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Scott's Column
Zune, DVD to Zune Review Guide

January 1, 2008
By Scott Lewis

Obviously from the heading, this month is going to be all about the Zune. Yes, I got the Zune. Last month I compared the Zune to the devices I was considering its competition. It was close between the Zune and iPod Touch. I will cover why I picked the Zune, and cover some of my experiences with the Zune.

The big story for this month is getting DVD movies on the Zune.  I evaluated a lot of software and I have a couple of recommendation. I will cover both FREE solutions as well as a few products you need to buy.

Current Topics:

Why The Zune

While looking at the Zune and iPod Touch last month I went back and forth between the two players so many times I thought I would get both. Here is a simple breakdown of the pros and cons of the two players as they applied to me.

Device Zune 80 iPod Touch
Pros 80 GB Capacity
Music Subscription
Screen Size
Screen Size & Resolution
WiFi Internet Browser
Future Applications
Cons Screen Resolution 8 GB Capacity

I don't know if the iPod Touch comes with any games, but I know the iPod Nano does. My son got a Nano for his birthday last month. I have heard the Zune will get games in the Summer of 2008. I hope so, but ultimately I want a media player not some hand held game machine.

My wife told me I better make up my mind or she will get me what she thought I wanted last. The put a little scare into me. I mentioned that I was worried that I would miss the features of the other player after picking one. My wife said, "the grass is always greener, just pick one." So I picked the Zune.

In the end I was impressed by the capacity of the player. The screen size is nice for casual watching on a lunch break. The combination of the two meant I could load a few movies onto the Zune while putting my entire music collection on the device.

My wife was right... the grass is always greener. I am glad to be on this side of the fence. Within four days of getting the Zune I had over 12 GB on it. A few hundred pictures, 3 movies and over 1,200 songs (at 256 kbps, more later).

I would have been worried about the capacity of the iPod Touch from day one. One thing I planned to do when I got a new player was to rip my entire CD collection from scratch. The last time I did it I had to use two different programs. One to rip the songs to WAV files and another to encode them to MP3 format. That was a long time ago. And that software did not fill in the ID3 tag information, so the vast majority of my collection does not have any album information in the files.

I did some sound quality testing. On a few songs I could hear a slight improvement in 256 kbps MP3 files over 128 kbps files. I could not hear any difference going from 256 to the lossless formats. So I settled on 256 for all my CDs. This basically doubled the size of my storage requirements and would not work with the iPod Touch. With Apple's product I would have had to stay at 128 to fit a few thousand songs. My Zune will hold over 10,000 MP3 files encoded at 256 kbps.

There is also the chance for massive new music discovery with a music subscription which Apple does not offer. I may not use the subscription much (one or two months a year I expect) but it is nice to know I have the option. And with 80 GB I can download a lot of music with a subscription.

So, in the end I was swayed by capacity. Technically the Zune 80 does not compete with the iPod Touch. The Touch really is in a class buy itself with its Internet browsing and more advanced applications (to come at least). It has a great screen and a cool interface. It is the iPod Classic I should really compare to the Zune. In that regard the Zune wins easily. The screen is far more comfortable to watch video on that the iPod Classic's 2.5" screen, and there is still the available music subscription to make use of all those gigabytes.

The Zune is the best media player... for me.

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Zune 80 Review

I am not going to give a full review of the Zune. I spent far too much time taking notes and doing the research for the DVD to Zune below that I just want to get out some things I thought would not be mentioned elsewhere, or maybe they would not be emphasized enough.

First off is the headphones. They sound great. They also suck. I had only read one review that mentioned the noise you hear through the ear buds when you touch the wire. At first I thought it was a minor issue. But after a few days of listening at my desk I realize you can't get away from it. The ear buds sound great when you don't move a muscle. Otherwise they suck and I will be buying something else.

Next up is the software... on the PC. I hate it. You have so few options when using the Zune software. I have standardized on using Windows Media Player to rip and arrange my song collection. I point Media Player and the Zune software at the same folder on my computer. After I play around with Media Player I just plug in my Zune and it launches the Zune software which sees what I was doing with Media Player and syncs it all up. An extra step, but worth it over the limiting Zune software.

