RealDVD Review

By Edward C. Baig

San Diego, California (USA Today) You're schlepping the kids on a family trip and will do anything to keep them occupied. For better or worse, many parents stick them in front of a video.

Were it only that easy. The discs the youngsters want to watch are too often lost, scratched or broken; somehow your smallest child hasn't yet distinguished a DVD from a Frisbee. Besides, you are trying to pack light.

This week at the Demo tech conference in San Diego, RealNetworks unveiled a neat solution for just such a family scenario, or for the business traveler who loves movies. It's called RealDVD, and the basic idea is appealing: You can copy, organize and play your DVD movies and TV shows on a laptop while leaving the physical discs at home.

It's similar to when folks first copied music CDs onto their computers.

I've been testing RealDVD for more than a week, and for the most part it measures up to its coming attractions. I did encounter jerky playback issues with a couple of movies.

The software is most useful if you have a big enough hard drive to store the discs' contents, though you can also copy movies onto inexpensive USB thumb drives and attach those to your computer. For now, RealDVD cannot copy high-definition Blu-ray discs, even if you have a Blu-ray burner.

RealDVD copies the entire disc — the movie plus menus, trailers and bonus features. You can watch a movie on the computer while you are copying it, watch another movie during the cloning process, or make a copy while you are doing something else. You'll need a Windows XP or Vista machine.

Disc copying isn't new, of course. As far back as 2003, I reviewed a killer program called DVD X Copy, from Chesterfield, Mo., start-up 321 Studios. Used with a burner on your Windows computer, the controversial $100 program also let you make a flawless "backup" copy of a commercial DVD, whether you owned that disc or merely rented it. Hollywood hollered, and 321 lost in court. It has since closed, but other free disc-copying programs exist on the Web.

Real claims its solution is completely legit, although there are restrictions as a result. You are given license to watch a copied movie on up to five computers on a single account.

You'll need RealDVD software on each machine. It costs $50 for the first computer ($30 during an introductory promotion after a 30-day free trial). You must pay $20 for each subsequent computer. The software will be available later this month.

A license key binds the movie to your software so you cannot play a movie in someone else's computer. Movies are stored in a folder called MyDVDs.

Still there is nothing to stop you — except your sense of right or wrong — from ripping the movie you rent from Blockbuster or Netflix. You're reminded you should only save a disc you own. Real CEO Rob Glaser told me he's open to working with the studios to somehow prevent rental discs from being copied. Here's a closer look.

I loaded RealDVD without a hitch onto two Windows computers, a laptop and desktop. My first real snag came when I inserted the I Am Legend disc onto the laptop. The choices were Play, Play & Save or Save. I needed more than 7 gigabytes of free storage to save the movie onto the computer (4 to 9 GB is typical), but my drive was already packed to the rafters. I connected a portable USB drive, but it was clumsy for a cramped airplane.

How fast you can copy a movie depends on your DVD burner and the size of the disc. I was able to clone I Am Legend onto my desktop PC in less than a half hour. Same for American Gangster, a DVD on the New York Giants Super Bowl season, and a personal disc of old home movies.

But it took close to two hours to copy Borat onto the USB drive connected to my work laptop.

RealDVD has a simple and clean interface. Movies are represented by the artwork on the box (you can search for alternate artwork if available). You can peek at a synopsis, and click to see the cast and director. You can also sort flicks by category or rating, making it easy for parents to display only "G"movies for the kids. Parental controls are also built in.

If you pause a movie in the middle, you can resume watching where you left off. Alas, a few of the movies sputtered slightly when I played them back.

Fringe benefit: Though difficult to quantify, Real says you'll also get longer battery life watching a copied movie as opposed to playing a DVD in the power-draining optical disc drive.

RealDVD is simple to use, and I welcome Real's attempt to make disc copying for personal use legal. We'll see if all the lawyers agree.

You can get RealDVD here.


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