RealDVD: Get it while you can

The scoop: RealDVD software, by RealNetworks, about US$30 (introductory price).

What it is: Announced at DEMOfall '08 last month, the software is now available for consumers. It lets users save DVDs that they own onto their computer's hard drive (either internal or external drive). Once copied, users can store the physical disc to protect it from damage and watch the content on their computers. The software makes a complete copy of the DVD, including multiple audio tracks, extra content and closed-captioning. Viewing the movie in the software requires no additional RealPlayer or other player software, and a nice "Play and Save" feature lets users watch the content play while the software transfers the content in the background.

Copying a DVD takes about 10 to 40 minutes, depending on the speed of your computer, the optical drive and storage device. On average, a copied DVD takes up about 4GB to 8GB of space.

Why it's cool: The goals of the software are simple -- allow people to make a "fair use" copy of DVDs they own for  personal storage/backup, as well as give notebook users a way to watch movies that they already own when they're traveling without having them to lug along stacks of DVDs. The software is easy to use, and the interface is beautiful to look at, with its movie box art menus as a way to let you select which saved movie you'd like to watch. For TV episode DVDs, multiple discs are presented as one box cover, making it less cluttered (a nice touch).

Is this legal? That's the big question, especially with high-profile cases in the past still in a gray area. After releasing the software, RealNetworks filed suit against Hollywood studios, asking a judge to declare that the software was OK (in theory, to have a judgment before the industry filed their own lawsuit).

RealNetworks says the software is fully licensed by the DVD Copy Control Association and is in compliance with the agreement. The company says it does not enable users to distribute copies of their DVDs -- in fact, "it adds another layer of digital rights management encryption that locks the DVD copy to the owner's computer to ensure the content cannot be improperly copied or shared." It's also basing its software on another court case, in which a trial court allowed the distribution of a product similar to RealDVD.

This extra protection was evident in my tests of the software -- after copying a movie to an external hard drive, I thought I could copy the movie to a second hard drive and still play it on my computer -- the software prevented me from doing this.

Some caveats: Some of the protections that RealNewtworks is putting in the software make it harder for the user to fully enjoy the product. If you get the software, make your decision about where you're going to store the copy first (external or internal hard drive), and make sure it's got a lot of space. In addition, RealDVD allows for up to four additional licenses of the software, but you have to pay an additional $19.99 for each extra license. 

Some other minor points -- the Gracenote database used to identify DVDs for box art and titles sometimes didn't work; and long periods of copying tended to slow down (and heat up) the optical drive and external hard drive.

Bottom line: Get the software while you can (RealNetworks offers a 30-day trial), in case the lawyers start to muck it up.

Grade: Four stars (out of five).

This story, "RealDVD: Get it while you can" was originally published by Network World.

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