Let's not leave out the software... on the Zune. It is O.K. but has some issues. First off, you can't rotate images. If you load a portrait image (taller than wide) it will work great as your background, but when you view them in a slideshow you see large back bars on each side. You should be able to select portrait for slideshows.

I find it amazing that you can change your background to any image you want, but there is no way to automatically switch backgrounds. When I decided to get the Zune I started downloading wallpaper images in the size of the Zune screen (240 x 320... portrait orientation). I had over 600 images when I realized that I would probably not change the background but once a week or so, if ever. You should be able to use the Zune desktop application to select a folder of images to use as backgrounds and it should select a new image at random every time you sync. That would be very cool.

Storing photos on the Zune is fun. Just keep your portrait and landscape pictures in separate folders. Overall I really love the photo slideshow capabilities on the Zune. A friend at work is currently having a house built. He  passes around links to the pictures online. It got me to do something I have not done in 6 years... build the time lapse of my own house as it was built.

When our house was being built in 2001 I had marked a spot with paint so I could put my tripod in the exact same location every time I went to the house, when I had camera and tripod in tow. I ended up having 22 images. I created the animated image to the left here from thumbnails of the house. That was easy compared to the work necessary on the full size images. The tripod apparently did not help enough. I had to do a lot of work to those 22 images so the house would line up  perfectly from shot to shot. It worked out great and the slideshow was easy to show people. The standard transition on the Zune almost looks like a morphing effect as one picture fades out as the next picture fades in. Plus the screen on the Zune is large enough to make it an enjoyable viewing experience.

The bottom line for the Zune is music. My entire CD collection came to 178 CDs, 2171 songs, 17.13 GB on the device. I seem to be missing some CDs, and this does not count any of the music I have downloaded over the last 9 years.

I have found software that will let me rip movies from my DVD collection (see below) and I have put movies on my Zune. It is easy, well easy to put them on the Zune. I recommend leaving videos at their default to sync manually. It can take a few minutes to download a movie to the device, and you may not be ready for it when it happens.

Movies look great on the Zune. Keep in mind that the Zune's 320 x 240 screen is not letterbox. It is standard television 4:3, nowhere near 16:9. This means that most movies will show with big black bars on the top and bottom. It is best to use full screen versions of a movie. My Ronin disc has the full screen on one side of the disc and the widescreen on the other. I ripped the full screen version and it looks great on the Zune. It makes for a really cool thing to show off to others.

I don't like the three levels of rating a song on the Zune. Why can't the Zune pick up on Windows Media Player's 5 start rating. That works out really well. I also don't like that you can't delete content off the Zune itself. All of that must be done through the Zune desktop application, which I don't like. Fortunately, the massive capacity of the Zune 80 does not require me to delete anything. When I loaded my Zune I started out ripping all my CDs to 256 kbps MP3 format. Now I have a very album centric music collection. Over time I plan to delete songs, and start to build lots of playlists.

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DVD to Zune - A Comprehensive Software Review

The first thing I wanted to know about my Zune was how to get DVD movies onto it. I had read that although the Zune's screen is 320 x 240 it could play movies up to 720 x 480 through its video output to a TV. This begs the question how well will the Zune work as a storage for a bunch of movie to watch when travelling, both on the player and at your destination when attached to a TV.

I am going to compare 13 ways to get movies onto your Zune. Yes, 13 methods, but some of the processes below actually require more than one program. I am going to give my recommendation to 3 solutions, one free and two you have to buy. You can jump to any section of this long review from here:

Free Solutions:

The Process (Windows Media Encoder)  
Videora iPod Converter   
Auto GK  
SUPER  
Any Video Converter  

Purchased Software:

Daniusoft DVD to Zune Converter   
DVDFab Platinum  
AoA DVD Ripper  
Cucusoft DVD to Zune  
Any DVD Converter Professional  
Daniusoft DVD Ripper   
dvdXsoft  
PQ DVD to Zune  

Summary and What to Buy

Let me set the stage for a moment. I have my own requirements in a DVD to Zune application. As I said above, I want to put movies on my Zune to both watch on the device and to watch on a TV. I only looked at the programs below toward these two tasks. I checked each program generating a 320 x 240 and a 720 x 480 movie. What I did not look at was what other file conversions and DVD copying these programs could do. It is not my intent to copy DVDs, just put them on my Zune.

