The advantages to digitising your DVD collection are clear: once you've loaded your discs to a hard drive, you'll no longer have to fumble around with easily scratched discs.
And it's far more convenient to put a bunch of movies on a laptop so you can have your entertainment library with you at all times. With the announcement of a new software program, RealDVD, Real Networks is providing the first mainstream means of legally transferring DVDs to a hard drive - with extras. The new software is the first application to enable individuals to save DVDs on a PC hard drive without breaking copyright laws.
This isn't to say 'ripping' DVDs hasn't been happening for years now: plenty of software utilities that strip away a DVD's copy-protection scheme have made the rounds. But stripping away the copy-protection violates the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and has caused issues in the past.
RealDVD gets around this by actually preserving the copy-protection on a disc and copying a DVD's contents exactly as they are structured on the DVD itself to the hard drive. For the time being, RealDVD supports only regular DVDs - there is no Blu-ray support - and each DVD uses about 5GB to 9GB of disk space (the space varies, depending upon the disc's contents), so you will need a fairly large hard drive to save more than a handful of DVDs.
RealDVD is scheduled to be available for download from Real's website within the month. RealDVD runs on Windows XP and Vista; a Mac version is in the works.
Saving a DVD is simple: launch RealDVD, insert a DVD into your computer's DVD drive, and press Save. RealDVD does the rest. The time it takes to save a DVD varies depending on the DVD drive's speed, ranging from as little as ten minutes to nearly an hour. My test laptop took roughly 35 minutes to save a typical movie DVD. You can begin playing the movie while it is being saved, in case you're feeling a little impatient.
RealDVD downloads information about each DVD from Gracenote, including cover art, a synopsis, and cast information. You can view DVDs by genre, MPAA rating, cast members, and director; so you can view only comedy films, for example, but you can't narrow it down to, say, comedy films with a PG-13 rating and starring Christopher Walken. Additionally, RealDVD includes parental controls so you can limit which DVDs can be played back on your PC based on the MPAA rating.
As enticing - and long-overdue - as all of this sounds, RealDVD carries one notable caveat: DVDs transferred to hard drive are locked down to the specific drive you save them to. This means you can't save DVDs to your desktop's hard drive, and then copy the saved file onto your laptop's hard drive to watch on a business trip, for example. It also means that if you're using two or more hard drives striped together in a RAID configuration, and one of those drives fails, you'll lose your digitized DVD collection - a collection that will take some time recreate.
And the biggest reality of this gotcha: you cannot copy DVD titles onto another hard drive, even for backup purposes. This omission severely limits the usefulness of an otherwise well-done application. Providing a mechanism to easily backup and restore saved DVDs at the least would go a long way toward improving this situation. You can store DVDs across multiple external hard drives, and attach that drive to any RealDVD-activated machine, but this ability doesn't address the initial concern.
The bottom line? RealDVD is an interesting product; the idea behind it is great and for the most part it is well-executed. But the strict copy-protection scheme dampens my enthusiasm.