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Handbrake review

Handbrake is a superb free program, and has a wide range of features and presets for DVD ripping.

Handbrake review
(Image: © Handbrake)

Our Verdict

Considering you don’t pay for it, Handbrake is a remarkable thing. Its powers are wide-ranging and its compatibility huge, it’s capable of dealing with just about any video file you care to feed it with.

For

  • Compatible with everything
  • Genuinely free
  • Lots of presets

Against

  • Some DVDs require external library file
  • Not totally user-friendly
  • Takes a while to learn

Handbrake is a wonderful program that no PC should be without. It rips DVDs or Blu-rays, and transcodes video files between just about every codec there is. It will mix your 5.1 surround soundtrack down to stereo for TV speakers, and burn subtitles into the file if you need them. Best of all, it’s completely free and open-source, making it one of the best DVD rippers in 2020. What it lacks is a friendly front-end, but there are enough device presets to get you started, and most of the advanced options only need to be changed if you have a specific need to.

Even so, it’s possible to use Handbrake without poring over its documentation. It took us a little while to get used to its queue-based system when we first encountered it, but now we can see how useful it is when converting lots of files - you just load them up in the queue, set it going, and either walk away from the PC or open a new browser window. After a few tries, ripping DVDs to a simple h264 file becomes second nature, the most annoying thing being having to open the drive tray and replace the disk.

Handbrake review: Ease of use

Key specs

Free trial: Unlimited
GPU support: No
H265: Yes
CD ripping: No
Blu-ray ripping: Yes
OS: Windows, Mac, Linux
Device presets: Yes

  • A little tricky to use
  • Loads of compatibility

It’s a shame we decided to put Ease of Use at the top of our DVD ripping software reviews, because in Handbrake’s case it’s the program’s weakest area. Having been around in the occasionally-clunky world of open-source software for a long time, the app has made improvements in the last few years, now opening with a screen that asks you to select your input file - a DVD or single video file, or a folder of files for batch processing. The program then analyses the file, before dropping its info into the relevant video or audio boxes. From there, you’re on your own, able to tinker with almost every aspect of the conversion.

Happily, there are lots of presets. If your output device is a Chromecast Ultra, you’ll find a 4K, h265, surround sound preset waiting for you. The same goes for Apple TVs, Roku, Xbox, and most other consoles and TV boxes/sticks. Prefer Windows Phone 8? That’s there too, along with Vimeo and YouTube for those who like to share their home movies online. You can also make your own.

If you want, you can work your way through every option on the seven tabs that cross the middle of the app window, tweaking parameters such as video resolution, framerate, compression, audio, and subtitles. It’s not exactly a poor experience, as long as you know what you’re doing - and pop-up hints try to explain things as you hover the mouse pointer over them - but in comparison to programs such as Win X DVD Ripper Platinum and Wondershare Uniconverter, it seems a bit out of date.

Handbrake review

(Image credit: Handbrake)

Handbrake review: Speed

  • Average speeds
  • No GPU-acceleration

Speed isn’t Handbrake’s forte either. With no GPU-acceleration it’s limited by the speed of your CPU. That said, it scales nicely, and is noticeably faster on a 16-core Threadripper than it is on a dual-core i7 low-power laptop chip. If you’re using presets to process a lot of disks, then you can speed through the setup procedure, slowed only by the need to input a filename for your output file. 

So while other apps may offer greater speed, remember you’re not paying for this. Master the presets, and Handbrake will provide a perfectly acceptable ripping workflow as long as you keep a web browser window open with something to read in it until the time comes to switch disks. Beginners can pop on a preset, get it in the queue, and move on to something else, but experts will want to comb through the many, many output options and tailor the file precisely for their playback device and their tastes.

Handbrake review: Cost

  • It's absolutely free

You absolutely cannot beat ‘free’ as a price point. One of the great benefits of open-source software such as OpenOffice, GIMP, and Handbrake is the remarkable value proposition they represent. And free doesn’t have to mean unsupported either - Handbrake has a wealth of documentation available on its website, from the straightforward to the highly technical. It also means there’s no downside to downloading the program and trying it out, look on it as a free trial that never ends. If you don’t like it, uninstall and find something else - you’ve lost nothing. This version of free is far better than Freemake Video Converter's version of 'free', which constantly pesters you with ads and upgrade messages.

Handbrake review

(Image credit: Handbrake)

Should you choose Handbrake?

It’s free. Yes. Once you get past the intimidating front end, there’s a lot to love about Handbrake. You may need to put in a few attempts at mastering the settings beyond simply picking a preset and pressing the go button, but once you do you’ll be churning out perfectly sized, beautiful quality DVD rips in no time.