To make my life easier I use one movie for all my testing. Die Hard, the original. I recently purchased Live Free or Die Hard. It had a $3 coupon on it to apply toward the Die Hard trilogy, the first three movies. I bought them all. However, I had Die Hard closet at hand when I started this testing so it became the movie of choice.

Let's get in a word about resolution. I mention 320 x 240 above. That is a low resolution, but it is the same 4:3 aspect ratio as standard television. Die Hard (as many others) is a movie in widescreen with a 16:9 aspect ratio. That means that on the Zune you should see black bars on top and bottom of the screen. The same holds for 720 x 480 being 4:3. The correct output for Die Hard should be 320 x 172 or 720 x 388. Quite a few application required some manual intervention to get the correct output. Keep this in mind if you are looking at an application I left out.

I need to talk about file formats for a moment. The original Zune handled WMV files natively. I believe it handled MP4 files as well, but transcoded them to WMV as it synced. The Zune 2 is supposed to handle H.264 encoded MP4 files natively. I did a little testing and WMV and MP4 files take the same time to sync, so I think the Zune is working with MP4 files. When I tested the software below I concentrated on WMV file formats, but would accept MP4 if it was all that was available. Then my son got an iPod Nano and it works with the same MP4 files. So I really wanted MP4 file output.

Let's get on with the applications. First I will cover the free solutions I found then we will get to the programs you need to buy.

The Process (Windows Media Encoder)
Cost: Free
Recommended: No

I found a set of instructions for converting a movie that required a few steps and a few pieces of software. For the purposes of this article I am going to call this "The Process." The benefit of The Process is that is uses all free software. It is a lot of work on your part, but you should have much tighter control over the transcoding.

I found the overall quality of the output from The Process to be substandard. I initially thought it was good. It was better than some of the applications I was testing. But when I started looking closely at quality by watching 320 x 172 movies at twice their size, it became evident that The Process was not doing a good job. My issue with the quality of movies from The Process relates to any kind of fast movement (like someone walking across the frame, not an action sequence) caused horizontal distortion lines to appear that totally messed with the appearance.

Before we get too far into it, let's review what is involved in The Process. Here are the basic steps you need to follow:

  1. Use DVD Decrypter to rip the VOB files from your DVD to your computer. You want to merge the VOB files on the disc to one large VOB file on your computer. I tested this with Die Hard and it took 32:41 to rip the movie. This VOB file is 7.9 GB, and plays perfectly in PowerDVD.

  2. Use DVD 2 AVI to create a WAV and a D2V file (don't ask). Time: 14:39.

  3. Use VFAPI to convert the D2V file to an AVI file (no, this is not the movie file... again don't ask). Time: less than 1 minute.

  4. Finally use Windows Media Encoder Series 9 to merge the AVI and WAV files to the final WMV file. Time: 1:22:06

The total time for Die Hard was 2:08:26. Ouch!

On my first attempt to perform The Process the output initially looked very nice. However, as I got to looking at the output of the other tools below I started looking at the 320 x 172 copies of the movie at twice their normal size. When I did this for The Process I saw significant distortions. Lots of horizontal lines when anything on screen was moving quickly. If I looked at it closely I can see the problem at normal viewing size. I am also able to see these distortions when viewing movies encoded this way on the Zune.

When I followed the steps from the link above it had me use a profile made by the author. I decided to take it a step further and tweak some of the settings. BTW... the instructions I followed left out one important step, setting the output to a file. If you follow those instructions to the letter you will end up using Media Encoder to generate a stream that goes nowhere.

The first thing I did to tweak the profile was to increase the bit rate for the video. I changed it from 500 kbps to 900 kbps. It helped, but I could still make out horizontal distortion lines in movement on screen. I tried playing around with various settings, but to no avail. I could not remove the lines. Windows Media Encoder is a beast of a program, and there is no clear information on what exactly all the options do. I can only use trial and error so many times before I give up.

I would love to recommend this as a one stop solution for all the techies that would rather spend time instead of money to convert their DVDs for the Zune. But the results are not worth it. I would rather buy something than suffer with substandard video.


Videora iPod Converter
Cost: Free
Recommended: Yes (with reservations)

Videora iPod Converter is free for a reason. Ads! This application looks more like a browser than a Windows program. It has far more screen real estate devoted to Google style ads than anything I have ever seen. At least they are not flashy ads that would be more annoying.

