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Introduction

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.

Encoding will require some knowledge, you will be expected 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:

Detail interlaced image.

Before we start, here are the basics you need to know.

  1. What codec and format are you going to use ? As of now, H264, aac and .mp4 is the winning combination (best compatibility with modern devices, best quality/compression ratio).
  2. What quality/filesize/encoding speed do you want ? You have to choose 2 out of 3, as each parameter affects the others.
  3. How to treat your source? Most of the time, the source is not optimized to be played 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
  4. 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.
  5. Encoding is CPU intensive, so depending on the specs of your machine, it could take a very long time.
Discussion

In this review, I tried to select the most modern encoding freewares, the easiest to use and with the best performances. There is 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. Actually, the best encoding tools are mostly free.

The most useful freewares I found are Staxrip, Megui, Handbrake, XviD4PSP, and Ripbot264. They all are GUI: they are interfaces allowing you to use multiple programs seemlessly. They are powered by similar programs like x264 or Avisynth, but they feel different because of their presets, their features and their layout.

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 ratio of your output, there are many tools available from the GUI and it is easy to trim a video. 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. The latest beta was released on september 2010, and there's no information about future development, so it may be possible that Staxrip is not developed anymore.

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 encode.

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 (iPhone or apple TV...). 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 developper 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!

Related Products and Links

You might want to check out these articles too:

Best Free Audio / Video Format Conversion Program
Best Free DVD ripper
Understanding Codecs

Quick Selection Guide

Staxrip    Rating 9 of 10  Gizmo's Top Pick

Pros   Good quality/size/speed balance, clean interface, many features, reliable, good presets.
Cons   Not developed since september 2010, not designed to encode from optical disks directly.
Developer Home Page   http://staxmedia.sourceforge.net/
Download link   http://sourceforge.net/projects/staxmedia/files/StaxRip%20beta/
File Size   26.2   Version 1.1.7.0 beta   License Type Open Source Freeware (includes program code)   Installation Requirements .NET 3.5, Win 2000 - Win 7
Portable version available   Portable version available

Megui    Rating 9 of 10

Pros   Most comprehensive set of features, actively developed and updated, good presets.
Cons   Designed for experts rather than beginners, not designed to encode from optical disks directly.
Developer Home Page   http://sourceforge.net/projects/megui/
Download link   http://sourceforge.net/projects/megui/files/
File Size   30.4   Version 2008   License Type Open Source Freeware (includes program code)   Installation Requirements Win 2000 - Win 7
Portable version available   Portable version available

Handbrake    Rating 8 of 10

Pros   Multi-platform, simple, good presets (especially for Apple products), complete features, very clean interface, easy to encode dvds directly from optical disk.
Cons   No preview window in Windows, some presets resulting in slow encodes, limited input and output formats, some missing functions (trimming...)
Developer Home Page   http://handbrake.fr/
Download link   http://handbrake.fr/downloads.php
File Size   5.73MB   Version 0.9.5   License Type Open Source Freeware (includes program code)   Installation Requirements Mac OSX 10.5-10.6, Win2000-Win7, Linux (Ubuntu & Fedora specials)
64 Bit version available   64 Bit version available

Xvid4PSP    Rating 8 of 10

Pros   No indexing needed, source detection tools, very innovative interface, smart file navigation, designed to encode from optical disks directly.
Cons   Old latest stable version, beta version not finished. Presets could be better.
Developer Home Page   http://winnydows.com/
Download link   http://winnydows.com/#Downloads
File Size   6.59MB   Version 6.0.3 beta   License Type Open Source Freeware (includes program code)   Installation Requirements .NET 4.0, Win2000 - Win 7

RipBot264    Rating 8 of 10

Pros   Very simple and straightforward, complete set of tools, good presets.
Cons   Limited output formats, limited settings.
Developer Home Page   http://forum.doom9.org/showthread.php?t=127611
Download link   http://www.mediafire.com/?7jxxkg89xxjowuu
File Size   28.8 MB   Version 1.16.5   License Type Unrestricted Freeware   Installation Requirements Win2000 - Win 7
Portable version available   Portable version available
Tags

Encoding, DVD, bluray, dvdrip, brrip, x264, avi, divx, mkv, xvid

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