I’ve tried to figure out how video works on computers, really I have. Maybe you’ve tried Vista’s Windows Movie Maker, or burned a DVD with Windows Photo Gallery, or found a way to upload videos to YouTube. Congratulations! Treasure those moments! Because the instant you raise your expectations, you’ll find yourself trapped in a blur of acronyms and techno-whizz-bang stuff that will leave you lying weak and helpless.

I can point you to a couple of things that might help. Let’s talk about commercial DVDs and imagine that you want to make a copy of a DVD from your collection as a backup, or to store on a computer.

You’ll need a program that will remove the copy protection from commercial DVDs. Buy a copy of Slysoft AnyDVD and that problem is solved. There are other programs, there are other ways to accomplish it, but AnyDVD works and is frequently updated, and appears to be produced by a more or less reputable company instead of a non-English-speaking teenager who might be robotically controlled by the Russian Mafia.

I use the CD and DVD burning suite from Nero, which is a mess of buggy programs, some loosely integrated and others completely superfluous. (With Nero, I do a custom install and only install Nero Burning ROM and Nero Recode.) I’ve come to like it better than the equally messy suite from Roxio, but as I said, there are a lot of programs out there to do these tasks. I sound critical of Nero but it stands head and shoulders above most of the rest!

The “Nero Recode” program can make a copy of a DVD onto a blank DVD. You’ll likely buy 4.7Gb blank DVDs but many commercial DVDs are pressed on 8.5Gb discs; Nero Recode will compress the movie so it fits onto the smaller disc with very little loss of video or sound quality. In theory it’s an easy and effective process, although the reality can be just the teensiest bit difficult. When you successfully copy a DVD, be proud even when you discover that many DVD players refuse to play some types of blank discs, or simply choke on any burned DVD.

If you want to store your movie on a hard drive, that’s where the fun begins. Most people want to shrink the movie so it takes less hard drive space, but that requires an infinite number of choices about what format to use, how much to compress the movie, and what will be necessary to play it later. If you use a program that appears to make it easy, then the program is making those choices for you, for better or for worse.

Your head will spin. AVI is a container, not a format. The iPod has its own format that may (or more likely may not) play anywhere else. Nero’s version of MP4 is unable to be played reliably on anything other than Nero’s cruddy Player software. Windows Media Player and Media Center will simply ignore many formats and display empty folders where you know all your movies are. Movies will be silent or voices will be out of sync. You’ll eventually find yourself at Doom9.net, “the definitive DVD backup resource,” reading helpful descriptions like this from the Newbies forum:

DivX and Xvid are Encoders, they are not video formats and they are not containers!
Both, DivX and Xvid, implement the “MPEG-4 ASP” Video Format, as specified in the MPEG-4 standard.
So the result will be an MPEG-4 ASP bitstream, no matter which Encoder (DivX, Xvid or another one) was used to create it!

In contrast the “x264” Encoder implements the “AVC/H.264” Video Format, so it’s not compatible to MEPG-4 ASP (e.g. Xvid or DivX).
AVI, MKV, MP4 and OGM are not Video Formats, they are Containers!
Containers specify how to mux Audio and Video streams together into one file, so they can play synchronously.
MPEG-4 ASP (e.g. DivX or Xvid) Video Streams can be stored in an AVI container as well as in an MP4 or MKV container.
With AVC/H.264 it’s a bit more tricky, so AVI might not be the best solution for H.264 streams…

So to sum up, there are three things you have to distinguish:
* Video Format (e.g. MEPG-2, MPEG-4 ASP, AVC/H.264, etc.) – This is specification and documents, general Standards.
* Video Encoder/Decoder aka “Codec” (e.g. DivX, Xvid, x264, etc.) – This is a specific piece software and usually implements a certain Format/Standard.
* Container Format (AVI, MP4, MKV, OGM) – This is a file format, specifying how the Audio/Video streams are stored inside a file.

Dozens of combinations are possible. For Example:
* An “MPEG-4 ASP” Video can be encoded with the “DivX” Software and then the resulting stream can be stored in an “MKV” container.
* Alternatively you could encode your “MPEG-4 ASP” Video using the “Xvid” Software and then store it in an “AVI” container.

There, you see! That helps, right?

With all that in mind, let me point you to a very clear guide by Paul Thurrott about how to rip a DVD. There’s good, reliable information there that you could follow exactly. I’m not familiar with Handbrake, the program he recommends, but I trust his judgment and the screen shots look easier and clearer than most of the other programs I’ve tried. The H.264 format described there is currently the best choice for most people to combine high quality and wide support, as near as I can tell.

Personally, I’m currently using a different method. I bought a huge hard drive when NewEgg.com had a sale – a Seagate 750Gb 7200 SATA drive for $119.99. I’m using Nero Recode to copy DVDs in their native format (with IFO files and VIDEO_TS folders), reducing each one to 4.7Gb. Storage space is cheap! In that format, the DVDs can be streamed to Windows Media Center in the living room and can be played by any of the DVD players on my office computer.

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