Videora requires the use of DVD Decrypter. You will be using this tool to convert a VOB file to a MP4 file.

Videora iPod Converter looked like it would take about 10 minutes to convert my VOB file of Die Hard to a MP4 file. At least that was when its status bar hit 100%. In fact, it took 55 minutes to complete processing the file from DVD Decrypter. The worst part of this was that the conversion details screen didn't show anything you could use to get an idea how long it would take.

Since the Zune works with MP4 files (and I plan to standardize on them for compatibility with my son's iPod) I have no trouble with the limited file format output. Check your own requirements.

There were virtually no options for converting the video. You basically pick the bit rate of the encoding. That's it. You also can select from a number of iPods for the destination. I went with the iPod Classic because it has the same resolution screen as the Zune.

The video was a tiny bit taller than 172, probably 320 x 176 or 320 x 180. This is acceptable. The overall quality of the output file was very good. I can recommend this to Zune and iPod owners, and others that need a simple way of getting DVD content to a portable player that handles H.264 encoded MP4 files.

If you need to rip movies to a larger format, such as 720 x 388, then this program is not for you. However, this is the only free solution I can recommend for people that just want to rip movies to a portable device that works with the MP4 file format.


Auto GK
Cost: Free
Recommended: No

I found two sets of instructions for using Auto GK. You can see their steps here and here. Auto GK is another program that will convert the VOB file from DVD Decrypter. One of the instruction also uses a third program, Jodix' iPod Video Converter.

Auto GK is slow, and you have only a few options to choose from. You can set the width of your video, and I guess this uses the appropriate aspect ratio so your movie plays correctly.

I liked the simple Target Quality option. I set this to 100%. Why not. AutoGK only outputs XviD encoded AVI files. The second set of instructions for this program also included running it through the Jodix converter application to make it into a MP4 file. Not the best approach, but if it work for free why not.

AutoGK installed three addition tools (AviSynth, XviD, VobSub). I assume it uses them in the background. This is a lot of stuff for the slow performance that you get.

Unfortunately I never got this process to produce a playable movie. I received a Field Order Transition Detected error telling me I may have to use a Fix D2V tool. This was followed by a AviSynth error. So I never got a file I could view.

I cannot recommend this process to anyone that earns more than about $1 per hour. For the work and time involved you can easily buy something better.

I tried to use Jodix's iPod Video Converter by itself. Sure enough it accepted VOB files as input, and it would output a MP4 file. Talk about slow. It would grab very little CPU time most of the time. I jacked the priority of the process up to High in Task Manager and it would shoot to 60% from time to time, but mostly it sat at 0-10%. Also, the application was totally unresponsive during the conversion, like it was grabbing 100% CPU and not letting the user interact. It finished in about 10 minutes with a 19MB file. My Die Hard movie hit the credits in 51 seconds. That's it, 51 second of video and 1-1/2 minutes of credits was all that was in the file. Oops!

You can guess that I can't recommend any of this.


SUPER
Cost: Free
Recommended: No

Once again we have a program that takes VOB files from DVD Decrypter. At this point I should point out that DVD Decrypter is an excellent tool for extracting VOB files from DVDs. I have used it now a few times and each VOB file I have extracted plays perfectly in PowerDVD.

SUPER has one of the weirdest and crudest interfaces I have seen. You can right-click on the main form itself to get a pop-up menu, but this is far from intuitive. However, all the options seem to be there. I was able to select WMV (WMV8, not WMV9) for encoding the file. I could select the bit rate, the pixel size, the sampling and bit rate for the audio. Then I sent it on its way.

This program is the speed champ... in reverse. It was the by far the slowest program I tested. SUPER says it is "Working on it!" and there seemed to be no status anywhere. So you wait, and you wait, and you wait. Ahh... after 20 minutes I see the status bar with something in it. This is going to take a long time. About 1 hour into the encoding process it looked like it was about 10% done. I had to go to sleep and leave this one to itself. I would have to guess this program would have finished converting my Die Hard VOB file in about 10-11 HOURS.

I initially thought the program was only using 2-8% of the CPU. Then I discovered Super uses a program called ffmpeg.exe as part of its processing. I saw this in the Processes tab in Task Manager and increased its priority to High. I don't think it mattered, but ffmpeg was using about 50% of the CPU, and it stayed there. The hard drive was flicking steadily, but I could not see any files being created, even though I told it what folder to use for output.

