Switched DVD Archiving to MP4

Media comments edit

Back in 2008 when I originally was looking at the various solutions for archiving my movies, I weighed the pros and cons of things and decided to rip my movies to VIDEO_TS format. I did that for a few reasons:

  • I wanted to keep the fidelity of the original movie. I didn’t want a whole bunch of additional compression artifacts that would detract from the watching experience.
  • I wanted to keep the sound. I didn’t want everything downmixed to stereo sound, I wanted the full surround experience you’d normally get with the movie.
  • I wanted a backup of the original disc. In the event a disc goes bad, I wanted to be able to re-burn the disc.

Well, six years (!) have passed since I made that decision and a lot has changed, not only with technology, but with my own thoughts on what I want.

  • Full DVD rips take a lot of space. That native MPEG-2 compression is really not great. Not to mention the digital files some DVDs come with for “interactive features” and things.
  • We don’t use the extra features. After running the media center for this long, our usage pattern with it has become pretty clear – we watch the main movie but we generally don’t make use of the behind-the-scenes featurettes, audio commentary, or other features of the movies.
  • The FBI warning, menus, previews, and other “up front stuff” is annoying. We’ve known that all along, but it’s like that five minute tax you just accept for watching a movie. I’m tired of paying that tax.
  • Discs don’t go bad as often as you think. Of the literally hundreds of discs I have, I think I’ve had like two go bad. I know I’ve jinxed it now that I’ve said it.
  • Disk space isn’t free. It’s cheap, but not free. The real challenge is that if you have a NAS with all full bays and a RAID 5 array, it’s not really that easy or cheap to expand. You have to move all the data off the giant array (to where?), upgrade the disks, and move it all back. (Basically. Yeah, there are other ways to swap one disk out oat a time, etc., but the idea is that it’s painful and not free.)
  • Video containers are way better and more compatible now. Originally it was nigh unto impossible to get actual surround sound out of a compressed video in an MKV or MP4 container. I say “nigh unto” because some people had figured out this magic incantation and had it working, but finding the right spells to make it happen was far less straightforward than you might think. I tried for a long time to no avail. Plus, compatibility in general was not great – one device would play MP4 but not MKV; one device wouldn’t play any of them; one device would only play MP4 but only certain bit-rates of audio. It was horrible. Now pretty much everything plays MP4 and DLNA servers stream it nicely.
  • Compression is way better. Handbrake has changed a lot since I originally looked and the filters it uses are way better. You don’t notice the difference in a converted movie the way you once did, and it’s way easier to get “the right” settings for things.

What really got me thinking about it was this Slashdot article talking about how a person lost 20TB of data because it’s basically impossible to back all that up at home. I don’t have 20TB of data, but I have 5TB and my NAS is close to 80% full. I don’t have much room to continue just adding movies and, as noted, disk space isn’t free. It got me thinking about looking at video formats again.

I ended up switching to:

  • Handbrake’s “High Profile” preset modified with…
  • The primary audio channel updated from 160kbps to 256kbps
  • The “x264 Preset” set to “Slower”
  • Based on the content type, choose an “x264 Tune” of “Film,” “Animation,” or “Grain.”

These settings yield results that are visually comparable to the original DVD source; and include both stereo mixdown (for iPads and mobile devices that don’t support surround) and surround sound passthrough audio (for media servers and players that support surround).

I chose the higher quality sound because my primary use case is still high-fidelity home theater speakers and while I don’t need lossless audio, I wanted really good quality, too. It didn’t seem to affect the file size in any significant way.

I chose the “slower” x264 preset because I could tell in some areas the difference between “medium” (the default) and the slower settings, but from a time-to-encode perspective, “slow” and “slower” yielded about the same amount of time. I tried “very slow” but it nearly doubled the amount of encode time (not feasible for hundreds of discs).

The file size is roughly 25% – 50% of the original source content, so for a 4GB DVD I see about 1.5GB – 2.0GB compressed movies; for an 8GB DVD I see 2.0 – 3.5GB compressed movies. This is great from a space perspective because it means I can put off expanding my RAID array for a while longer.

On my current (not great) computers, I can encode a two hour movie in about 8 – 10 hours. Thank goodness for the queue feature in Handbrake, I can just queue up a ton of movies and let it run around the clock. I have a couple of computers going all the time now. Of course, with the number of discs I have to go through, it’s still going to be a couple of months.

This has opened a lot of new doors from a compatibility standpoint at home. My Synology NAS comes with a DLNA server that streams these perfectly to any device at home, so I can watch from my phone or tablet. The XBMC media center plays them beautifully and gets the full surround sound. I can put these on the iPad and take them traveling with us. I don’t have the full backup anymore… but for the cost/benefit on that, I may as well just re-purchase discs that go bad if I have to.

Some documents that helped me determine this new format:

The Handbrake Guide, particularly

This amazingly well done “best settings” guide for Handbrake 0.9.9

A comparison of the x264 “RF” settings in Handbrake

If you’re interested in the rest of my media center solution, check out the main article.