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February 9, 2004
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I’ve been an ardent proponent of server-based digital media for a long time. Way back in 1999, technology finally reached the point where I could migrate my music collection from CDs to a server, with the result chronicled here. Once that was accomplished, I naturally begin work on moving my video collection to a home server as well.

In the millenial year 2000, I found that creating a video server was impossible on nearly every front. My home network couldn’t handle the bandwidth. I didn’t have decent client devices to play stored video. And my server didn’t have the storage capacity to hold my entire video catalog.

I’m happy to report that at the outset of 2004, all of these problems have vanished, and it’s now completely feasible to store your entire video collection on a home server. This article is going to tell you how to do this, step by step, in a simple and easy fashion.

In order, you’ll learn how to rip your DVD content to your hard drive, convert that content to the super-efficient DivX format, and how to play those videos using off-the-shelf players, over either a wired or wireless network.

The methods I’m describing here aren’t necessarily for everyone. This article intends to provide a simple and straightforward solution for folks who want the benefits of a jukebox, but don’t want to invest days and weeks learning how to use complex tools. You might want more. Check the disclaimer to see if you should take the path less traveled.

Grabbing the Content

Those DVDs stacked up in your entertainment center have digitized video stored in an encrypted MPEG-2 format. The actual size of the movie varies depending on length, screen size, and compression settings, but most feature films clock in somewhere between 3 and 5 Gigabytes.

No doubt your Windows PC is able to see those files without any trouble. If you insert a standard title into your PC’s DVD drive, you’ll see something like the listing shown here.



Directory listing of Erin Brockovich

By convention, the MPEG-2 video is stored in VOB files in the VIDEO_TS folder. Everything else on this particular DVD is software and other fluff for PC users. For the purposes of the home server, we’re only interested in the video content.

Grabbing that data off of a DVD is a bit problematic. Yes, your PC can easily read those files, but unfortunately the MPEG-2 content has been encrypted so that it can only be played through a licensed piece of hardware.

Fortunately, there are a few excellent programs that are able to bypass this protection, allowing you to decrypt the data and copy it to your PC simultaneously. The program I recommend for this purpose is called DVD Decrypter. It’s a completely free piece of software for Win32 PCs, and you can download it here.

A couple of notes about DVD Decrypter. First, if your PC is in the Win9X train, you will also need to download ASPI drivers for your DVD-ROM. (You can get these from the Adaptec ASPI download site.) Second, it is illegal to distribute this program in the United States! Yes, that’s right, it is not legal to sell software that accesses the DVD content that you paid good money for. A more detailed discussion of this can be found in the DMCA sidebar.

Ripping your DVD

Installing DVD Decrypter is a straight-ahead process, and I won’t go into any of the details here. Once you have the program installed, start it up, and select the Mode menu option. Set the mode to the IFO setting. This is the most straightforward way to pull the correct VOB files from the DVD.



Selecting IFO mode in DVD Decrypter

The real excitement comes when you are ready to rip the content from your first CD. After you start DVD Decrypter, place your DVD in your DVD drive. Depending on the packaging of your DVD, you may be asked to install software that ships with the DVD – just say no! This software won’t help you in the ripping process.


DVD software installer

DVD Decrypter should automatically detect the presence of the DVD in your drive. If it doesn’t, you can select the appropriate drive using the drop-down box labeled Source. After it finds the DVD content, DVD Decrypter looks through the various programs on the DVD, and selects the longest one. There are rare occasions when this not the actual movie, but 99 times out of 100 this is what you should select. (I’ll tell you how to verify that you got the correct program later in this section.)


DVD Decrypter selects the longest program

At this point, I usually click on the Destination icon and change the destination directory to the location I prefer. All that’s left after that is to click the bottom icon showing the DVD to Hard Drive picture, and the ripping process starts.

Ripping the disk is really not much more than just copying the files from your DVD drive to your hard drive, so the process will go pretty quickly, especially if you have a nice high-speed DVD-ROM. The figure below shows what things look like while the extraction is in process. If you love details, be sure to turn on the log window so you can get the works.



The DVD Rip in progress


The optional log window

Verifying Your Rip

Once DVD Decrypter finishes its work, you will have a nice collection of files in your destination directory. You should have one IFO file, a collection of VOB files that are each up to 1 GByte in size, and a text file. A sample of that is shown here.



The results of the rip process

DVD Decrypter created the text file to describe what’s in the various streams you’ve captured. The IFO file and the VOB files are decrypted copies of what was on the DVD. Before we move on to the encoding phase, you’ll want to verify that these VOB files do actually contain the contents of the movie as you expect to see it.

To do this, I like to use another great piece of free software, the VLC media player from Videolan.org. Follow the links from Videolan.org home page, download and execute the install package, and you’re in business. Once you’ve done that, just start the player, and one by one drag the VOB files from their target directory right onto the VLC control panel. I usually do a quick check to make sure that I’ve got a series of VOB files that start at the beginning of the movie, end with the credits, and appear to have some reasonable content in the middle. A typical view of the process is shown below.


The VLC Media Player in use