Well, SUPER failed. In the morning there was an error. The output folder was completely empty, and I have no idea where it is putting its working files. I did not see the tiny text that I could click on to get the error details. I tried playing with a couple of settings, but kept getting the error. When I did get to read the error details it was a generic error message. Thanks!

Obviously I am not recommending this program.


Any Video Converter
Cost: Free
Recommended: No

Are we ever going to find a free DVD to Zune solution that does not use DVD Decrypter. Any Video Converter probably the most professional looking of the free applications I tested. Then again, this is just the teaser program to get you to buy Any DVD Converter Professional (reviewed below), which will rip your movie directly from DVD to WMV without the need for DVD Decrypter.

As it is Any Video Converter converts between different formats. For this evalutation I was using it to convert a VOB file from DVD Decrypter and converting them into MP4 files.

Any Video Converter gave me a very grainy movie. It also got the aspect ratio wrong and actually made a 320 x 240 movie when it should have made a 320 x 172 movie.

At this point it was so bad I had to give up on it. Obviously I am not going to recommend this program.


Daniusoft DVD to Zune Converter
Cost: $25
Recommended: Yes

Finally a product that really is targeted at the Zune. It even has Zune graphics in the program. The evaluation copy puts a watermark on converted movies until you buy it. The price is pretty good. There are a couple of odd options, but overall it looks pretty complete.

This is the first program that mentioned the Zune 2. It creates a number of WMV files, so a little learning will be required to maximize its efforts. In the drop down where you select the file type you can choose Zune or Zune 2. I don't know the difference. There are also a number of other output formats, including MP4, so I used those as they work with both my Zune and my son's iPod.

Some of the options are too limiting. When you select certain target devices or file formats you are limited on resolution and bit rates. This is fine for portable devices, but not if you are trying to get near DVD quality for when you hook up your device to a TV. This means you will have to play around a bit to find what will work for near DVD quality files that play on a Zune.

I left the zoom to "Keep Original" but it stretched my movie out to the full 320 x 240, instead of 320 x 172. I had to set the zoom to 16:9 to get the aspect ratio correct.

Daniusoft has a unique feature that became immediately important when I actually started watching videos on my Zune (keep in mind I did about 80% of the research for these reviews before I had my Zune in hand). Daniusoft DVD to Zune converter offers a cropping feature. You can crop off parts of the image. Basically it allows you to zoom in to remove the black bars from a letterbox movie. I played around with this feature and you will need some practice to get exactly the results you are after. This is not going to give you the same results as starting with the full screen edition of a movie. When they make a full screen version for DVD an editor pans and scans the area and makes sure that the most important content is visible. Daniusoft's approach merely crops off the sides of your movie so the the rest will fill up your screen.

The cropping feature was amazing with my Zune. I copied all 6 Star Wars movies from my DVD collection cropping them to show in full screen on the Zune. And they look very good. (Note: see below, because all was not perfect.)

I think we have the speed champ here, at least for movies at 320 x 172. It took 36 minutes 16 seconds to convert Die Hard to a 320 x 172 WMV file. That's fast... relatively speaking. I did notice that full size rips (720 x 388) took longer than DVDFab below, but for small formats (320 x 240) this is the fastest application I tested.

Another thing about Daniusoft is that it forgets all your custom settings. Each time you start the process to rip a movie the only option remembered is the file format. You have to manually enter all your video settings (such as bit rate, etc) and all your cropping information with each DVD.

Generally speaking I like DVDFab better even though it does not directly support the Zune, and it does not output WMV files. Daniusoft is the champ for portable devices with its cropping feature and it is the product I bought. When I made my purchase I bought the suite for $35 that included a file to Zune converter applet. The file converter lets you select the same output as the DVD to Zune converter, but it takes most other file formats as input. I found this extra feature to be worth it for transcoding movie trailers I would download in any number of formats.

