Review : HandBrake Tutorial Review

Handbrake converts video from one format to another.

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Product Manufacturer: HandBrake

Price: Free

The Good

  • Free.
  • Presets easy to use.
  • Many formats supported.
  • Can convert Flash and MTS files.

The Bad

  • Many controls; little guidance besides presets.
  • Need separate VLC download for converting DVDs.
HandBrake is an open source video conversion program. It can read from DVDs, video files, and other video sources. It also produces video files in a wide variety of formats. As an example, I own one of my kid's favorite movies on DVD, " The Great Race " and I want to watch it on my iPad. I could download it from the iTunes store, but that would involve paying for it again. Instead, I fire up HandBrake, put the DVD into the drive, and soon (ok, after a while), I have an .m4v file that plays on my iPad. A quick install into iTunes, and the kids and I can now watch the movie. This makes plane trips seem much shorter too.

How It Works

HandBrake is a video format converter. It takes video data in one format, and outputs it in a different format. HandBrake has lots and lots of knobs and settings that you can use to adjust exactly how you want your video to come out; fortunately, it also comes with presets for common output formats.

If you want to convert encrypted DVDs, i.e. commercial DVDs, you need an additional program called VLC. Fortunately, HandBrake tells you this the first time you try to convert from a DVD, and opens a browser window to the VLC download site. Once you download the appropriate version of VLC and install it in the Applications folder, just like HandBrake, you're ready to go.

Let's work though an example:

First, launch HandBrake and choose an input source. When I choose the DVD, HandBrake takes a minute to scan it, and shows me all the chapters of the movie. I choose to convert the entire movie, but HandBrake lets you choose to convert a subset as well.


Choosing the Video to Convert

Second, choose an output format. HandBrake comes with a bunch of presets. They are in a sidebar, which for some reason is hidden when the program launches for the first time. Click on the "Toggle Presets" button in the toolbar to show them. You can also change whether the Presets display automatically in Preferences. I chose the Apple/iPad preset, which sets the output file format, video codec, audio codec, key frames, and other settings. There are presets for most all Apple devices which play video, and you can add your own presets if you wish. Conveniently, each preset includes a tooltip if you pause your mouse over one of the items.

Preset Sidebar

Preset Sidebar

There are lots of knobs to twist. For example, HandBrake supports two different ways to encode the video, and five different ways for audio. These are collectively called "codecs" which is a contraction of "compressor/decompressor." For video, you can choose between H.264 and FF-MPEG. Each codec produces different results; but the results vary depending on the data you encode, and the settings that you use. I can't really say that one is always better than the other. To make a version for my iPod Touch is as simple as choosing a different preset.

iPad Preset Window

iPad Preset Window

The user manual states, "By default HandBrake saves all files in the MP4 container.... MP4 is the native file format for a number of consumer devices (iPod, PSP, Apple TV) and is supported out of the box by QuickTime and iTunes." Ilene notes that if your camera saves video files in the MTS format, HandBrake can convert those files to a Mac playable format also.

Third, pick a name and location for the output file. Here you can either type a path name or use a dialog to pick the folder and file name, which I recommend. To use the dialog, choose the "Browse" button next to the output path. I chose the name "The_Great_Race.m4v" and saved it on my desktop.

Now for the actual work and the waiting. HandBrake lets you queue up a series of operations, and you can start the processing and walk away while the computer does the heavy lifting. Not surprisingly, HandBrake calls this "the queue," and there are two icons in the tool bar for managing it. The first one, "Add to Queue" puts the first operation at the end of the list of pending operations. The second one, "Show Queue" shows you what you have asked HandBrake to do, and gives you the option of rearranging the list. This is completely analogous to a printer queue; you can remove items, rearrange the order, pause the queue, and so on.

Tool bar icons

Tool Bar

If you want to make two versions of the movie, one for the iPad and one for the AppleTV, you should choose the "iPad" preset, pick an output file name, and hit "Add to Queue." Next, choose the "AppleTV 2" preset, pick a different output file name, and hit "Add to Queue" again. To start the conversion process, just click "Start", and HandBrake begins the conversions.

The conversion step is not quick; on my Mac Pro (late 2009), it took about 45 minutes to convert this 2 hour and 40 minute movie. However, while it is working, HandBrake gives you an ongoing progress report.


Progress Bar

When HandBrake finishes the last job in the queue a dialog pops up to alert you.

Conversion Done Dialog

Conversion Done Dialog

The resulting M4V file was almost a GB in size, and played flawlessly on my iPad. If the resulting file is too large for you, you can adjust the settings to make a smaller movie file - usually at a cost in image quality. In the image above, you can see a section titled Quality. One of the options there is a target file size - if you need the movie file to fit into, say, 700 MB, you can set that criteria there, and re-encode.

Handbrake is an open source program. If you have the skills you can download the latest source code and build your own version of the program. The program is licensed under the GNU public license, which means that if you make changes to the program, you are required to share your modified source code, For people who just want to use HandBrake, the bottom line is: It's free. You download the executable, which comes on a disk image, just like other commercial software, you drag it in your Applications folder, and just use it.

You can download the latest version of HandBrake .095 as an Intel 64bit file for Mac OS 10.5 or 10.6 or a 32bit version, but I used the 64bit file in OS X Lion (10.7) with no problems. You can read the well written user manual on the site as well.

Edited by Ilene Hoffman, Reviews Editor