Friday, November 26, 2004

Mobile Movies

As any veteran road warrior can tell you, one of the great uses of a laptop— or a tablet— is watching movies. Stranded at the Sofitel in Minneapolis? Wedged into seat 13D on the Austin-San Jose "nerd bird"? Killing time at the LAX Admiral's Club? Whip out your machine, plug in your headphones, and catch a flick. But without a DVD drive in your little 3-pound wonder, you might ask how you're going to do that. In fact, it's really easy.

Do some Googling about ripping DVD's and you'll soon find yourself neck-deep in discussions of codecs, aspect ratios, bitrates, and audio sync issues. But all of this technical detail is relevant only to the discussion of transcoding DVD's from their original format to something more compact, like DivX. Since my goal is not to store 100 movies on my tablet but rather to have a movie or two to watch on any given trip, I skip all the transcoding nonsense and stick to the basic task of copying a DVD to my hard drive. Sure, it takes a lot more storage space, but the quality is excellent, the process is simple, and I can watch the resulting movies with a standard software DVD player.

Commercial DVD's are encrypted to prevent copying, but the encryption is extremely weak and easily overcome. To simply decrypt a DVD and copy it to your hard drive for viewing with such DVD players as WinDVD or PowerDVD, you can use the freely available DVD Decrypter. But if the DVD has a lot of extra features that you don't want to copy (like the director's commentary and alternate-language soundtracks), you're going to waste a lot of hard drive space.

For my purposes, I just want the movie itself, the menus, and the English soundtrack. Leaving out the extra features and additional languages can save multiple gigabytes of hard drive space. Luckily there's a great (and free!) utility that lets you do just that: DVD Shrink. It allows you to strip off unwanted content, decrypts the content you do want, and compresses that content to fit on a standard 4.7GB DVD-R disc.

I tested DVD Shrink with a copy of Out of Africa that we own. Running on a ThinkPad with a 1.6GHz Pentium M, the program took 41 minutes to decrypt and copy the 150-minute movie, a time that was most likely limited by the speed of the DVD drive. Copying the resulting 4.7GB folder to my tablet over a 100Mb Ethernet connection took another 8 minutes.

A speedier solution would be to attach a 16x DVD-ROM (like this $27 Sony model) housed in a 5.25" USB 2.0 enclosure (like this $18 one from xpcgear) directly to your tablet.

The happy ending to this story is that now I can watch Out of Africa any time I find myself with two and a half hours to kill. Hmm. Maybe I should start copying my Looney Tunes collection.