RealDVD: The software works, but with some hurdles

RealNetworks launched its RealDVD software today, which lets consumers save DVDs that they own to their computer's hard drive. Announced at earlier this month, the software is now available for an introductory price of $29.99 at the company's Web site. Interestingly, a few minutes after the launch announcement of the product, the company also announced it was filing suit against Hollywood studios, asking a judge for a declaratory judgment – basically asking a judge to say that the RealDVD software complies with the DVD Copy Control Association's license agreement. In essence, the company is asking a judge to OK the software before the studios ask for an injunction preventing the sale of the software. I'm not a lawyer – I'll let other bloggers/columnists discuss the case and whether Real has a chance or not. With all of the legal wrangling, though, it seems better for consumers to get the software sooner than later – it might not be on the site for long if the studios are successful in blocking it. But before you do, is it worth it? Legal issues aside, is it worth plunking down $30 (after the 30-day trial, of course) for the software?

The RealDVD software has been on my notebook for about a month now (the company gave me a "gold" version to try out), and I've transferred several of my DVDs that I own onto my notebook. The software works as advertised – it copies the content from the DVD onto the user's hard drive, and plays it through the RealDVD software (you don't have to download RealPlayer). You're also not getting just the movie content, either – you get things like closed-captioning, audio commentary tracks, extra features – if it's on the DVD, you can watch it with the RealDVD software. The interface is easy to use – with a physical DVD in your optical drive, you have the options to Play, Save or "Play & Save" the DVD. Saving the DVD takes anywhere from 10 to 40 minutes, depending on the size of the DVD (average space for a DVD is between 4GB and 8GB), and the speed of your optical drive and computer. The Play & Save feature lets you watch the DVD while the software saves the content in the background. The Play & Save option seemed to speed up the saving process for me, but this is probably because I was distracted watching the content while it was saving. The system also utilizes the Gracenote database to look up cover art and other information to display the movies on the screen, and in most cases the covers are accurate (some older and less popular DVDs might not be in the database, so you might end up with a plain blue background). There are some hurdles, that RealNetworks put into the software, apparently as protections for the inevitable lawsuit. While users are allowed to copy a DVD to an external hard drive, you cannot then transfer a copied movie onto a second hard drive. For example, during my tests, I decided to save a lot of DVDs onto a 1TB hard drive (a Seagate FreeAgent Pro), which makes for a lot of storage space but wasn't good for portability. I decided to change course and save them to a newer Seagate FreeAgent Go drive, which was smaller and still offered 320GB of space. The software won't let you transfer the movies though, so I had to re-start the copying process onto the new drive. Because copying can take between 10 and 40 minutes, making the decision about where you're storing the movies is best made before you start copying. The external hard drive is definitely the way to go – because the software isn't doing any compression of the DVD content when it copies (again, to protect itself in the lawsuit, I'm assuming) to the hard drive, you're going to need a pretty large hard drive if you want to store a lot of movies. In testing, I realized pretty quickly that my notebook's hard drive was running out of space, and I had to delete a few movies and make the switch to start saving it to the external drive. In addition, placing the content on an external hard drive will benefit you if you decide to add a second or additional license of the RealDVD software. Real offers up to four additional licenses of the software per user (at $19.99 per license), and the company says that once you plug the external drive into the second computer, it checks to make sure the serial number of the software is a match in order to recognize the saved files. This can be beneficial for users that want to use the software for watching movies while on the road, but then have a second license available for watching movies on a media center PC connected to a TV. Yes, there's the possibility that users will try to "abuse" the software and make copies of DVDs that they don't own. For example, you can get DVDs from Netflix, the library and the local Blockbuster, copy them and then return them, allowing you to watch them later several times over. But this is the same thing that users have been doing for years when borrowing music and books from friends or the library, and the last time I checked there weren't massive arrests for book copying. The software seems to address the issue of not allowing users to take the digital files and then start sharing them on file-trading sites – they're not decrypting or compressing the files. In reality, there are lots of other ways to do this, and this has been done for years anyway. But now I'm getting into the lawyering angle – in terms of the software, I'm very impressed with RealDVD, and hope that it's available for consumers for many years to come (and not just in the next few minutes, hours or days).

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