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Digital Clutter-Killers

Clear off your dusty shelves and make a host of old-school media compact and accessible by converting them into convenient digital files

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The DVDs I’ve accumulated over the years now take up five shelves in my living room. Worse yet, many are packed two deep, so I can’t even see what’s in the back row. While I’m a firm believer in the power of alphabetical order, that doesn’t mean I scrupulously adhere to it—where the heck is that copy of Pulp Fiction anyway?  And more often than not, when I want to watch one of the movies in my collection, I’m not sitting comfy on the couch in the living room, but on a commuter train or a plane with a laptop or tablet in hand. No doubt about it—time to digitize.
First, a quick word about the legalities of “ripping’ a DVD disc to create a digital version. Officially, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act prohibits circumventing copyright protection on a DVD disc, and most commercial DVDs are copy-protected. However, if you purchased a disc legally, you have the right to enjoy that fragile, scratchable, breakable media in the ways you see fit. Rip a movie and post it on a website for others to download? Maybe not. Rip a movie so you can combat boredom at 30,000 feet? Nobody’s going to arrest you.
Many software tools are available to convert a silver disc to a digital format on your hard drive. Being primarily a PC kind of guy, I’ve relied on two free programs for this purpose for years. DVD Shrink (downloadable from works on most DVDs, offering the option to compress the roughly eight-gigabyte contents of a DVD down to about half the size with little loss of quality. If DVD Shrink runs into copy protection problems, there’s DVD Decrypter, another free program (downloadable at, which will make a same-size copy of any DVD I’ve encountered to a hard drive. You can then run DVD Shrink on the resulting files if you’d prefer a more portable version.
How do you play the ripped files? The DVD player software that came with your computer may or may not allow you to open a hard-drive folder and play it as if it were a physical disc. If not, there’s a simple solution: a program called VLC, available free from for both Windows and Macs. VLC will play just about any video or audio file you throw at it, from ripped discs to downloaded files from the Internet.
Finally, how about taking your ripped discs on the road? My free software tool of choice here is Handbrake (available from for PCs and Macs). Handbrake can convert video files to the MPEG4 format, which will play with basically any laptop, tablet, cell phone, smart TV and portable game console. There are also preset file compression options for Apple and Android products, making a potentially complex conversion process point-and-click simple.
Steve Morgenstern writes often for Cigar Aficionado on technology topics.
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