Of course you won't need a DVD decryption program if you're converting DVDs that don't come with it. You can also convert some of the few older movies, such as the classic screwball comedy, My Man Godfrey, which have fallen out of copyright, and thus can legally be downloaded.
From DVD to media server
Once you have your programs at hand, it's time to start converting. I handle this in two separate jobs since I've found that Handbrake doesn't always integrate well with the decryption programs.
First, you put the DVD in your computer. Then, instead of letting your DVD software play the movie, you hop out of your player and open your DVD decryption program. Using these programs requires you to little more than press an icon and off it will go. Do pay attention to where you're placing the files. You'll need that information for the next step. If you're trying to convert a Blu-Ray disk make sure you have lots of room, the unencrypted files can take up to 60GBs of space.
Decryption programs place the files in different places and in different ways. DVD43 and DVD Decrypter places the DVD's actual files in a directory under a version of the name of the movie. MakeMKV actually converts the DVD's files into MKV.
Next, you start up HandBrake and choose whether to convert the video from a folder or from files. If you've used DVD43, DVD Decrypter, or a similar decryption program you should choose to convert the folder -- not the files -- where the videos are now stored. You can go in and cherry-pick the files you want to convert, but I've found this to be a waste of time. HandBrake does a better job than you can of picking and choosing what files you'll need to convert to produce a watchable video.
If you're converting a video file from the Internet or an MKV movie into MP4 you do want to pick out the file. That shouldn't be a problem since the audio and video content will almost certainly be in a single file.
Now, you need to select which format you'll be translating your movie to from HandBrake’s preset menu. Most of its preset outputs are for Apple devices. If you don't use any of those, I always choose the Normal profile.
If you're a read video expert, or want to be one, you can manually adjust how the conversion happens. For guidelines on how to do this, the best place to start is this work-in-progress guide: x264 presets/tunes; H.264 profiles & levels.
You can play with these on the Video and Audio tabs, if you want, but the defaults work fine for me ninety-nine times out of a hundred. I've known some people to be tempted to try to make a movie higher definition than its source material. That doesn't work. You can downgrade its quality, from say 1080p to 720p to save space, but you can't make a video better than its source material.
HandBrake allows you to select multiple movies for conversion at once. To do this, you add your selection to the queue. Then, when you're done selecting your films, just hit the start button... and get ready to wait.
On my video conversion system, a Gateway computer with 64-bit Windows 7 Ultimate, 6GBs of RAM, and a 2.5GHz E5200 Pentium Dual Core processor, I convert movies in about the same time it would take to play them. That is a 90-minute movie takes about 90-minutes to turn into a media center friendly video file.
Once the videos are converted you can then add them to your media server's library. With some DLNA servers that's as easy as placing them in a specific directory. With iTunes, you need to add them to the library. I highly recommend that if you use iTunes you head over to the iTunes Advanced Preferences and choose to "Keep ITunes Media folders organized" and to "Copy file to iTunes Media folder when adding to library." This will make managing your video library a lot easier.
In either case, place your video library on a very large drive. Video files are big. The average standard definition movie in my library is almost 2GBs in size and my 720p HD movies clock in at abut 7GBs. Even a TB drive starts to look small with these files!
Once loaded into your media server, you should be ready to watch your own private movie collection on your TV whenever you want. Enjoy!