRate or Target Size. Usually I find a bitrate that seems to offer good video quality and good file size and this is what I did with HandBrake and found the value to be around 500 for the PSP. Starting an encoding job is quite exciting, as you get to either start it immediately, or put it into a queue. Meaning you can queue up multiple titles from a DVD and leave a disc running overnight if you like.

For a 25 minute video, the file size on the PSP turned out to be around 100Mb. Using another video format, I have previously gotten this number down to past half that size at around the same, if not higher, resolution. To be honest though, HandBrake did a fantastic job and the overall quality of the video was noticeably higher than my previous efforts. What impressed me further was when I put the same video in my media library and played it on my PS3, though the compression was noticeable, the video was really watchable and that was something I never expected, especially with the low resolution that HandBrake pumps out for the PSP.

Overall, there’s not much left to say. For DVDs, HandBrake does a fantastic job of taking the physical media and turning it into a video for use on another media player. Though the file sizes are a little larger than what I used to strive for, I’ve come to the conclusion that I can’t watch 8 hours of media in a 30 minutes journey, so why do I try to cram that much media in anyway. The number of options available in HandBrake is both impressive and extremely well laid out. My only gripe is the lack of control over the resolution, however on closer inspection, a brave soul can change these details in the .config/presets file. In conclusion, if you need a simple DVD -> file converter, HandBrake definitely makes a great choice.

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