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DVD ripping goes legit with RealDVD

Real's RealDVD software lets you rip DVDs to your PC hard drive--legally--and watch them on up to 4 other PCs.

Real Networks

Related coverage: Could Apple add RealDVD-like DVD-ripping to iTunes?

RealNetworks will soon let users rip DVDs to their hard drives--legally. The company will be unveiling the RealDVD software at Monday's DemoFall conference in San Diego, but CNET got an early look at the software. Our hands-on impressions follow:

Operation is simple and straightforward. Once the RealDVD software is installed, just pop a DVD into your PC, and the program will copy the entire disc to your hard disk. Depending on the read speed of your computer's DVD drive, the operation will probably take 15-20 minutes (for dual-layer discs that house 7 to 8.5GB of data). You can copy as many as your hard drive will hold, and the program's browsing screen gives you the cover art and relevant metadata (cover art, stars, directors, plot summaries, ratings).

Whether you're at 37,000 feet or you're accessing the program on a home theater PC hooked up to your TV, you need only click on the movie you want to watch, and it'll start straight away. (We say "movie," but RealDVD works just as well for TV shows on DVD as well.) The files are uncompressed, and include everything on the disc--all the extras, and all of the surround sound and alternate audio tracks. Videos can only be watched in the program's built-in software player, but you can toggle to full-screen viewing, and videos autoresume wherever you last left off.

Savvy PC users will ask, "What's the big deal? I've been ripping DVDs to my PC's hard drive for years." Fair enough, but RealDVD adds some relevant bullet points to the equation. First off, it's legal: That's because the program retains the DVD copy-protection, and even adds a further layer of DRM to the files. (Real is standing on the precedent set by the Kaleidescape's 2007 court victory.) So you shouldn't have to sweat a prison term for copyright violation next time you're toting your laptop through airport security.

Secondly, it's transportable: you can rip the discs to an external USB hard drive and watch them on up to four other PCs on which you've installed the program. (OK, you can do this and more with underground DVD rippers, but the point is that RealDVD is offering a reasonable degree of viewing flexibility, instead of locking the movies onto just one computer.) And thirdly, the software is easy to install and use--anyone familiar with, say, iTunes should have no problem ripping DVDs with RealDVD.

Courtesy of Beet.TV

RealDVD is a completely standalone program--it's not integrated with or related to the company's RealPlayer software or Rhapsody subscription music service. It will cost $40-50 (the software will be available as a download and, later, as a shrinkwrapped offering), but Real will be offering it at an introductory price of $30 for a limited time. Additional licenses (for watching movies ripped to your external hard drive on up to 4 other computers you own) will be $20 a pop. It's Windows only right now, but Real says it's looking into a Mac version as well.

In case you're wondering how RealDVD verifies that you're ripping DVDs that you legally own, the answer is: it doesn't. Effectively, you're on the honor system. Aside from an admonition on the splash screen that reminds you to not rip discs you don't own, there's nothing preventing you from archiving DVDs you borrow or rent.

Is it worth the price? During our quick hands-on shakedown cruise with a beta version of RealDVD, we found that it mostly lived up to Real's billing, but it wasn't without issues. For instance, the software didn't seem to find the cover art for many recent movies. And we noted that it can only import copy-protected DVDs--if you've got a disc that's DRM-free, it assumes it's an illegitimate copy, and refuses to import it. (We assume the first issue is just a reflection of the software's prerelease beta status, but the latter seems to be an intended "feature.")

Still, for frequent travelers or those looking to backup or share their movie collection throughout the household, it looks to be a feasible option--and the price is certainly low enough to hit impulse buy territory.

Of course, if Real can extend and expand RealDVD as a standardized platform, things could get a lot more interesting. Imagine RealDVD-certified set-top boxes, game consoles, or TVs, where you could just plug in a USB hard drive that houses the bulk of your movie collection and have instant access. Or RealDVD-compatible portable devices, onto which you could drag and drop movies to watch on the go. Those are the sort of features that could make RealDVD a must-have product. Of course, if this it catches on, RealDVD might just be the first of a series of legal DVD ripping products to hit the market as well.

What do you think: would you pay for RealDVD, or are you happy to stick with free (albeit legally questionable) DVD-ripping software found on the Internet? If you're intrigued by RealDVD, what other features would you like to see the software offer? Share your reactions below.

Update: Check out Real's RealDVD preview site for more info, included a video preview of the software and an FAQ.