Important Notes: After purchasing this product and going through my movie collection I found this product to be less reliable than DVDFab. One Star Wars movie (The Empire Strikes Back) would not get the sound synced correctly. Even when I tried ripping the movie without the cropping feature. I also had the same problem with Ronin when ripping the full screen version. As for Ronin, I had the same audio syncing issue with DVDFab, unless I copied the widescreen version. I also had trouble with 2 of the Die Hard movies. They would produce MP4 file that would play fine on my computer but the Zune desktop application said they were not in a format that could play on the Zune.

If you want quality, quick DVD to Zune conversion and can live with a few quirks this should be your program. However, even after buying it I cannot recommend it as about 1 in 5 movies gave me problems. If you need more flexibility, less complicated options, more reliability or more DVD copying options then keep reading.


DVDFab Platinum
Cost: $49.95
Recommended: Yes

DVDFab comes with a 30 day free trial. This is far better than the others I tested. Unfortunately I think this software needs a major update. It does not list the Zune as one of the portable devices it makes files for. When I selected "Generic" for an output device I was given a H.264 encoded AVI file. I have read that the Zune 2 handles H.264 encoded video, but I don't know if you will need to transcode the AVI file into a WMV file when downloading it to the player. I was able to select a MP4 file as output, and my later testing proved this MP4 file to be completely compatible with both the Zune 80 and the iPod Nano.

DVDFab's interface initially seemed very slick and easy. Almost too easy. I could not find anyplace to set any options. But then once you start navigating into the process it provides a configuration screen where you set almost anything you need. DVDFab also has a neat feature that lets you save your settings as your default. Once I got things just right I was able to use DVDFab to copy movie after movie easily.

There are two annoying features of DVDFab. First, it takes a long time to initially recognize your DVD. Plan to wait a minute or more when you first pop the disc into your computer. Second, the software defaults to including sub-titles on your movie. And this is not one of the option that go with your defaults.

Other than those two issues this is the workhorse program. It is relatively quick. It is a little slower on 320 x 176 conversions than Daniusoft, but it beats it for 720 x 400 movies. It takes about 1-1/2 hours to copy a movie to 720 x 400, 1500 kbps. Not too bad for a movie a little over two hours.

Video quality is outstanding. The output was so good in fact, that you could easily watch a 320 x 176 movie at double its size and not notice any issues. In fact, this is the application that started me watching movies at twice their size to examine quality.

There is an option in DVDFab to select a fast one pass encoding or a high quality two pass encoding. I could not tell the difference between the two on a 320 x 176 file. Notice that I said 320 x 176, since 320 x 172 was not an option. In fact, all the resolutions seem to be a little off this way. A full size copy of Die Hard was 720 x 400, instead of 720 x 388. This is such a small difference as to be unimportant. At this point I am also puzzled by my own term "full size." DVDFab has higher resolutions and the initial for Die Hard 768 x 432 and went up to 848 x 480. I might have to do more research on this, but it does not effect my opinion of this application or any of the others here.

Once you get used to the way DVDFab works it is the best software here. I hate that it is the most expensive. It is easy to use once you know what to select. And it creates quality output in a pretty short time, especially relative to "The Process." It took about 2/3 the time to watch a movie to encode it at 720, and less than an hour to encode Die hard (a movie 2 hours and 12 minutes long) to 320 x 176.

DVDFab Platinum is a full featured program. It can do a lot of DVD copying chores. I was not interested in copying DVDs, just getting them onto my Zune, so I will not comment on its ability to make copies of DVDs for other purposes. You really should test those features for yourself.

I have to recommend this program, it is the best program I tested. After I had trouble with Daniusoft's application I used DVDFab to copy any movie that gave me trouble. DVDFab never gave me any problems with any movie I threw at it. And that's probably why it is the most expensive. You get what you pay for. DVDFab has a Gold edition that costs $10 less. I don't know why I tested the Platinum edition over the Gold, but if you need to save 10 bucks you might want to see if all the options you need are in the Gold edition.


AoA DVD Ripper
Cost: $34.95
Recommended: No

The trial version of AoA only converts 10 minutes of video. It seems to be pretty slow. It takes about as long to rip and convert a movie to 320 x 172 as it does to watch it. It took 38 minutes to rip and convert the first 10 minutes of Die Hard at 720 x 388. That's slow. I think this is the slowest of the paid programs.

Fortunately the output was worth the wait. The video looked very good, even at twice its normal size. I did have to run it twice to get the aspect ratio correct. You have to manually set the aspect ratio, and it is not intuitive. Once I set it to 320 x 172 all was good.

