In the last few days there has been a lot of news about the legal battle between RealNetworks and the movie industry over RealDVD, RealNetwork's new DVD player and backup application.
But the big question outside of the legal battle itself (and for the record I don't think the MPAA has a leg to stand on) is, Is the application itself any good?
And the answer is, yes and no. From a usability and feature standpoint, RealDVD is probably the most user-friendly and intuitive application I've ever seen for copying and managing a movie collection on a PC. But the application has some serious limitations on its portability and the stability of the backups it makes, ironically all caused by RealNetwork's (failed) efforts to make the application palatable to the movie industry.
After installing RealDVD (which is currently only available for Windows) users can insert any movie DVD into their computers and RealDVD will query the Gracenote service to get related artwork and information about the movie. Users can then play the DVD or play and save it at the save time. In my tests saving a DVD took anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes.
Once a DVD has been saved it can be watched at any time without the DVD itself, and users have access to all of the menus and special features that were on the disk. I especially liked that I could watch a movie that I had saved previously while the application was saving another DVD.
RealDVD includes some filtering features that let users view films by genre, cast, director or rating (though you couldn't combine filters to, for example, find all comedies directed by the Coen brothers.) The movie player itself was very good, with all of the features one expects from a regular DVD playing application but with better response times.
However, in order to try to make RealDVD pass legal muster, RealNetworks added an additional layer of DRM on top of the CSS that it retains from the native DVD. One aspect of this is that the movies that are backed up are tied to the hard drive they are saved on, so if you want to watch the movies on multiple PCs you will need to use an external drive. Also, if something happens to this drive you will most likely lose your movie backups. Movies backed up with RealDVD also have no compression, which means a DVD can take anywhere from 6 to 10GB of disk space.
While RealDVD is one of the most intuitive examples of this type of application that we've seen, these limitations make it a lot less attractive when compared with other DVD ripping tools such as HandBrake. These tools have no limitations on systems or disks they can save to and they also include compression options for those wanting to use less space for movies or wanting to put them on a handheld device.
The other benefit these other tools have is that they are usually free (if clearly not legal). RealDVD is priced at $49.99, and if you want to be able to run movies on a portable drive on up to four other systems it's $19.99 for each additional system.
The truly sad thing is that after crippling the application to try to make it MPAA-friendly, RealNetworks still finds itself in the movie industry's legal crosshairs. Without these concessions, RealDVD could have easily been the best DVD backup solution out there (if maybe less likely to survive its current legal challenge).
For those wanting to try it out, a thirty-day evaluation version of RealDVD is available here.