HandBrake: Versatile Video Conversion

Whether you’re an expert cinematographer or passionate about Lost, most Mac users find themselves needing to convert video between formats from time-to-time. I used to swear by an app called VisualHub, but the developer has unfortunately now stopped work on the project.

In late 2008, an older DVD ripping application – HandBrake – was given a new lease of life. It is no longer limited to purely archiving DVDs, but can now open and convert between practically any type of video source.

This review will take a look at how HandBrake works, give an overview of what the application is capable of, and highlight how it can be used to better managing your video library.

Features and Preferences

The nature of video conversion is fairly complicated, and HandBrake clearly shows every option you could possibly need when opened for the first time. All manner of advanced features are available, such as altering frame rate or adjusting the “Motion Estimation Method”.

Despite being a fairly regular user of the software, I have absolutely no idea what most of the advanced settings do. You’ll be pleased to know that the defaults work well to a large degree, and it’s generally best to leave the advanced preferences untouched.

The Queue

HandBrake offers a simple “queue” system. Most Macs are only really capable of converting one video at a time, so it’s simple to queue up several videos to be processed one after the other. A handy window can be kept open which shows the files waiting to be converted:

The Queue

The Queue

Activity Window

If you’re completely intrigued by what goes on behind the scenes in HandBrake, the Activity Window can shed some light on the mystery. It offers a detailed log of what occurs during conversion, and can be useful for hunting down the cause of any errors:

Activity Window

Activity Window


You’ll commonly find yourself with a particular output platform in mind – whether an iPod, AppleTV, or simply for upload to the web. HandBrake comes with a range of preset options for particular formats, which can save a huge amount of time and ensure that you don’t get bogged down in advanced settings:



Converting Between Formats

HandBrake excels for converting video from one video type to another. After opening a video as a new “source”, the app will quickly scan it for relevant details. It then presents you with a range of (often slightly confusing) settings:

Video Conversion Settings

Video Conversion Settings

Main Settings

The three main settings to configure are:

  • Source: The file/DVD you’re working upon (and the relevant chapters)
  • Destination: Where you’d like the output file to be saved
  • Output Settings: The format is most important (MP4, AVI, OGM etc)

Various other advanced settings can be used, relating to video, audio (full multiple track audio can be configured), chapters, and a few advanced settings. If you’d like the ability to view the output on your iPod, be sure to check “iPod 5G support”.

Ripping from a DVD

vlcIn the original versions of HandBrake, DVD “decryption” was integrated into the software. This allowed you to make local copies of commercial DVDs. This feature has been taken out of the app in the latest release, and HandBrake now relies on you also having a copy of VLC installed for decryption purposes. It uses VLC to essentially allow anything that can be played by VLC to be ripped to your hard drive.

Still perfectly usable, but a little more complex than was previously the case.

Why Convert Video?

There are a whole host of reasons for wanting to “rip” video from a DVD to your hard drive, and convert it between formats once stored locally:

  • The convenience of having one-click access to your DVD library
  • Protecting against the loss of theft of your DVDs
  • Converting video into an iTunes compatible file for cataloging TV Shows/Movies
  • For putting video onto your iPhone or iPod
  • For moving video into a format suitable for the web

Other Solutions

If HandBrake seems a little too complicated, you could always opt for a slightly simpler DVD decryption app such as RipIt or DVD2OneX. Both of these allow you to backup DVDs to your hard drive with relative ease.

For conversion purposes, the now-discontinued iSquint comes recommended from myself, and you can also keep your eye on the development of Transcoder-Redux, the spin-off open source application from the remnants of VisualHub.


HandBrake is an incredibly versatile, free tool for ripping and converting video on your Mac. Don’t be put off by the potentially confusing settings, give the app a try, and you’ll be enjoying better quality video in no time at all.