This is a tool for ripping DVD movies into various file formats. It will not convert from one file format to another in case you were looking for a complete video encoding solution.

I am close to recommending this program for the intended purpose. It is $15 cheaper than DVDFab above, and it puts out WMV files, which are natively supported by the Zune. Its slow speed and single minded nature for the price are holding me back.


Cucusoft DVD to Zune
Cost: $29.95
Recommended: No

Cucusoft's application leaves a watermark on the converted movie until you buy it. I actually preferred this over the 3 - 10 minutes sections of video. Cucusoft also offers a "bigger" application that does more file conversions than just converting for Zune. You can look into that yourself if you need a more robust application.

This program tries real hard to be easy to use. But it tries too hard. For instance, when you point it to your DVD it has you go through the DVD's menu. It then tries to predict when the actual movie will start and asks you when it thins it hits the movie. Fro Die Hard I think it selected the first "version" of the movie on the disc. This is the extended version (by only a minute). The version of the movie you really want is the second one. I assume when Cucusoft has you navigate the menu you are going into the proper movie.

I tried to make a copy of the movie at 720 x 388 by selecting original size. But it did the 720 x 480 thing stretching it out. I had to force 16:9 aspect ratio to get the results I wanted.

What I liked most was the simple way you told it the quality you wanted for your output. It provides a simple slider and it tells you what file size you can expect nstantly. This was the easiest method of all the apps I tested for setting video quality.

Cucusoft's application requires you to manually set the aspect ratio. This goes against the super easy approach of this applicaton. However, it does remember your settings, so I guess once you get it set you can use the super easy approach from then on.

The only real problem I came up with was trying to make a full size conversion of the movie. No matter what I did to set aspect ratio I always got a 720 x 480 movie and not a 720 x 388.

I would like to recommend this application for those that want a really simple solution. If you don't ever need to make full size conversions (something I do want from an application) you might want to consider this program. Make sure you spend some time working out the aspect ratio on the conversions you are planning to make.

I can't give a full recommendation because of the issues with full size conversion. I plan on converting movies to 720 x 388 (or whatever height is appropriate) and placing them on my Zune for near DVD quality when hooking my Zune up to a TV. Cucusoft will not do this, so I cannot recommend it.

Sorry.


Any DVD Converter Professional
Cost: $39.95
Recommended: No

This program gives you a measly 3 minute preview until you buy it. This is the paid program that is an upgrade to Any Video Converter above.

I did not like the limited options in this program for converting video. When I selected WMV for the output it grayed out the option to change the video resolution. So this program will never let me create a WMV file of 720x388 to store a near DVD quality video on my Zune. My first attempt with this program had the sound drastically out of sync. Not just a few seconds off to look funny like a bad martial arts movie, but a minute or so off so you were listening to something totally different from what you were watching.

I immediately stop testing it.

Don't buy this program.


Daniusoft DVD Ripper
Cost: $39
Recommended: No

This is Daniusoft's full feature application. Basically it outputs to almost any device, combining their DVD to iPod, DVD to Zune, DVD to Creative Zen, etc. into one application. Its interface is virtual identical to Daniusoft DVD to Zune Converter, but you have a lot more output formats to choose from.

You can even use this program to create VOB (DVD Lossless) files, but you can't use this program to copy to a DVD. At this price I would stick to the specific $25 application you need for the device you have. Unless you have a lot of devices this program is both overkill and under featured.


dvdXsoft
Cost: $29.95
Recommended: No

Here is another program that lets you copy only a few minutes of a DVD in its trial mode. I really wish they could make the time period longer to get a better feel for how these programs work.

In the settings tab of dvdXsoft was a "maintain aspect ratio" setting. This worked first time out when I was selecting a size of 320 x 240. This was refreshing. However, I had to manually turn off the inclusion of sub-titles. Oops.

My testing using Die Hard left the audio out of sync with the video... this time like a bad Kung Fu movie. At this point I stopped testing. I shouldn't have to figure out complicated issues like this.

I cannot recommend this product because of the audio problem.


