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HandBrake Video Transcoder Gets a Grip on Linux

By Jack M. Germain
Feb 5, 2015 5:00 AM PT

HandBrake Video Transcoder Gets a Grip on Linux

Converting video files from a variety of media sources can be a huge chore. That task can be much more manageable with HandBrake, a GPL-licensed, multiplatform, multithreaded video transcoder. It is available for MacOS X, Linux and Windows, which makes working on more than one platform a bit more convenient. The latest version for Linux, version 0.10 released Nov. 23, has many upgrades. However, the Linux version lacks a few of the features in the Windows and Mac versions.

Still, given the scarcity of any king-of-the-hill video transcoders for Linux, HandBrake is certainly worth trying. It converts from many common multimedia file formats, including unprotected DVD or BluRay sources to a handful of modern output file formats.

For the last year or two I have put to good use Arista Transcoder. That product lets you select source videos in any encoding and file type as long as they are readable by GStreamer. HandBrake does many of the same things and is nearly as flexible with the file types it handles.

I have used HandBrake's earlier versions as a back up for a while with good results. The improvements to its features and user interface make it a very suitable alternative choice for video and audio conversions. Its collection of built-in device presets makes using it a lot easier. The devices covered with presets include Universal, iPod/iPad, iPhone, AppleTV, Android and Android Tablet.

Not a Do-All Tool

If you are looking for a ripper tool, Handbrake (or Arista, for that matter) is not what you want. HandBrake converts from one format to another so you can use the file in non-proprietary players and editors.

What HandBrake does, it does well, which is to convert video/audio from most formats to a few modern ones. It does not rip the file nor crack the latest DVD copy protection schemes.

HandBrake is also not a video/audio editing or viewing application. It facilitates file format conversion so you can view/edit media files in the software that handles the converted format.

Under the Hood

HandBrake version 0.10 adds support for more encoders, such as H.265 and VP8. These additional encoders let you create smaller, higher quality videos.

The H.265 encoder is now available through x265 1.4. This encoder is fairly new. As such, it is evolving -- err, being further developed. The VP8 Encoder uses the libvpx encoder and is available in MKV files only.

VP8 replaces Theora (VP3). It is a more modern encoder that provides users with better quality encodes at lower file sizes.

More Upgrades

Libavformat is now used for muxing instead of mp4v2 and libmkv. "Large File Size" checkbox has now been removed for mp4, as the new muxer will transition to 64-bit files automatically.

Mpeg2dec has also been replaced by libav. Its AAC encoder is now the default as FAAC has been removed due to GPL compatibility issues. This encoder should work fine for most needs. But it still has quirks. So HandBrake also enabled support for the FDK-AAC encoder.

The drawback to this is that FDK-AAC is much slower and may create a bottleneck during the encode process. The upside is that it produces better quality audio.

Work in Progress

HandBrake's Linux version is not perfect. But it is getting there. Slated for an upcoming upgrade but still missing from the Linux version is support for two key technologies. One is Intel QuickSync Video Encode/Decode. The other is hardware decode support via DXVA.

To get the best use out of HandBrake, your hardware should include AMD or Intel GPU support for OpenCL Scaling. This is a new feature in HandBrake. Be aware that Nvidia GPU's are not currently supported.

I had some trouble with this on several of my computers. As is the case with new features, they can be a problem.

Using It

Developers made some changes to the GUI as well. Most of the settings and feature access are available from the application's main window.

The top row holds the menus for File, Queue, View and Help. The Help feature is particularly useful and welcome. It connects you directly to a wiki-driven guide that makes learning HandBrake's various functions quick and simple.

The second row holds buttons for Source, Start, Pause, Engueue, Queue, Picture Settings and Activity.

Below this are selection boxes for titles and chapters and the File destination.

A tabbed viewing area provides convenient functionality. It is easy to see key information and enter new data. The tabs are: Summary, Video, Audio, Subtitles, Advanced, Chapters and Tags.

HandBrake Picture Settings
HandBrake is a transcoder and does not view or edit videos or play audio files. But it does provide some handy Picture Setting features to get the converted format to fit on your target device.

Feature Roundup

Overall, the Linux version now has some much needed fine-tuning. The audio and subtitle controls now support default behaviors, which you can store in presets. This simplifies the workflow for many batch encoding scenarios.

Two other nice refinements are the improvements to the Auto-Naming feature and the ability to batch add to queue by list selection. Also, you can resize or crop video dimensions or picture settings.

This is not the same as full-scale video frame-by-frame editing. You can set/change dimensions by cropping, storage and display options of black borders and rounding the number of pixels displayed. Two options are possible: Auto and Loose Crop.

You can filter the picture settings with Grayscale, Denoise, Decomb and Detelecine. You can also choose the destination frame rate or set a target size for the converted file so you can be sure it'll fit on your target device.

HandBrake interface
HandBrake has a very easy and well-designed interface that puts all the controls in one place.

Getting It

The latest version is not yet in most distro repositories. That makes getting it a bit of a hassle.

Clicking on the download button from the developer's web site takes you to a location to download a file:

If you do not like the manual methodology involved in unzipping files and then proceeding with manual installation, try this approach using a terminal window. The process involves setting a PPA location and using APT (Advanced Packaging Tool) repositories.

Linux Mint 17.1 and 17 (and derivatives) users can install the latest HandBrake by using its official PPA:

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:stebbins/handbrake-releases
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install handbrake-gtk

Bottom Line

HandBrake does its job of converting a wide range of file formats to a format most player and editing apps can handle. It is not difficult to use.

HandBrake is one of the better choices for Linux users, however, it still has some limitations. Still, this current version release continues to make this file converter tool a very useful application.

Want to Suggest a Review?

Is there a Linux software application or distro you'd like to suggest for review? Something you love or would like to get to know?

Please email your ideas to me, and I'll consider them for a future Linux Picks and Pans column.

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