Although there's a debate on what encoding and transcoding is, we'll try to keep it simple here: we're going to talk about how to reduce the filesize of videos while retaining maximum quality. This is especially useful for copying a DVD/BluRay onto your computer, sending personal videos to your family over the web or for watching them on a mobile device. Some of these tasks can also be performed by a video converter.
Since encoding requires some knowledge, it will be helpful to understand some technical aspects of your original video and the output you want. Even when using automated detection tools, failing to understand some basic principles will result in weird-looking videos. For example, if you don't deinterlace an interlaced video, you'll end up with this:
Before we start, here are the basics you need to know.
- What codec and format are you going to use? As of now, H264, aac and .mp4 are the winning combination (best compatibility with modern devices, best quality/compression ratio).
- What quality/filesize/encoding speed do you want? You have to choose 2 out of 3, as each parameter affects the others.
- How to treat your source? Most of the time, the source is not optimized for playing on a computer: it can be interlaced, have black borders... You will need to learn interlacing, telecine, aspect ratio, cropping, bitrate and other notions so you can handle your source best. Tutorials are available at http://www.videohelp.com
- Is your source encrypted? Most encoders do not decrypt DVDs or blurays by themselves. You will need a decrypter like DVDFab HD, DVDshrink or DVD43 (on the fly). With some tools, it is best to copy the files on your HDD before encoding.
- Encoding is CPU intensive, so depending on the specs of your machine, it could take a very long time.
Go straight to the Quick Selection Guide
In this review, I tried to select the most modern encoding freeware, the easiest to use and with the best performances. There are a lot of good encoders/transcoders/converters out there, my advice is to choose one that can at least output H264 and handle deinterlacing. Many commercial programs fail to provide even the most basic tools, the best encoding programs are mostly free.
The most useful freeware products I found are StaxRip, MeGUI, HandBrake, XviD4PSP, and RipBot264. They all are GUI: interfaces allowing you to use multiple programs seamlessly. They are powered by similar programs like x264 or Avisynth, but they feel different because of their presets, their features and their layouts.
StaxRip is my Top pick. I found it to produce the best quality output, with a low filesize and good speed. Although there is no tool to analyze the source, the default settings are fairly good in most cases and the preview window makes it easy to choose the correct settings.
It is easy to set the quality/size/encoding speed of your output or to trim a video, and there are many tools available from the GUI. It is important, when using StaxRip to manually detect interlaced, telecine or progressive input and to choose the settings accordingly. Although it is possible to encode directly from a DVD, it is recommended to copy it to the HDD first.
MeGUI is the favorite choice of advanced users. This GUI has the most comprehensive set of tools, it is the most flexible, and it integrates advanced features like automatic detection of interlacing or telecine. The presets are very good, the program updates itself on a very regular basis, and it has interesting options like "one click encode" that makes the job easier for beginners. One thing I did not like with MeGUI is that there are so many options, it makes it easy to do something wrong and mess up the encoding.
HandBrake is the favorite choice of Mac users, but the Windows version is not as good. Still, it is a very good encoder and it is simple.
The Windows version does not have a preview window so it is difficult to find out whether your video needs deinterlacing or not. There are no detection tools, but the settings are good, and specifically oriented towards Apple products such as iPhone, apple TV or others.
It is easy to convert directly from the DVD (although you need some on-the-fly decryption freeware, like DVD43 or dvdfab passkey), but its presets are not as fast as StaxRip. Windows users can use VidCoder, a GUI based on HandBrake that provides a preview window.
Xvid4PSP is an interesting program but there is no recent stable version. Currently, the latest stable version is 5.x (2009) but its developer is now exclusively focusing on version 6.x that still lacks some features. Both versions provide an analysis tool, a comprehensive list of default settings for all kinds of devices, and a clean interface to add filters or correct color.
Overall, I have been very impressed with the detection tools and the innovative interface. Xvid4PSP 5.x and Xvid4PSP 6.x are installed as different programs, so you can try them both. The 6.x version is still in beta stage, but there is no doubt it will be one of the best when it's finished. One thing I didn't like are the presets; in my tests, they made encodes either too slow or the output filesize bigger than I expected.
RibBot264 is a simple and efficient tool that provides all the essential features (deinterlace, crop, IVTC, color filters, denoise, subtitles, resize...) in a very manageable way. As its author says: "This small app written in Delphi is specially for people looking for something simple without exotic filters and unnecessary settings."
In my tests, the analysis tools were very helpful, but many of them failed to recognize interlacing in static scenes such as cartoons. Most of the time, manual detection is always best. The only case where automatic detection provides better results is with mixed sources (part-interlaced, part-telecine, part-progressive).
If you want to learn more about video and audio, here's a list of some websites with a wealth of information:
Something is incorrect or your favorite freeware is missing? Post a comment!
You might want to check out these articles too:
- Best Free Software to Split, Trim or Join Video Files
- Best Free Audio / Video Format Conversion Program
- Best Free DVD Ripper
- Understanding Codecs
Encoding, DVD, bluray, dvdrip, brrip, x264, avi, divx, mkv, xvid