is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Principal Designer at Adobe, Design Chair at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. Refer to the advertising and sponsorship page for inquiries.+
One of my daughter’s favorite movies is “The Sound of Music.” We bought it for her as a Blu-Ray disc, but it stopped working in our player recently, owing I think to one of the periodic firmware updates that the manufacturer sends down the pike to us. It used to work wonderfully, but now gets caught on a loading screen and goes into an unending loop. Another strike against the addled monstrosity that is the Blu-Ray format. (I wrote about my major Blu-Ray complaints last year, so I won’t repeat them here.)
A software glitch is little consolation to a toddler who has her heart set on singing along with Julie Andrews though, so I resolved to somehow get a digital copy of the movie off the disc and free ourselves of the trappings of the Blu-Ray version we owned. Apple of course has decided to stay as far away from Blu-Ray as possible, so this took some work.
I procured an external USB Blu-Ray drive — the OWC Value Slim 6X Blu-ray USB 2.0 SATA Slim Optical to be precise — and hooked it up to my iMac. If you pop a Blu-Ray disc into a drive like this, the Mac does recognize the disc as a legitimate volume, but of course it won’t help you play it or make sense of the data on it without some third-party software.
After a bit of searching around, I came across MakeMKV, a bare bones program that can turn the contents of the disc into an MKV video file. The program is free to try for thirty days but US$50 to use thereafter. Theoretically, MakeMKV lets you perform this conversion in just a single step, but that never worked for me with any of the discs I tried (I suspect the problem was with the Blu-Ray drive itself, actually). Instead, I used MakeMKV’s backup feature, which extracted the movie files to my internal drive. MakeMKV was then able to use those backup files to actually create an MKV file that was playable in a compatible video player program like VLC.
If you’re accustomed to ripping a DVD in an hour or less with Handbrake, this two-step process might seem mildly more complicated but not too big a deal. However, each backup or conversion session took six or seven hours, so experimenting to get the right result was laborious.
In fact, I turned to Handbrake itself to then translate the MKV into an Apple TV-friendly format. In theory this should be straightforward, but even Handbrake took several hours with each attempt (eventually I learned to convert only a chapter or two at a time, which greatly reduced the experimentation time). Moreover, the latest official version of Handbrake was having a hard time with this particular MKV for some reason. The video would convert fine, but the audio was coming across horribly distorted. I was incredibly frustrated that I couldn’t produce a usable file, but after some hunting around on the Handbrake forums I learned that that audio problem is a known bug that, thankfully, is resolved in beta versions of the next major release — available to download as nightly builds. Once I downloaded and installed a nightly build, I was able to successfully perform the conversion.
It wasn’t the worst ordeal in the world, I admit. Neither was it pleasant though, especially when you consider I had to do all of this merely to access content that I already owned, but which the technology was not permitting me to access. Anyway, now I have a method of using my Mac to liberate the content on my Blu-Ray discs from the clutches of that format. I promise to use these powers only for good.+