PQ DVD to Zune
Cost: $29.95
Recommended: No

PQ is the easiest program to use. Mainly because it gives you practically no options. You only have two resolution options, 320 x 240 & 640 x 480. Initially it looks like you have no control over aspect ratio, and you don't. But when I ran Die Hard through the application it created a video of 320 x 192. Not quite the correct 320 x 172, but better than ignoring the aspect ratio of the original movie.

PQ brings back the 5 minute movie as part of its trail usage. While creating my 5 minute movie I noticed that your entire list of options is very short. You can choose between the two supported resolutions, video and audio quality. That's it. BTW, the default is low quality video and it shows. I had to start it again checking the quality and raising it to excellent.

From the initial statistics it looks like it will create a 320 x 192 movie pretty quickly. It was projecting just over 50 minutes for a 2:12 movie. Starting a movie is a bit of a challenge as the program immediately flies through the segments on the disc racing to the movie. When you click "Record It" you are asked if you want to record from the beginning, but it just starts from the point it is at when you clicked the button. You need to get to the very beginning yourself. This reminds me of those days when you would make a tape from a vinyl album and timing hitting the record button.

Bottom line... this is a perfectly good app if it does what you want. It is a little bit of an issue getting it to start a movie, but this may just be me trying to get used to the ump-teenth application. If you only need encoding to 320 x 240 or 640 x 480, and don't mind it being a little off in its aspect ratio calculation then this is the app for you. It does one thing, does it good enough for the target platform, and is easy to use.

However if you like more control over your output, or are a stickler for correctness, or need to do more than this program allows you should look elsewhere. Personally, I wrote it off as soon as I saw it would not enccode to 720 x 480. This is my goal for my Zune so that I can hook it to a TV and get near DVD quality playback.


Summary and What To Buy

I found it very frustrating doing this evaluation. When I first started searching for free ways to get DVD movies onto a Zune I was presented with link after link of products you had to buy. It went on so long that I started testing the free trials to see if there would be a program worth buying.

I was fully prepared to buy a program, but wanted the option of doing conversions for free in case the idea of putting full length movies onto a Zune would be a fad.

I eventually found some free programs, but none of them really impressed me. I can recommend Videora iPod Converter if you need quality output and are completely against the idea of buying software. I really want to recommend The Process which makes use of 4 free programs (DVD Decrypter, DVD 2 AVI, VFAPI & Windows Media Encoder Series 9), but I have not been able to determine which encoding options would result in quality good enough to stop me from buying something that works a lot better, faster and easier.

I can easily recommend DVDFab Platinum. I was looking for a DVD to Zune solution and this program does not mention the Zune at all. However, the MP4 files it creates for a "generic" device work perfectly on the Zune and on iPods. You may want to test this program with your device before buying it, which is easy to do because they give a generous 30 days of full functionality to let you decided if it will work for your needs.

DVDFab Platinum is the most expensive program here. However, DVDFab has a Gold version for 10 bucks less. You could always test the Gold edition to see if it has enough features for you.

DVDFab Platinum will end up being the easiest program once you set up a "default" to encode movies. You can use it over and over without constant options setting. The extra cost of this program should be easily justified by its various DVD copying features... assuming those work. I bought DVD Cloner a few years ago when I bought my first DVD burner for my desktop computer. It did not do a good job of copying DVDs. I may try using this program for that, but at the present time I am looking for DVD to Zune capabilities.

I originally wrote this review with Daniusoft as the winner, with my highest recommendation. However, after buying it and having problems with 5 movies that I could not get past I have to retract that recommendation. I was swayed by the low cost ($25) and the unique cropping feature, which make a huge difference for watching movies on the Zune's small screen, small compared to larger devices, such as portable DVD players and TVs. I still copy movies with Daniusoft DVD to Zune Converter first. It is works to crop a movie I load the movie on my Zune. If it fails I use DVDFab Platinum. I also use DVDFab Platinum to do al my near DVD quality copying. Unfortunately for me that meant bying two programs. If I had to do over I would only buy DVDFab Platinum.

In the end DVDFab Platinum gets the nod. It makes great looking movies and is the most reliable application I tested. It is the most expensive, but you can use the 30 day free trial to test the Gold edition to save $10. This is the program I am using. Highly Recommended.

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Conclusion

Sorry for this month's Zune focus if you are not interested in the device. But a lot of what is here can apply to other portable music/video players. Next month I will cover a little more on the Zune as well as other topics.

Until then...

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